Junior guard David Duke is looking to become the first native Rhode Islander in more than 40 years to play at PC and move on to the NBA.
By KEVIN McNAMARA
As David Duke pulled on his sneakers and began some lonely runs through the Elmhurst section of Providence last spring, he rarely altered his route.
Most days he would leave his parents’ home on Academy Avenue and make his way towards La Salle Academy or head off down Pleasant Valley Parkway. He’d maneuver past a few intersections and run uphill towards the Providence College campus. By the time Duke would reach a mile, he’d almost always catch a glimpse of the Ruane Center, the glistening training facility that’s filled with all the creature comforts that a Friar basketball player could ever want.
As April and May turned into June and July, Duke’s runs would grow more frustrating. No matter how many times he’d pass by, Ruane’s doors would be locked tight. The coronavirus shuttered the entire PC campus, even for the Friar hoop star who lived a mile away.
“We ran by Ruane a lot,” Duke said. “All I wanted to do was get in there. You take it for granted how good we all have it. Then it’s gone, in a snap.”
That’s how last year’s college basketball season ended. In a snap.
One moment Duke and his Friar teammates were on the team bus heading to a Big East Tournament quarterfinal game against Butler. The red hot Friars were riding a six-game winning streak, half against Top 25 teams. For the sixth time in seven seasons, Ed Cooley’s team was pointed towards another NCAA Tournament.
But as that bus was idling on Lexington Ave., word came to get off and report to a conference room. Cooley informed his players that the Big East tourney was cancelled, but that there was hope the NCAA’s could be played with a limited amount of fans. The players went upstairs, packed their bags and reported back to the bus a half hour later.
Two hours into the trip back up Route 95, word came that the NCAA dream was extinguished as well. Tears flowed, especially from the team’s five seniors. Duke couldn’t bear to watch.
“I was awake on the bus when they called the NCAA’s and I just wanted to get away from it all,” he said. “I took a nap. I think I woke up and we were still in Connecticut. I hoped it was all a bad dream.”
No such luck. It was the start of a national nightmare, for sports but more importantly for the entire United States and the world. The worst pandemic since 1918 has taken over 250,000 American lives, ruined millions of businesses and shook the country to its knees.
Eight months after that fateful day in New York, Duke and his PC teammates are set to play basketball again. The Ruane Center finally opened again in late August and Duke and his teammates are excited about the chance to play a 2020-21 season. Yet when the games tip off this week many programs, including a quarter of the Big East, will be hamstrung by outbreaks of the virus. No one knows if they’ll be able to play a full 25-game schedule, or even the 13 games the NCAA currently says is the minimum needed to qualify for March Madness.
|All Games (31)||.409||.420||4.2||3.1||12.0|
|Big East (18)||.410||.373||4.1||2.9||11.8|
In reality no one knows how healthy their team will be from day to day, or at least from one team-wide COVID test to the next. This stealth virus is that insidious, that devious.
Even so, for 21-year olds like Duke the clock is ticking. He knows the window for playing in his first NCAA Tournament is closing. With a shot at the NBA now coming into focus, so is his stay at Providence.
“David is the hardest-working player I’ve had at Providence, and that’s saying a lot,” said Cooley. “He’s as mature of a player I’ve coached. He gets it. He’s a leader. The Friars are lucky to have him.”
Cooley knows best but topping Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton in the Hard Work Department is no easy task. Cotton, often in lonely isolation, transformed himself from a one scholarship prep recruit into a Big East star. Henton, with instructor/grad assistant God Shammgod often turning up the heat, became one of only two Friars to ever score more than 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds.
Duke may not reach heights like that but his hard-working ways have him pointed towards becoming the first native Rhode Islander since Joe Hassett to play for the Friars and move on to the NBA. Cooley says scouts and agents are both calling him about Duke, a rangy 6-foot-5 guard who averaged 12 points, grabbed 4.2 rebounds and passed for 3.1 assists as a sophomore. They love his defensive ability even more than his varied offensive skills.
While fellow Big East guards Marcus Zegarowski (Creighton) and Collin Gillespie (Villanova) are reaping deserved pre-season All-American honors, Cooley says he’s more than happy with his All-Big East candidate.
“I love those guys but I’ll take my guy, that’s all I’m saying,” Cooley says with a nod of his head.
Reaching any type of post-season success will require improvement from Duke. He’s convinced he’s ready. So is Calvin Jones, Duke’s cousin and the owner of a Providence-based youth basketball mentoring and education program called Camp ERROL. When the pandemic hit and Ruane shut its doors, Jones knew who is top student would become.
“David called me right away,” Jones said. “All summer I’d get the 7 a.m. text. He was my alarm clock.”
Without access to a gym for weeks, Duke would go off for his morning runs with his brother, Sean, a freshman basketball player at Manhattan College. At night 14-year old brother Jordan would join for shorter runs. In between there would be work on a bicycle, running stairs and all sorts of drills courtesy of emails from PC’s strength and conditioning coach Ken White.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Jones, a star high school player at La Salle in the mid-2000’s. “David owns a professional work ethic. I’ve worked on his shot since the seventh grade, when it was broken. Now he’s a shooter who made over 40 percent of his 3-pointers. It was great for his two brothers to see how he goes after it.”
Jones says that years ago he saw something in Duke that his other Camp ERROL (Education, Respect, Responsibility, Opportunity, Leadership) players didn’t. As a jayvee player as a freshman at Classical, Duke showed promise and Jones first started telling him he could play big-time college basketball. Duke didn’t believe him.
A year later Jones was sitting in the stands before a state playoff game against Bishop Hendricken. Shammgod and Brown assistant coach T.J. Sorrentine joined him and he made sure to point out Duke.
“I told both of them that he could be like Kris Dunn,” Jones said. “They didn’t believe me but then David grabbed this rebound over the rim and took it end to end so fast it was unbelievable. They both looked at me and smiled. The next day he got his first Division One offer from Brown.”
The three Duke brothers ate up hours working out in their driveway and at Fargnoli Park in Elmhurst or Evans Park in North Providence once they opened. As the pandemic rolled into the early summer, Jones found gym access at what he called an `undisclosed location.’ That’s where he saw Duke’s hard work on display. He also learned that the passage of time holds no prisoners.
“I used to be able to beat David sometimes one-on-one,” Jones laughed. Those days are over. He steps on the court and it’s like `nothing you can do can stop me now.’ He has that swagger.”
Duke says he knows he has to limit his turnovers, get to the free throw line more often and step into a leadership role now that Alpha Diallo, Maliek White, Kalif Young Luwane Pipkins and Emmitt Holt graduated. He’s hopeful that newcomers Jared Bynum and Brycen Goodine, among others, are ready to step up.
“It’s all about how you push yourself,” he said. “All summer I knew how hard I had to go. I tried to put myself in game situations. Now that we’re back on campus and getting ready for the season I’m in the gym a lot. I want to show the younger guys what it takes, too.”
Providence tips off its season Wednesday at Alumni Hall against Fairfield. Then it’s off to a controlled environment in Asheville, N.C. for the Maui Invitational Nov. 30-Dec. 2. The Friars will face Indiana in the first round of a loaded event.
Just stepping on the floor for a competitive game again will be reason for celebration. That’s certainly the payoff for all those lonely runs by the Ruane Center, those summer hours working out with his brothers, the practice time with his Friar teammates for a season that promises to be unlike any that college basketball has ever seen.
“All I can do is hope for the best,” Duke said. “You never know what might happen this year but I’m preparing that we’re playing every game. That would be perfect.”