G is the center of the defense's attention. G is "Double him and make him go left." G is the center of the crowd's attention. G is "I might see something I've never seen before tonight." G is the center of the offense's attention. G is the clock's running down and Duke needs a play. G is "Give me the ball, and get out of the way."
G is the only 6-foot-4 player in America who takes the opening tip, let alone wins it. G is eyebrows arched incredulously at his defender, as if to scoff, "Really? You really think you can stop me?" G is the Blue Devils' answer to claims that they don't recruit athletes or churn out NBA prospects anymore. G can fly.
G is the main reason Duke found its way back to an ACC Tournament title and the NCAA Tournament's second weekend.
Man, G is so much more than a sports drink.
But on the night of March 26, junior Gerald Henderson is none of these things. In fact, as the calendar moves to March 27, as a minute and 54 seconds still glistens on the scoreboard clock at TD Banknorth Garden in a second-half nightmare that won't end, and as sophomore Nolan Smith kneels at the scorer's table to replace him and to end his season, it's hard to say what G is. Angry? Furious? Frustrated? Those words don't seem to do justice to the expression on his face as Villanova's Antonio Peña cans the first of two free throws to give the Wildcats a 20-point lead. Henderson's lips are pursed, his nostrils flared, his eyes glaring and tilted up but lacking any real target-his face a picture of misapprehension in a tournament that doesn't care how things are supposed to go and in a game that proved as much.
Because G doesn't go 1-for-14. Not in the biggest game of the season, not in any game of the season. Not in practice shots from halfcourt. So when he does go 1-for-14 and Duke's season ends, that expression of misapprehension becomes a lot more apprehensible to all watching.
Still hard to sum up, though. Livid, maybe?
Yeah, livid is about as close as you'll come.
Livid because he knows that when you finish the season with a 1-for-14 night and lose by 23, that sticks in people's minds. Livid because he knows when people think of Duke in 2009, they'll think of March 26 before they think of an ACC title or a No. 1 ranking. Livid because he knows he and the Blue Devils blanked on the exam.
One week later, though, Henderson is not livid. He's not happy, but he's definitely not livid anymore. The 77-54 loss to Villanova, the 1-for-14 night from the field-they were bad things that happened, but they don't invalidate the good stuff that came before, like that ACC Championship or the night he couldn't miss against Wake Forest, the night he said was "unbelievable."
Henderson's been at Duke for three years now, but his teams have suffered through what seems like a decade's worth of bumps and potholes in the road. There was a four-game losing streak, an elbow and a suspension and a buzzer-beater to cap another four-game losing streak and the Blue Devils' earliest Tournament exit since 1996. There was a promising start and an unfulfilled finish, sandwiching an injury that leaves a not-so-faint scar on his right wrist, most easily seen when that wrist effortlessly and accurately flicks the ball toward the basket and creates a 90-degree angle between hand and arm.
"We've grown a lot," he says. "We've grown a lot. We took a beating that [freshman] year. That had to happen for us to become the players and the team that we are today.
"It feels good to finally be at a point with our program where we don't feel like we're catching up anymore."
This is something Henderson does a lot when he answers questions. That is, he starts his response immediately and then pauses, usually repeats that first sentiment while he thinks and then expands on it. It's the verbal equivalent of a jab step, the reestablishment of the triple threat and then the blow-by, which is something he happens to be really good at.
His speech, however, does lack something G's game certainly doesn't: the emphatic finish, the flourish at the end, the dunk. Style points. When Henderson says that it's "exhilarating" to hear head coach Mike Krzyzewski call for an alley-oop to No. 15 in a timeout, he says it with a banal tone that belies his choice of adjective, almost like it's just "alright" or "okay, I guess." That might just be because he is tired, fighting a bit of a cold after the season, or that he's stuck in Durham on the eve of the Final Four instead of being in Detroit. Or maybe it's because Krzyzewski called his number in the huddle so many times this season and G came through so often that his exhilaration turned into banality. Over time, the expected loses its sense of exhilaration, and when you know how the movie's going to end, the anticipation tends to wane. It's why Sherlock Holmes got bored and started doing cocaine.
But you don't read Sherlock Holmes to see if he solves the case; you read it to see how. And when that ball leaves the hands of Smith or senior Greg Paulus or whoever G just told to make sure they throw it high enough-you can never throw it too high-and the ball floats in the direction of the backboard, and G has fooled his defender into thinking he didn't even know what play the Blue Devils were running for a split-second-just long enough to beat him backdoor-well, everyone knows what's about to happen. They're just waiting to see how. One hand or two? Through the foul or over the defender? And does he finish with the defiant stomp or the gleeful spreading of his wings?
Just like Holmes, it's always good enough and different enough to make you want to see it happen again.
There is one question, though, that Henderson doesn't answer right away. It's the toughest question you can ask him: Favorite dunk.
He pauses, his tongue clicking in his mouth as he goes through the list. You're going through that same list in your head. Wake at home during that first-half run. At Maryland, after Smith was knocked out. Wake at home during that first-half run II. At Virginia Tech when he got the T. Wake at home during that first-half run III....
He looks up, all set to answer, when he rubs his right hand across the lower half of his face, puts his head back down and thinks some more. A few more seconds, and then he's ready.
"One that I liked in our first ACC game against Virginia Tech: We broke the zone, and Kyle [Singler] threw an underhand pass to me, and I dunked it and did like a chin-up," he explains, starting to smile toward the end. "So that was a pretty good play. He made a really good pass, and I just finished."
It sounds so easy, that "I just finished" spoken with the same phlegmatic sense of the commonplace as before. That's what separates Henderson, though, from everyone else. Like most kids, he grew up playing in the driveway, counting down the final seconds, the ball and the game in his hands. Most kids reach an age when they realize that's just a dream; G never did. He gets to do the same thing now in Cameron Indoor Stadium, or at Wake Forest or in the NCAA Tournament against Belmont, when he corralled a rebound at the block with 16 seconds left and the Blue Devils down one, and proceeded to coast past 94 feet and all five Bruin defenders on just seven dribbles for the game-winning and season-saving finger roll.
"I would rather be nowhere else but in that moment," he says. "I look at it as just, 'You want to be in this situation. Let's see if you can do it. Let's see how good you are.'"
G's pretty good.
He "just finished."
Henderson has a pretty good sense of the past; it was a big part of Krzyzewski's pitch that drew him from Philly to Durham. Krzyzewski had a vision for Henderson, one where the high schooler would take his place on the pedestal-maybe even in the rafters-with some of Duke's great swingmen.
"You think about all the players that have come through here, and if he thinks I can be as good as a Grant Hill, or better than a Grant Hill, better than a J.J. [Redick], as good as a Coach [Johnny] Dawkins, on the same level as those guys-that's appealing for sure," he says.
The coach's vision likely didn't include that tumultuous 22-11 freshman year for Henderson-one that saw him struggle to discern his role in the offense and even earn a one-game suspension for his infamous elbow on Tyler Hansbrough, a play he still describes as "unfortunate." When Henderson remembers that season, he almost relives it, his sentences taking the present tense. Talking about the coaching staff's raised expectations for him after his career-high 16 points in the first 39 minutes of that Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill, Henderson captures his emotions like he still feels them today.
"It's hard for me to really see myself playing like that," he admits. "It's not that I don't believe in myself; I just don't know. I haven't had that kind of success yet at this level."
It's almost as if, for 30 seconds, you're not talking to the G who earned All-ACC honors or could very well end up a lottery pick in June; nope, you're talking to the G who averaged under seven points per game as a freshman, and, for maybe the only time in his life, wondered if he had what it takes to make it to the next level.
But once those 30 seconds are over, he snaps back, realizes that while his three years at Duke have blown by him as quickly as he does your standard defender, a lot has changed.
"Looking back now, it's amazing how you set barriers for yourself or you attain certain barriers and you get over top of them," he says. "I think one of the biggest things I've learned here is you might not know what you can do, but if you put a ceiling on yourself, you'll never know where you can max out."
And G doesn't believe in ceilings. You can never throw the pass too high.
Henderson's confidence has always been there. Sure, it helps that his father won three championship rings in 13 NBA seasons. Growing up with the knowledge that his dad made it to the next level, Henderson never really had the doubts about his ability that most players have to endure.
Confidence isn't the only thing G inherited from his father. There's the competitive streak, too, the one that meant father-son one-on-one games ceased once son posed a threat to father's dominance.
That competitiveness shines through with the younger Henderson, whether it's on the court, the golf course or just in the apartment playing video games. Like the round of 18 he played with senior Jordan Davidson after the season, when he decided not to pass along some advice to his competitor.
"I didn't tell him during the round because we were going up against each other... but he could hit it a lot further. I told him he was hitting it short because he's short, but it's because he doesn't use his legs."
He laughs, as if he realizes how ridiculous it sounds after the fact.
"It's like an addiction. Competition is like an addiction. Whatever I do-it's not even just sports. Whatever I do, I always just try to one-up on somebody."
That's the spirit that invigorates him at the end of the game, when the Blue Devils look to him to make the play. It's the one that drives him to be like Kobe Bryant, his hometown Philadelphia idol, the player he talks about with admiration and just a touch of awe. It's the one that makes his decision-on whether to take the next step and face the challenge of the professional game now or whether to return to a formidable Duke lineup for one last shot at a national title-so difficult.
You wonder if he's already made that decision, if he's playing coy when he talks about how good the team can be next season, how hard he's going to work over the summer to win a title, how excited he is to get his degree from Duke University in 2010. You wonder if you're just the defender he's faking out, the one that thinks maybe G doesn't really know the play, just long enough for him to beat you backdoor.
Maybe G knows what's going to happen. But even he doesn't know how.
Just make sure the pass is high enough.
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