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Duke basketball's Zafirovski never says never

Todd Zafirovski scored his first career points against Delaware.
Todd Zafirovski scored his first career points against Delaware.

Todd Zafirovski was never going to attend Duke University.

The day applications were due, Zafirovski announced he wasn't going to apply to the school he had dreamed of attending since his family lived in Raleigh.

The 6-foot-8 forward had been a four-time letterwinner in basketball at Lake Forest Academy in suburban Chicago, earning all-conference honors in three of those seasons. A number of schools, including several smaller Division I institutions, had come calling with scholarship offers. Without the pedigree to be a scholarship player at Duke, Zafirovski was unconvinced that his credentials would earn him admission to such a top-notch university. His father insisted that he apply anyway.

Todd Zafirovski was never going to play basketball for Duke.

After being admitted to the University and holding conversations over the summer with the Blue Devil coaching staff, he showed up for practice during the first week of the Fall semester.

“If nothing else, you can be a manager,” the coaches told him.

And in the first workout of his college career, as a 6-foot-8 freshman, he was matched up defensively against 7-foot-1, 260-pound senior Brian Zoubek. He was overmatched, but the coaching staff kept him around as a practice player.

“They just never told me to leave,” Zafirovski said, “so I just kept coming back.”

Throughout his four years in Durham, the Minnesota native has continued to be an asset in practice. His presence has been especially necessary this season, as injuries and a dearth of big men on the roster have necessitated his participation in every 5-on-5 scrimmage.

“Todd’s not a pushover.... He’ll really lay the wood on you,” said senior center Mason Plumlee, who Zafirovski often guards in practice. “I’m not going to say he presents a challenge, but he’s a good player.”

Zafirovski has embraced the role, now weighing 240 pounds, and continues to battle against his fellow Blue Devil post players each day. He also gets a bit of help sometimes when matched up against Plumlee or Ryan Kelly.

“Coaches let me get away with a couple more fouls than everyone else,” Zafirovski said.

Todd Zafirovski was never going to play basketball for Duke—at least, not with his name spelled correctly on the back of his jersey.

It was New Year’s Eve when Zafirovski first dressed for a game, against Pennsylvania at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But in making his No. 52 jersey for the contest, the Blue Devil equipment staff had mistakenly replaced the last “i” with a “y.”

“That happens,” Zafirovski said, in his typical sheepish style.

Not long before that, head coach Mike Krzyzewski had announced to Zafirovski in front of the entire team that the freshman would be invited to become the roster’s 14th member.

“Like scoring your first basket, it’s one of those moments you’ll never, ever forget,” Zafirovski said.

Although the Blue Devils defeated a winless Pennsylvania squad by 59 points, Zafirovski was stuck on the depth chart behind three other former walk-ons—graduate student Jordan Davidson and juniors Steve Johnson and Casey Peters—so he did not see game action. He played out the rest of his freshman year without getting into a game.

Todd Zafirovski was never going to score a point for Duke. Last Saturday Josh Hairston fouled out of a contest against Delaware with more than five minutes on the clock.

Mason Plumlee rose from the bench, ready to replace Hairston in the game. But Krzyzewski had other plans. He called for Zafirovski.

Zafirovski appeared in his first Duke game in November 2010, saw his first ACC action against North Carolina State February of that season, and appeared in 10 games through his sophomore and junior seasons. In 21 minutes of court time during that span, he racked up an 0-for-3 shooting performance, two rebounds, a block and an assist.

He played in his first Countdown to Craziness at the start of his senior year—another career landmark that he experienced with his name misspelled on his jersey. Then, he got his chance to set a career high in minutes—with six left to play—against Delaware.

“Every single time I get in a game, everyone’s like ‘You’d better score, you’d better take a shot,’” Zafirovski said.

His teammates did their best to facilitate, but he missed his first attempt from the floor.

“Pretty badly, too,” he recalled. “I don’t really know what happened. I just got the ball, and I tried to flick it up there really quickly, and I lost it.”

But he was undeterred.

“If you give it to me again,” he told his team, “I promise I’ll make it.”

And sure enough, his next opportunity came—under the rim, with 1:24 on the clock. Off an entry pass from Tyler Thornton, Zafirovski converted a layup for the first points of his Duke career.

“It’s finally good to get that off my back,” he said, “and I couldn’t be any happier about it.”

Todd Zafirovski may never lose a game at Duke. The Blue Devils have won all 11 of the games in which he has appeared, and that is unlikely to change for a player who only takes the court in blowout wins.

“I’d much rather win and not play than lose and play, and luckily I’ve never played in a loss.”

Not bad for a guy who was never going to come to Duke.

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