Chris Collins was getting emotional.
Not emotional in the fiery sense, the way he played at Duke from 1992-96, or in the passionate sense, the way he coached under Mike Krzyzewski for 14 seasons.
Sitting in the principal's conference room at Glenbrook North High School, Collins looked across at the young recruit—the reason he and Krzyzewski had come to the suburb north of Chicago—and was hit by a flashback, remembering the trust he had placed in Krzyzewski.
"Coach K was giving them the full court press and what Duke could do for him and how we needed him," Collins said. "He kind of turned to me to add onto it and I got emotional and actually started crying."
Puzzled by the emotion, the recruit asked Collins what was wrong.
"And he said, ‘You won’t believe this, but the last time I was in this room, I made my announcement that I was coming to Duke,'" remembers Jon Scheyer, who was the recruit in the room. "[It was] one of the craziest things that happened to me in recruiting."
Like Collins, Scheyer wound up coming to Durham, cementing a legacy by winning a national championship in 2010. He wasn't the first Chicagoland product to commit to Krzyzewski, himself a Chicago native, and he was by no means the last, but the relationship between Scheyer and both Collins—now in his second year at the helm at Northwestern—and Krzyzewski embodies the deep, talented bond between Duke basketball and the Windy City.
A Relationship that Flows From the Top
Chicago has a storied basketball tradition, producing stars like George Mikan, Isiah Thomas and, more recently, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. The dominance of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls only furthered the ties between the sport and the city on the shores of Lake Michigan, instilling NBA dreams in the next generation of Chicago youth.
That's largely what's happened. Two of the last seven No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft, Rose and Anthony Davis, hail from the Windy City, and Duke's Jabari Parker—who attended Simeon Career Academy, the same high school as Rose—was selected second overall in June. A large chorus of voices believes the Blue Devils' current Chicagoland superstar—freshman center Jahlil Okafor—would go first overall in 2015 if he chooses to leave school.
Duke's success in the past two decades enables Krzyzewski to recruit around the country and around the world, but his strong ties to the area have helped the Blue Devils establish a particularly strong presence in Chicago. He grew up on the city's north side, attending Archbishop Weber High School, down the street from famed Wrigley Field. During his years at Duke, he's developed connections all over the city, which have paid dividends for him and his fellow recruiters like Collins on the recruiting trail.
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Parker, Scheyer and Krzyzewski made a return trip to Chicago last season for the Champions Classic, and although Parker shone under the bright lights of the United Center, the Blue Devils fell to Kansas. During the summer, Krzyzewski and Scheyer—now in his first season as an assistant coach—went back again, and Scheyer got see more of what "home" means to Krzyzewski.
"You have a passion and a love for this city that I think never goes away," Scheyer said. "When he gets an opportunity to go back to Chicago, he loves that. He loves that opportunity to go home. We had a tournament we had to go to this summer in Chicago, and it was right by where he grew up, right by his middle school, his elementary school. It was cool to see where he grew up. That’s the great thing—he loves going back and being able to see that."
Krzyzewski didn't get as emotional as Collins did, though.
"After [the meeting with the Scheyers], Coach K kind of got on me. He thought I was doing it for show," Collins said. "He said, ‘The moms and sisters, I think we got them sold.’ He didn’t realize I was really that emotional just from being back home and being at my school and in that room."
A Ticket Out of the City
Chicago's problems with violent crime have been well-documented—in 2012 there were 500 murders in the city, the most in the country. For a young Sean Dockery, and the scores of kids in Chicago's inner-city neighborhoods, basketball was—and still is—much more than a game. It's an outlet, an escape from the harsh realities of the mean streets.
"Most of the kids, they go to basketball when they need something to make them happy," Dockery said. "That’s all it is that we do out here. Example: This summer Nike had a basketball tournament [in Chicago] for a weekend. You know what’s going on in Chicago with the violence and everything, people getting killed every day. During that event, nobody got shot, killed, anything. I’m saying that because basketball is our heart. When basketball is going on, it stops everything."
Dockery grew up wanting to play for the Blue Devils, but faced doubters throughout his high school career. They didn't believe Dockery was cut out to handle the academics at a school like Duke, and didn't think Krzyzewski recruited inner-city players. But Dockery piqued Duke's—and Collins'—interest while starring at Julian High School in Chicago's Washington Heights neighborhood, and soon Krzyzewski was at Dockery's door for an in-home visit.
"He came to the neighborhood, the whole community was outside going crazy because, you know, that’s Coach K," Dockery said. "They never thought they’d see him in the inner-city of Chicago."
Krzyzewski offered Dockery a ticket out of the city, and he took it eagerly, arriving as a freshman in 2002. But the transition to life in Durham was anything but smooth. Dockery describes his high school as "99.9 percent African-American" which made adjusting to life on Duke's campus—where the African-American population was closer to 10 percent—challenging.
Homesick and feeling like a fish out of water, Dockery turned to the Blue Devil coaching staff for support. Being from Chicago—albeit very different from environments from Dockery's—Krzyzewski and Collins were able to understand what he was going through, and teamed up with Steve Wojciechowski and Johnny Dawkins to provide the assistance Dockery needed. He recalls feeling as though he had "four fathers" on campus helping him get comfortable.
A 6-foot-2 point guard, Dockery averaged 7.2 points and 2.6 assists in four seasons in Durham. His on-the-court place in Duke lore is enshrined by a 45-foot buzzer-beating heave at Cameron Indoor Stadium to beat Virginia Tech. Off the floor, he proved his doubters wrong, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.
After bouncing around the international basketball circuit, Dockery is back in Chicago running a non-profit, Dockery Basketball University, where he works with kids in the inner-city community teaching important life lessons—many of which he learned from Krzyzewski at Duke—and a few jump shot pointers here and there.
"Being a Duke player, education is the key. They instill that the day you walk in there. I think that’s why [Dockery Basketball University] is very unique and successful is because we do pass along the importance of education," Dockey said. "That’s what I talk to the kids all the time about: If you want to be somebody, you’ve got to take care of your schoolwork.... I’m just saying, ‘I did it, you can do it too.'"
"Huge Ability to Relate"
The emotional meeting in the Glenbrook High conference room was not the first time Collins and Scheyer had crossed paths. Collins first met a 5-year-old Scheyer while he was still in high school, where he earned Illinois Mr. Basketball honors—Scheyer's parents came to all his games. When Scheyer was in eighth grade and it was clear he "had a chance to be really good," his dad reached out Collins. The question was simple: Where should Scheyer go to high school?
"There were some other higher-profile high schools he could've gone to, whether it be one of the Catholic schools or some of other schools that were a little more high-profile [than Glenbrook North] at the time. So they called me about just what did I think and what was my experience like going to Glenbrook North," Collins said. "I talked to him about how special a time it was for me to go to Glenbrook North and build relationships, and how if you’re good enough, it doesn’t matter, you’ll make it happen wherever you go."
Scheyer opted to attend Glenbrook North, and certainly made it happen. He won a state championship, earned Illinois Mr. Basketball honors and broke many of Collins' school records—nearly topping his predecessor's single-game scoring record of 54 points by scoring 21 points in 75 seconds late in the fourth quarter before fouling out, finishing with 52 points in a game both Collins and Krzyzewski attended.
Although Collins and Scheyer shared a bond from attending the same high school and having met years earlier, when the recruiting frenzy descended on Scheyer, Duke wasn't the first school banging on his door. Duke's youngest assistant joked that Collins "should’ve been there earlier—he was late."
It ended up not mattering, because the Glenbrook North ties between the two allowed them to connect right away. Collins, who passed over in-state Illinois to play for Krzyzewski in Durham, knew exactly what Scheyer—also heavily recruited by the Fighting Ilini—was going through, and encouraged him to make the choice he felt was best for him without listening to the outside voices.
Complicating things was the fact that Scheyer's high school coach was then-Illinois head coach Bruce Weber's brother, a potential obstacle to Duke locking up a commitment from the sharp-shooting guard.
"One of the things when you’re going through being recruited is you feel the buzz, you feel the attention," Scheyer said. "You think a lot more about what the public or people are going to think about your decision. And at the end of the day, people get over it very quickly.... That’s what [Collins] was telling me: ‘Don’t feel like there’s this pressure on you to stay in-state. You don’t owe anything to anybody,’ and he was right by that."
Still, Scheyer says he wasn't prepared for the momentary backlash he received after choosing the Blue Devils—in what became good practice for his career in a Duke uniform, Scheyer got booed. Booed by people who recognized him walking through the aisles at hockey games at the United Center, booed by the United Center en masse when the Blackhawks invited him to shoot the puck—the NHL's equivalent of throwing out the first pitch—which Scheyer said, in fairness, is what happens to most people who try to do that.
With Scheyer on the Duke bench and Collins back in Chicago at Northwestern, the two don't see each other as much, but still talk weekly, Scheyer said. He attributes much of the buzz about Northwestern in his hometown to what Collins has been able to accomplish since accepting the job in March 2013.
"It’s an area that doesn’t have a college basketball team and now it does," Scheyer said. "He’s given them that."
The Next Generation of Windy City Talent
In September, Krzyzewski refuted the notion that his role as the head coach of Team USA gives him an advantage in recruiting. When it comes to wooing kids from his hometown, though, the all-time winningest coach in Division I men's basketball is able to leverage a web of Windy City connections.
That doesn't mean Krzyzewski has a monopoly on Chicago talent—John Calipari scooped up commitments from Rose and Davis for one year each, and many recruits choose to stay closer to home—but the Blue Devils have maintained an open pipeline to Durham in recent years, landing high-profile Chicago commits in Parker and Okafor.
"So much of recruiting is based on relationships and having high school coaches and AAU coaches that trust you when they’re sending these kids," Collins said. "So the fact that we had a lot of local favor from Chicago with [Krzyzewski] and myself and Jon, there were a lot of built-in relationships around the city and the state. So it helped with those guys [Parker and Okafor] to be able to get to know them and have people that trusted that we were about the right things and could provide an opportunity for them to play and get an education and be on the biggest stage."
For Okafor—who won preseason ACC Rookie of the Year honors in a landslide—the program's Chicago ties were far from a deciding factor to commit to the Blue Devils, but he did rely on Parker as a reliable narrator during his recruitment process.
Okafor's Whitney Young High School and Parker's Simeon Career Academy are rivals. Just 16 minutes apart, the basketball powerhouses and their future Blue Devils faced off numerous times, with Parker's Simeon teams claiming the all-time series. Whenever a matchup loomed between the stars—friends since seventh grade—the city buzzed with anticipation.
"There was a lot of hype around the city. Every time we played against each other it was always a sold-out crowd, a lot of articles leading up to the game," Okafor said. "Very fun, very competitive. He got the best of me on most of those nights.... I just remember a lot of hard-fought battles.”
With Parker starring for Krzyzewski as a freshman, Okafor stayed in contact, asking his peer questions about life on campus, playing for Krzyzewski, how his teammates treated him and whether some of the things the Duke coaching staff was telling him were really true. Utilizing Parker as a helpful tool, Okafor committed to Duke last November in a package with point guard Tyus Jones.
As a special assistant on last year's team, Scheyer wasn't involved in Parker's recruitment, but swapped stories and talked Chicago sports with Parker, and now does the same with Okafor. He's talked a fair amount of trash, too.
"I like to tell both those guys that they couldn’t catch any of my records in high school," Scheyer said. "The thing I tell Jahlil is that he got triple-teamed and quadruple-teamed in high school; I only got doubled or tripled. It’s fun to mess with him about that kind of stuff."
Going Full Circle—Again
After spending 14 years at Krzyzewski's side on the bench, Collins is one of five former Duke players currently holding a head coaching job of his own, taking the reins at Northwestern. He was an ideal candidate for the job, being a native of the Chicago area—Northwestern's Evanston campus is just 10.3 miles from Glenbrook North—and having had such success in helping Krzyzewski lure talent away from the city, a region Northwestern and Collins hope to reclaim as their own home turf for recruiting.
"I feel [strongly] about players who come out of this state and this city and the type of coaching they get, and their talent and toughness. For me, once I had the job it was important to me to establish ourselves by being a presence locally," Collins said. "It was important to show local guys that we can be an option. It’s tough recruiting this city because you’re not only battling the local schools but you’ve got the Dukes and the Kansases and the Kentuckys of the world trying to come in and recruit our players as well."
Four of Collins' newcomers this season have Illinois roots, which he takes as a positive sign. To make Northwestern a more attractive option, Collins' primary short-term objective is to take the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament in program history—they're the only school in a Power Five conference to never have qualified for the Big Dance. The foundation for that success was laid in his first season, as the Wildcats defeated No. 14 Wisconsin on the road, a place where most visiting teams leave empty-handed.
If Collins felt as though things had come full circle when he returned to Glenbrook North to make his pitch to Scheyer around a decade ago, he's gone around again, returning to revamp his hometown college program.
"I look back on my decision in Chicago to go down to Duke and to trust Coach K with my future, and it’s the best decision I made," Collins said. "It allowed me to be with him and have an amazing career at Duke, and now to be back home in Chicago and having a chance to build my own program at a great school at the highest level in my hometown.... It’s amazing when you think about it: starting here and ending here and all the things that went between. It’s been a fun ride and a fun journey and I’m excited to be back in Chicago.”