CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—With fewer than 10 minutes left in the first half, the 11th-ranked Duke’s men’s basketball team was losing, 25-22, to an unranked Wake Forest team missing their best player to injury, when Nate James, the Blue Devils’ 36 year-old 6-foot-6-inch 200-pound assistant coach, squatted in front of Jabari Parker, the 18-year-old freshman sensation, who had been benched after a recent foul. At the time, Parker had two points, one rebound, and one turnover, and had been scored liberally upon inside first by Devin Thomas and then Tyler Cavanaugh.
Parker nodded vaguely as James spoke, his eyes intent on the foul line at the other end of the court, where his teammate, Rasheed Sulaimon, was taking free throws, part of the 19 points, five assists, two steals and season-high 37 minutes earned by the sophomore, often from the point guard spot. Then James placed his fists on Parker’s knees and began to pound, first gently and then less so, until Parker finally met his eyes.
Forty seconds later, Parker was back in the game, Duke went on a 22-8 run to end the half, and the game was effectively over. Parker would finish with 21 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two steals, and a monstrous dunk. So what did Nate James say?
“Just compete,” recalled Parker. “Be there defensively. I was kind of nonchalant. I wasn’t really expecting their bigs to attack.”
As a player, Nate James always expected big people to attack. For aficionados of Duke basketball, James represented two attributes above all others: toughness and selflessness. He was a team captain twice—in 2000 and 2001. On a team of champions, Nate James did the dirty work: fighting for rebounds, diving for balls, guarding the most physical opponents and making sure no one punched Shane Battier in the face. After starting 29 straight games his senior year, he moved seamlessly to a bench role at coach Mike Krzyzewski’s request for the season finale against North Carolina, playing nine postseason games as a reserve on Duke’s way to the championship. Whatever it took to win, James did.
Now, years later, here was James stepping forward as the enforcer on the sidelines, getting in his players’ faces.
This was a classic trap game, played in the shadow of what Krzyzewski called the “emotional hangover” of an overtime loss at Syracuse on Saturday, where the Blue Devils found themselves one “controversial play” (Krzyzewski again) away from overcoming foul trouble, near perfect play by the Orangemen and a frenzied record-setting crowd of over 35,000 to beat Jim Boeheim’s undefeated team. “We’re a tired baskeball team,” Coach K explained.
Tired, and also a continuing work in progress, as Krzyzewski continues to play with his lineup, staring Sulaimon at point guard in the place of Quinn Cook, who found himself in his own conversation with Nate James, an animated conversation at the halftime shoot-around.
“I’ve been in a little slump,” said Cook, who played a season-low 18 minutes and scored 7 points. Cook, like James, grew up playing in the Washington, D.C. area, a basketball circuit where toughness is valued highly. Arms at his side, as if afraid what he might do with them, the muscular James jawed hard at Cook before slapping him on the back forcefully. Cook later shot 2-4 in the second half, both three pointers, and added an assist with no more turnovers, but Duke didn’t need his scoring tonight, as the fun-loving and sweet-shooting Andre Dawkins continued his happy stretch of season, notching 17 points in 19 minutes, including four three-pointers and a growing collection of ball- and shot-fakes that defenders seem increasingly helpless against.
After last week’s win at Pittsburgh and loss at Syracuse, Duke found itself jump six places in the polls, an unusual boost for an 18-5 team splitting games against conference foes. The voters must see something in this team, which combines serious offensive firepower with enough defense to come out ahead. Now that they’ve won a Nate James game—the kind with D.C. natives Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston diving on the floor for loose balls while leading by 20 points—they may look even more dangerous, with a potential for old school toughness that some recent Duke teams have lacked.
Box score here.