DURHAM, N.C. -- Andre Dawkins doesn’t remember the last time he played a basketball game with a clear head.
He knows it wasn’t his junior year at Duke, and he figures it was sometime prior to Dec. 5, 2009. That’s the date — now tattooed on the inside of his left wrist — that his older sister Lacey lost her life in a car accident while heading to Durham to see him in action as a freshman.
But after spending the past year away from the sport he has played for as long as he can remember, Dawkins says he is eager to return to the court with newfound clarity and purpose for one final season with the Blue Devils.
“I missed it a lot,” Dawkins said during a spring semester exam break. “It was a lot different not being out there on the court, watching the guys play and not being able to help them, so I think I got a new appreciation for it. I think it was something I took for granted, that basketball was always going to be there, and not having it there really made me appreciate it.
“Also, trying a different sport and really being bad at it made me want to get back out on the basketball court.”
The soft-spoken guard added that last line with a grinning reference to the fact that he took up the sport of golf during his basketball sabbatical. Levity aside, golf was just one of the activities that occasionally occupied his time during the months he spent trying to clear his mind and finally process the grief of losing his sister over three years ago.
Dawkins devoted considerably more time to counseling, talking at length with his parents, rediscovering his faith and completing the requirements for his bachelor’s degree. The starting point, he says, was coming to grips with Lacey’s death.
“I just don’t think I ever really got over it or let everything out, so then other things would weigh on me that at other times wouldn’t,” Dawkins explained. “Stuff bothers me that really shouldn’t bother me, then it kinda piles up and then it’s just like, everyday going out practicing and playing became tougher and tougher. So I just needed to be able to get all that off my chest so I could give 100 percent to basketball.
“I had some counseling. I did that a lot and I think that definitely helped. I was able to open up more. A big part of the year was me letting people help that wanted to help. Before, I tried to do a lot of stuff on my own as far as that. This year I was able to open up more and not have so much on my chest. I could put it on other people to help me with it.”
From the outside, Dawkins seemed able to cope with the tragedy during his freshman and sophomore years, when he knocked down exactly 100 three-point shots, primarily off the bench, to help the Blue Devils win the 2010 NCAA championship and the 2011 ACC crown.
But internally, he knew he needed help by the end of a dark junior year, which began with him in the starting lineup and ended with him hitting only 2-of-17 shots from beyond the arc over the last six games, culminating with an abrupt NCAA dismissal issued by Lehigh.
“It wasn’t a great year,” he admitted. “It was tough from day to day, really just getting through day to day. And then you have basketball in there, trying to do that. And it’s not just basketball — it’s playing at Duke, high expectations, things like that.
“My sophomore year wasn’t as bad. I don’t know what happened, but my junior year I just couldn’t get it all together and it got worse as the year went on.”
Dawkins says the decision to step away from basketball was not his idea. “It was kind of a mix of everyone,” he noted. “It was suggested by the coaches at first. Then I talked to my family about it, thought about it myself, and it made sense just to take time away and really figure out if I wanted to play anymore.
“I think looking back at it now, it was a good decision. It gave me a year to really just focus on Andre, not have any other responsibilities as far as the team or anything like that.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski publicly confirmed the decision last June when he said during his annual summer press conference that Dawkins would redshirt the 2012-13 season. It turned out to be an unconventional redshirt year, as Dawkins did not practice with the Blue Devils or participate in any team activities. In fact, Dawkins revealed that he went cold turkey on the sport all last fall, not even picking up a basketball until he went home to Virginia for Christmas and headed to a gym to shoot around with his father and one of his younger brothers.
“I didn’t do anything basketball-wise, just to see how I felt about it, if I missed it — and I did,” Dawkins said. “I think the main thing was getting help personally with figuring out things beside basketball so I could, when I came back to basketball, put all my energy into that instead of worrying about other things.”
“The main mission for him,” said assistant coach Jeff Capel, “was to focus on him. For him to get better and for him to grow, whatever that entailed. And he did a really good job of attacking that.”
Dawkins resumed basketball drills when he returned to Duke for the spring semester, but they were mostly solo sessions late at night in the Krzyzewski practice center. He would work on his moves off the dribble, throw himself the ball and enact coming off of screens, pulling up for midrange shots or driving to the basket.
He admitted that he briefly considered picking up his degree and looking elsewhere for a place to use his fifth season of eligibility, joining the ranks of that new breed of so-called college free agents. But deep down, he knew he wanted to finish his career at Duke; he just didn’t know where the coaching staff stood on his situation.
Soon after the 2012-13 Duke season ended, he found out. Dawkins wrote Krzyzewski a text message to see if he could come by for a meeting, and just as he was about to press the send button, his phone rang. It was associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski calling to see how he had been doing.
“I told him I wanted to come back and play,” Dawkins related. “He was excited to hear that and said I should talk to Coach. So I talked to Coach and we both agreed — we wanted it to be different than it was before, for me to be able to give a hundred percent to the team and not check in and check out from game to game. So that’s what I’m looking forward to this year.”
After that meeting, Dawkins announced his return via social media. “This year was tough to be away but I feel like I have grown immensely off the court and am ready to come back and help the team win,” stated one of his tweets. “I want to get a fresh start and be a different player than I was. In October you will see a different Andre Dawkins.”
Though Dawkins lived by himself off-campus and was not involved in official team functions last season, he did have some contact with his teammates and “hung out” with them when their schedules permitted. He watched all but one home game from a seat behind the bench and tuned in to the road games on television. He would either watch alone or head to the video room at the K Center and join the team managers who were taping the broadcasts. He maintained the close relationship he had developed with his former roommate Ryan Kelly and forged a new bond with Ryan’s younger brother Sean, one of the managers.
“It was fun to watch the team play,” he said. “The guys played really hard all the time and it was fun to watch the guys grow as the year went along.”
One of his favorite games was the Miami contest when Kelly returned from his foot injury to pour in 36 points on the league-leading Hurricanes. Senior Night, he admitted, was tough to watch as his three classmates Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry bid farewell to Cameron. What he missed the most, besides the day-to-day team interaction, was the real essence of competitive athletics — “just going out and trying to see if you can be better than the guy in front of you.”
To signify his fresh start, Dawkins switched jersey numbers to the 34 Kelly wore last year, and he took over Kelly’s old locker space. He has resumed weightlifting with his teammates, played in some pickup games and gone through a few sessions with the coaches. Initially his main focus is to drop the 10 pounds he gained over the past year and get back in basketball shape this summer.
“I’m excited to see what I can do with a clear head and a hundred percent focus on basketball,” he said. “I feel like I can get a lot better this summer, and this upcoming year should be fun. We’ve got a lot of new players, great guys coming in, Rodney (Hood) being able to play this year. We’re really excited about that, so it should be fun.
“Practices this year are going to be competitive at every position. We should be a fun team to watch. We’ll push each other every day because every guy’s going to be trying to get minutes here and there. We should be a fun team to watch and it should be a fun year if we do what we’re supposed to do.”
Kelly looks forward to seeing what his friend can accomplish with his mind focused on basketball again. “That’s big,” Kelly said. “When I step on the basketball court, everything else goes away. That’s all I’m thinking about. So for me personally there’s always a lot of joy in playing the game because I don’t have to think about anything else. If you approach the game that way, and I think Andre will, everything else kinda goes away and all you care about is playing the game.”
“It’s going to require a lot of commitment and dedication,” Capel said of Dawkins’ re-acclimation process. “The one thing for him is that he has time. It’s not like he went cold turkey and is starting up in September. He has a chance to go through some things this summer. We’ll have a plan for him to not just get in shape, but to get in really good shape.
“It will be interesting when we get to the fall and start practice, with him being under a whistle. He hasn’t been under a whistle in a year. I don’t think it will be a problem because you’re not talking about a young kid here, you’re talking about a kid who’s older. But still it’s going to be different because he hasn’t done some of those things in a really long time. Even his workouts this summer, it still won’t be with coaches there, it still won’t be with the whole team there, so it’s different. But I think he will work and put in the time, and because he’ll have time this summer I think he’ll be prepared as we head into the fall.”
Dawkins’ summer began with commencement exercises this month — a new experience since he left high school a year ahead of schedule to enroll at Duke. Next year he will be classified as a graduate student and will take classes in Duke Divinity School. He considers that choice of study one reflection of the manner in which Lacey’s tragedy impacted him.
“I think overall it’s made my faith stronger,” he explained, his voice taking on a quiet, reverential tone. “There was a time in there, especially my junior year, that I had kinda gone away from it, wasn’t real keen on it. I just didn’t want to hear it. My parents and I had a long talk about it and I just, that’s not the way I want to go. Then this past year I started to realize how much God has done for me to get me to this point. He hasn’t deserted me so I shouldn’t be deserting Him. That’s where her death has helped the most, I think.”