The locker room is quiet. It is small, clean, and vintage high-school 1950s, complete with cage lockers. For most of its history, this room in Cameron Indoor Stadium was for the home team, Duke University.
Now, with the Blue Devils in a luxurious locker room on the other side of the arena, Bellarmine University basketball coach Scott Davenport has sent his players out to warm up for what may be one of the more memorable games of their lives.
Davenport is alone, except for a couple of reporters, and he is printing numbers on a whiteboard in the front. Assistants filled the board for the longer pregame discussion, but for his short recap of the game plan when the team comes back in, Davenport does it himself. He prints special points of emphasis in red marker.
He writes the number “52.3,” in red, then turns around and says, “We led all of college basketball in shooting percentage last season — Division I, II, III, NAIA, any level you want.
“You know what I’d like to know? I’d love to know their preparation for us. When we play Louisville and Xavier, we’ll exchange everything. You get to see their scouting report on you. I’d love to see how Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski has scouted us. I’d like to see how we look through their eyes.”
That, of course, is a rare gift. The chance to see something through a different set of eyes.
Every game ends with a score. Bellarmine lost to Duke 87-62 on Saturday night. We usually see the games through the same lenses. But this past weekend, Davenport extended an invitation to this newspaper to see the team from the inside.
Ever wonder what it would be like to travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a basketball game, head to the arena for the walk-through, sit through the film session, listen to the pregame talk and head out into an arena filled with Cameron Crazies?
If so, climb aboard the Bellarmine bus.
At 8 a.m. Friday, the team boards a bus in front of Knights Hall, but the drive is a short one. Because of high school volleyball regionals, the team holds its final practice before leaving at Cardinal Arena in the Student Activities Center at the University of Louisville.
The mood is light and excited. During the workout, coaches know they can’t simulate Duke’s size and speed. At one point last week, Davenport considered bringing in other Bellarmine teams and students for practice to heckle his players to prepare them for the Cameron Crazies, but was so happy with the way practice was going that he decided not to.
The night before, Division II Seattle Pacific knocked off Arizona in an exhibition game. “That doesn’t help,” Davenport says.
At the end of practice, Davenport wanders to the sideline and asks some of the team’s traveling party if anyone stayed up to watch the sixth game of the World Series, which ended well after midnight,
“I did,” pipes up senior guard Braydon Hobbs. “I watched the whole thing, then went out to the bars.”
Get used to Hobbs. He always has a comeback.
The team gets sub sandwiches on the way to the airport. Whenever the team is not in motion — and sometimes when it is — it seems it is eating.
When Davenport told the team a couple of months ago that this would be its only flight of the season, there were cheers in the locker room. But this is no charter flight. The players line up at the Southwest terminal with tickets in hand. The defending Division II national champs don’t even have the preferred “A” boarding passes.
At the gate, Davenport sits down and pulls out a blue folder labeled, “Duke.” Inside are various logistical documents, passes, parking instructions, itineraries. Duke has sent along a stack of papers and instructions, pass lists to be filled out.
For a while Davenport looks at Duke’s stat sheet. He doesn’t trust the stats from the team’s foreign trip in the summer. What’s he trying to figure out? Which Blue Devil to foul if the game is close late.
Out of the folder fall two small pictures. They are Memorial Cards. One bears the picture of late Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. The other is from the funeral service of Davenport’s mother.
“Nobody knows this,” he says. “Every game I coach, I keep these in my inside coat pocket.”
Prosser befriended Davenport out of the blue. His wife was from Louisville, and they’d call the Davenports from time to time, after big wins or when they were in town.
“They told me that Skip used to do the same thing with his team at the beginning of every season,” Davenport says. “He’d get his team in a circle and throw up a ball and let it drop and bounce until it stopped and was still. Then he’d tell them, ‘The ball is going to stop bouncing for us all.’ One day it will.”
Across the way, players sleep or zone out with headphones. The flight is delayed.
CHANGING THE CALL
When the plane lands in Tampa, the group makes a direct line for the airport TGI Friday’s. Team meals are a study in planning ahead. Players submit orders ahead of time and within minutes of sitting down the restaurant staff is bringing out plates and calling out names.
The manager of the restaurant comes out to the coaches. He is from Louisville. His uncle George Tinsley, owns the restaurant. Tinsley was an All-American at Kentucky Wesleyan and is in the state athletic Hall of Fame. As they leave, for the first of about a half-dozen times on this trip, a restaurant staff member stops Davenport to compliment his players.
Another flight delay. Players find cubicles in the terminal and fire up laptops and charge phones. It is delayed again and coaches worry that the film session they’ve scheduled upon arrival will go too late.
Coaches inquire and learn that Gate C-45 is empty, and they walk the team over. A laptop and LCD projector are all they need — well, that and a white background. For that, they go to a Quizno’s restaurant in the food court and ask if they have any white paper.
The manager there asks where they’re from. When he learns they’re from Louisville, he tells them that his brother was a manager for Rick Pitino when he coached at the University of Kentucky.
The team winds up watching film in an airport terminal on sandwich paper taped over a television screen.
They’re watching games from Duke’s summer trip to China. Mostly they watch quietly. Once in a while, a coach pipes up. Sometimes there’s a discussion.
“If we get beat baseline, we have to be way outside the lane,” senior Luke Sprague says, watching. “We won’t have time to drop inside on the big man. They’ll just lob it up.”
They talk about individual players. The next morning, players will get edited tapes and go over their matchups individually, noting tendencies.
Every few minutes, the session is interrupted by airport announcements. The session breaks up shortly before boarding time. Hobbs lags behind others. Davenport calls out, “Braydon, what’re you doing?”
“Sexting girls,” comes the answer. Always a comeback.
Finally they board the plane. Davenport opens a book. Its title: “Five-Point Play.” The author? Mike Krzyzewski.
The team arrives in Raleigh at about 9 p.m., and waits 10 minutes in a cold drizzle for a bus that’s late. By 9:30, they’re at the La Quinta Inn in Durham, grabbing bags of Chick-Fil-A before heading to their rooms.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Davenport says. “This will be the most-attended walk-through we’ve ever had.”
“There’s history all over the place,” Jeremy Kendle says. “It’s a neat old gym.”
Davenport lets them soak it in.
“I want them to be excited and looking up at the banners,” Davenport said. “If you can’t appreciate a gym like this, something’s wrong with you.”
There will be little down time from here on. From the arena the team goes to Golden Corral for brunch. They return to the hotel, watch a bit more film, then rest up a bit before the pregame meal at LoneStar Steakhouse.
A couple of hours of rest later, they’re back on the bus to Cameron, arriving about 90 minutes before tipoff.
The bus to the game is not like the other rides. It is silent, and the small locker room is calm and businesslike. Some players still wear headsets. Assistant coaches scribble on the whiteboard.
“We talk about utilizing opportunities all the time,” he says. “One team in the country got this opportunity to make themselves better tonight and it was you. You’re on a grand, grand stage. They’re a class team, you’re a class team. You play harder than they play.
“I don’t care who they are. I don’t care how many stars they have next to their name. You know why? They have stars don’t they? He (pointing to Austin Rivers on the board) had stars all over his name in high school didn’t he? I don’t care. We know all these guys are stars. We keep to what we believe in every day. None of us are ever as good as all of us. It’s us against them. It’s not five one-on-one games.”
When the team comes back in, Davenport has filled the board with new points. These are the general game plan highlights for the game. At the end of the pregame prayer, Father Dale Ceslik plays on Duke’s nickname when he says, “Jesus did some of his best work when he beat the devil at his own game. Let the team say Amen!”
On the way out, the players joke about the Cameron Crazies. They have Googled the players to get information to heckle them with. They’ve already been giving Hobbs grief over deer hunting, screaming, “You killed Bambi,” at him. Somebody asks him, “You didn’t accept any Facebook friend requests from people you didn’t know, did you?”
“Every one of them,” he says. Always a comeback.
Bellarmine hangs tough in the first half. With 2:20 to play, it trails by only one, but a late exchange when it has a layup blocked and Duke hits a layup at the buzzer gives the Blue Devils a 5-point lead. The Knights have missed open looks they usually bury. They’ve been turnover prone.
For three minutes, while Davenport composes his halftime thoughts, the players, in a remarkable exchange, critique themselves. They correct and offer instruction, with an impressive lack of defensiveness or accusation. It could be a boardroom discussion.
“They’re not waiting till their screens are set, they’re switching way early,” Sprague said. “So we’ve either got to slip, or when that big man transfers to the guard we’ve got to have the other big man racing up and the other diving.”
“We do a lot of coaching each other,” Dowe explains later. “We trust each other and just want to make each other better.”
There are calm exchanges when Davenport begins explaining what needs to be done better. He tells Kendle and Chris Dowe that they can’t have five turnovers between them. The team needs to get into its offense faster.
“You guys gotta go,” Davenport says.
“It’s so hard getting the ball to the wing. They’re bodying us up,” Kendle says.
Davenport makes an adjustment. On guard-to-guard exchanges, he sends the wing cutting under the basket to clear out the side for possible back-doors.
Then he challenges his team on rebounding. It has given up 10 offensive rebounds. He’s pleased that it has dished out eight assists, but wants more ball movement still.
The second half, however, is not more of the same. After playing close for 10 more minutes, the Duke big men and transition game are too much.
“They were pretty cool guys to play with,” Dowe said. “They didn’t talk a lot. They just played hard.”
Davenport afterward challenges his players, then quickly builds them back up.
“Poor decisions,” he said. “They’re the sixth ranked team in the country. They shot 64 percent the second half. They missed 10 shots, and they got four offensive rebounds. We only got it off of there six times. . . . You guys, you doubt it, but the numbers don’t lie. Two assists, we’re minus 20. Ten assists (in the first half) we’re minus five.
“. . . But you know what, the great thing is, we’re off tomorrow and we’re going to get another chance to play a great team Thursday.”
Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics, makes an appearance in the locker room, as does Del Curry.
The players start talking about who they’ve seen. Kyrie Irving. Jason Williams. After talking to reporters at a news conference, Hobbs tries to stay in the press room to hear Krzyzewski’s comments, but security tells him he has to leave.
“Duke has been my favorite team for a long time,” Hobbs says. “I’ve got a Duke jersey at home with my name on the back. I thought about bringing it. The Cameron Crazies got on me about my deer hunting and I was loving it. I loved playing here.”
On the bus, former Duke player Nolan Smith encourages the team.
“You all are played a great game,” Smith tells them. “The reffing was a little off, but that definitely happens in Cameron. You guys won it all last year and I think you can win it all this year, just keep listening to Coach Davenport, he’s a long-time family friend, and I’ll definitely come over and work out with you when I’m in Louisville.”
At the hotel, former North Carolina center Tyler Zeller pays Hobbs a visit.
In the airport the next day on the flight back in Baltimore, the team runs into Brian Brohm. When they arrive in Louisville, Muhammad Ali as at the end of the jetway waiting to board the next flight.
“Can you believe all that?” Davenport said. “It’s not glamorous, but maybe there’s something to write about in all this.”
They grab their bags off the carousel, then get back on the bus for the rest of their season.
(All photos c. 2011, The Courier-Journal, Eric Crawford)