I'm driving east on U.S. 264, headed home from Duke University's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Clouds cover the setting sun behind me. I feel like I need a shower. I just interviewed a kid who didn't want to be interviewed, and we talked about things he didn't want to talk about, all under the supervision of a man who'd be far happier if I wasn't there, just so that I can write a story they'd both prefer that I not write -- a story that isn't even the story I first set out to write five months ago.
* * *
In 2009, Andre Dawkins was a 6'4 high school junior at Atlantic Shores Christian School in Chesapeake, Va., ranked by ESPN as the No. 10 overall recruit and the No. 2 overall shooting guard for the class of 2010. Recruited by Duke, he graduated from high school a year early just to help the Blue Devil's razor-thin backcourt for the 2009-10 season. He then suffered a terrible tragedy: A little more than a month into the season, his older sister, Lacey, 21, died after a car accident on Dec. 5, 2009 while traveling to Durham to watch him play in a game against St. John's. It would have been the first college game she'd seen him play.
A little more than a month into the season, his older sister died after a car accident.
Andre not only overcame that to rejoin the team, and not even miss a game, but he performed beyond everyone's expectations. Even as a freshman, he became a team leader, someone who others looked up to and who put together a series of clutch performances.
"He doesn't play like a freshman," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Raleigh News & Observer.
Senior Duke guard Jon Scheyer, now a Duke assistant coach, said at the time, "It's amazing what he's doing."
His roommate, Ryan Kelly, now playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, remembers, "Every freshman has to go through their lumps, but he had that one always-reliable skill, that unbelievable skill to shoot the basketball. I was a freshman who came in who was an All-American in high school, and I didn't even play that much my freshman year. And there's Andre, just killing it. I mean, he was just unbelievable. He could change a game. Freshmen don't do that unless they're already some superstar coming in. But for Andre to come in a year younger than everybody else, and to come off the bench and to make the big plays he made and the big shots -- that's something special."
And that's why his older sister, Lacey, and their biological mother, Tamara, tried to drive down from Columbus, Ohio, in the middle of a snowstorm, to see him play. Although Andre had been raised by his father and stepmother, he and Lacey talked, or at least texted each other, every day. Andre described Lacey to the Durham Herald-Sun as "a fun-loving, happy person," and said, "Whenever she came into a room, she was able to put a smile on someone's face, no matter how bad you felt." He kept pictures of Lacey pinned to the wall in his dorm room.
Driving a Chevy Lumina, Tamara hit a patch of ice in West Virginia. They spun into one car, and then another. Lacey died at Raleigh General Hospital.
Andre left the team to be with his family. "Take as much time as you need," Krzyzewski told him. But how does an 18-year-old kid know how much time he needs?
As it would turn out, he had no idea. No one did.
Lacey's funeral was a week after the accident, on Saturday, Dec. 12, in Charleston, W.Va. Krzyzewski was there, along with assistant coach Nate James and athletic director Kevin White.
Afterward, Andre decided he had taken all the time he wanted to take. He went back to Durham with Krzyzewski, practiced Sunday and Monday, and he played in the team's next game that Tuesday, Dec. 15, against Gardner-Webb.
"Just don't worry about it. Let's just play basketball. Don't worry about me."
USA Today Images
Says Kelly, "When he came back, he and the coaches spoke to the team and they were like, ‘We just want to concentrate on the team, and on basketball.' Dre said, ‘Just don't worry about it. Let's just play basketball. Don't worry about me.'"
When he entered the game at the 16:17 mark, the fans packing Cameron gave him a deafening standing ovation. He then scored 16 points over the course of the game, hitting six of his nine shots. Durham Herald-Sun writer Bryan Strickland wrote, "It looked like he hadn't been away."
That's how the rest of the season went for Andre, too.
"Like for most players," Kelly says, "whenever anything tough happens, the outlet is the gym, where you can just let it all go away when you step on the court. It's easier for some than for others, and I don't think it's easy at all for somebody who loses someone so close to him. So I think for Andre, his attempt was to just, you know -- ‘I just want to play basketball.'"
For much of the season he averaged double-digit points and shot better than 50 percent from the three-point line. In the NCAA tournament he hit two huge three-pointers against Baylor in Duke's Elite Eight matchup, one of which cracked open the window that led to the Blue Devil's eventual comeback win.
"There's no question," says Kelly, who was also a freshman and Andre's roommate that year. "We wouldn't have won without Andre."
The way Andre ended up becoming an absolutely crucial part of Duke's run through the NCAA tournament so soon after his sister's death made him a hero to many, an inspiration, a compelling story of resilience and redemption that gave others hope. It ran in all the newspapers and magazines, framed like this: The Kid who already sacrificed his senior year of high school to help the team bounces back from tragedy to lead his team to a title, like a made-for TV movie.
Once a hero in a movie or a show overcomes something, once life is beautiful again and full of hope, the credits roll and the lights come up and we're left believing maybe that's how our lives could go. But they rarely do. No matter how hard we try to tell the truth, creating a story from the events of our lives, one with a beginning and a middle and an end, is in some ways false, a fiction. People don't really have stories that start and end. They have lives that change and evolve.
That's what happened to Andre. By his junior year, his biggest problem should've been deciding whether to leave school early to jump to the NBA. Instead, he was debating whether he even wanted to play basketball anymore. Under a mountain of unresolved grief, he and his game had fallen apart.
"He wasn't smiling, like, ever," says Kelly. "It looked like basketball wasn't fun. He just looked heavy."
After the funeral, when he'd thought he'd taken all the time he'd needed, he had been wrong. "He was just -- ‘I don't want to talk about anything extra, just let me go play basketball,'" says Kelly. "And that may be a fix, but it was a temporary fix. It didn't fix it.
"When you're a Division I basketball player who's pretty darn good, you're not supposed to talk about your feelings and the tough times," says Kelly. "You're supposed to talk about the good times."
Andre began his junior year as a starter but ended it on the bench. Over his last six games that season, he made just two of 17 shots and scored just eight points. Only one of those shots, and five of those points, came in Duke's final game of the year, the Blue Devils' shocking elimination, as a No. 2 seed, in the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round to No. 15 Lehigh.
Ryan Kelly (Getty Images)
The roars he'd once received were replaced by boos. The hero had become hated.
Yet, through it all, it seems as though Andre himself didn't really realize what was going wrong. Fortunately for him, others did: After the season, Krzyzewski and other Duke coaches suggested that he might need a break. They sat down with Andre and after a long conversation -- one they maybe should have had much earlier -- they told him that he needed to focus on himself, and nothing else. He needed to get counseling. He needed to heal.
Andre discussed this future with his family and a couple of close friends. Kelly says, "I just told him, ‘You need to do what's most important for you. Obviously, I love you as a teammate. And more as a friend. But as a person, it's more important to take care of yourself.'"
He left the team. That created a different story, but it was still a Story. Only instead of the expected "triumph over tragedy" meme, it now became "under the weight of tragedy, a young and rising star collapses."
Krzyzewski publicly announced that Andre was redshirting, and the program would honor Andre's scholarship, but redshirts usually participate in most team activities and practices apart from actual games. But Andre had nothing whatsoever to do with the team during the 2012-13 season.. "The main mission for him," Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel told GoDuke.com recently, was "for him to get better."
He wasn't in the team picture. He didn't go to meetings, or shootarounds. He lived off-campus. His mom, Lacey's mother, Tamara, moved from Columbus, Ohio, to live with Andre in Durham. His grandmother moved up from Texas to help them both.
He didn't even pick up a basketball again until Christmas, when he shot around a bit with his dad and younger brother.
Instead, he took classes. He played golf. He gained weight. He did not go to Duke's annual Countdown To Craziness. He did watch on TV, and cheer loudly, when Kelly came back from what everyone thought was a season-ending foot injury to score 36 points against Miami. He did not join Kelly on the court for Senior Night, when Kelly, along with Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee, played his last game in Cameron.
Andre finally did begin talking about Lacey. He confronted his pain. And then he began to heal.
Fortunately, the terrible story of the player crushed by the weight of tragedy didn't stick to any neat arc, either. With the help of his family and his pastor and his therapist, Andre finally did begin talking about Lacey. He confronted his pain. And then he began to heal.
So now, Andre's third story in the past five years is starting to take shape.
On April 11, 2013, Andre announced he would rejoin the team this year. He took Kelly's former locker and adopted his number, 34, switching from number 20. This past summer, Kelly saw Andre back in Cameron, working out and playing pickup with some of the guys. "He had a lightness on the court again," he said "He was having fun again. And, man, that was so great to see. He was just smiling constantly. And I think there's going to be a lot more smiling now."
At Duke's annual basketball kickoff event, Countdown to Craziness on Friday, Oct. 18, the public address announcer, for the first time in a long time, bellowed out Andre Dawkins' name. The Crazies went absolutely nuts. Andre couldn't help himself. He turned and faced them and smiled one of the biggest smiles ever and screamed, "I'm back, baby!"
He'd even grown, listed at 6'5 now, which was too perfect of a metaphor.
The subsequent Blue-White scrimmage, broadcast live on ESPNU, was, as usual, Duke's first public appearance of the new season. And guess who scored Duke's first points? Andre, hitting a three-pointer the first time he touched the ball.
As if that's not Hollywood enough, with one second left and the scrimmage tied, Andre was fouled. He hit both free throws to give his team the win.
You just don't get a narrative any better than that: A rise, a fall, and then a resurrection and, finally, ultimate redemption. Add the fact that Duke looks poised to make another run at the national championship. If they do, Andre's personal story could go over the top to become one of the most touching stories in years, ripe for movies and books and long magazine features written by ambitious journalists keeping one eye on the annual collections and lists of the years' best journalism.
That's the story I hoped to write and started working on in the spring, when I learned that he wanted to play again. And if my reporting had gone the way I'd wanted it to, what happened at Countdown to Craziness would've given me a perfect ending to a preseason profile, neat and tidy.
Only the story didn't go at all the way I thought it would.
* * *
To be a good journalist, you have to know the people you write about better than you know yourself. To achieve this, you must not just research and read, but talk to them and the people close to them for hours. You need an approach modeled after Albert Einstein, who said, "I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious."
Finding a role for Andre
By JD King, Duke Basketball Report
When Andre Dawkins decided to step away from the game last year to deal with the grief of losing his sister Lacy it was, as coach Mike Krzyzewski said, the right decision. The year away, by all accounts, helped him to heal and mature, and now it's time to consider his role with the team.
A lot depends on how much he grew off the court -- and apparently it's a lot -- because the backcourt is loaded, and here's where you can start the calculations: he'll have to defend as well or better than Tyler Thornton, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Matt Jones, whose defensive maturity Coach K has repeatedly praised. Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker and Semi Ojeleye are all versatile enough to defend guards too. And while Dawkins' calling card is three point shooting, Duke can turn to Hood, Parker, Jones and at times Thornton, Sulaimon and Cook for that as well.
So what role can Dawkins fill?
There is precedent. Ricky Price sat out for most of a year after an academic issue and returned for his senior season in 1997-98. When he came back, Duke was starting Steve Wojciechowski, Trajan Langdon, Chris Carrawell, Roshown McLeod and Elton Brand -- and had Shane Battier and William Avery on the bench.
What they didn't have was a reliable athletic backup for Wojo, and it cost them in the NCAA regional finals against Kentucky: Wojo, who was all heart, just didn't have enough talent to stop Kentucky's Wayne Turner, who led the Wildcats back from a big second-half deficit.
It could have been a redemptive moment for Price, but he finished his career on the bench.
In order to avoid that, Dawkins is going to have to carve out a completely new role. Before his year off, his defense was unreliable and while his shot at times was a tremendous weapon, at other times it was pretty literally hit or miss. He could have games like he had against Michigan State in 2011 to give Coach K his record-breaking 903rd win (Dawkins scored 26 in Madison Square Garden), or hit huge shots to help push Duke past Baylor and into the Final Four.
Then again, he could play 10 minutes against UNC later in 2011, when UNC was killing Duke in Cameron, and take just one three, missing that.
He just wasn't reliable. You never knew what you were getting.
During his time off, he worked extensively with trainer Shawn Farmers and improved his strength, endurance and basketball skills.
Perhaps as part of his commitment to a fresh start, Dawkins will take on a new number: 34, Ryan Kelly's old number (Ojeleye will wear Dawkin's former No. 20). With such a flexible roster, Krzyzewski has said he plans to have a team with no real positions.
What can work in Dawkins' favor is that the younger players are, well, younger. Dawkins was a reserve on Duke's 2009-10 national championship team and has knowledge of the game, the league, and Coach K's system that, no matter how spectacular the younger players may be, they cannot yet possess.
He can bring significant experience to three different positions, particularly if he is more dedicated to defense than offense.
He knows what it's like to run onto the court at the Dean Dome, where the worst sections in Littlejohn are, and how to react to Florida State's pressure.
He's also been on the court in tense situations: no one else on the roster has been in a game anywhere near as taut as the title game against Butler in 2010.
What he hasn't been yet is consistent. His grief over his sister's death is his own and he is entitled to deal with that in whatever way he sees fit. It would be obscene to suggest that he get over it and just play ball. If he chose to never play again, we'd completely support that. Who can know the heart of another?
But during his time away, Dawkins said he also dealt with "a lot" of other stuff. He matured as a man.
If Dawkins' growth extends to his game as we think it will, he'll be a critical part of the team, regardless of minutes played. He'll be a unique senior who has a lot to offer young teammates from a keen understanding of the coaching staff and Duke's system to knowing what to expect when the media can seem relentless in March.
Breaking back into the rotation will take consistency and effort, and it'd be great to see him become a reliable force on the court. But his role behind-the-scenes could prove to be even more critical.
You spend weeks, even months, reporting a story like this. You ask question after question, some predictable, some not, and often, some that are uncomfortable, all of them geared toward a singular goal: Pierce through the subject's protective, public persona.
Duke basketball's media manager, Matt Plizga, told me that Andre was deciding how he would like to go about interviews and to whom he wanted to speak. In the meantime, I worked on background, preparing to do the story. Eventually, however, Andre decided to do one, and only one, interview. He decided to speak only to Duke alum Seth Davis, a writer for Sports Illustrated and men's NCAA basketball analyst for CBS.
I'm accustomed to this as a journalist. Sometimes someone else gets the story or the interview you want. Sometimes subjects or their handlers decide to go for the better-known publication with a writer they think will be sympathetic or who they recognize from television, because seeing someone on television breeds a sense of familiarity, and familiarity -- whether true or false -- inspires comfort. Sometimes people just will not talk to you, which is actually a pretty common obstacle, even for a feel-good story like Andre's. It happens.
I reacted the way any self-respecting, ambitious journalist would: I decided to do the story anyway. I told my editor, "I want to crush them," meaning I wanted to crush the other story, crush my competition -- outwork, out-report, out-write.
One of the best and most famous examples of longform journalism is a 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra, written by Gay Talese and published in Esquire. Titled "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." The 15,000-word feature became one of the most influential stories ever written, because Talese managed to write the definitive Sinatra profile without actually interviewing Sinatra himself.
Faced with the challenge, my determination took over. I found out where Andre worked out, where he played pickup hoops, what Duke's practice schedule was, even what restaurants Andre liked to eat at and on what days. I planned to go to Durham, live there for a week or two, and somehow, some way, get the story.
Maybe, I told myself, I'd even end up getting Andre. Maybe I could convince him to talk, or if I didn't, perhaps I could convince those that knew him to speak. Maybe once they met me, maybe once they saw my passion and how I wanted to honor his sister's death and his grief and Duke's commitment to him, maybe then they would decide to work with me.
That's what Talese had done. He spent weeks following Sinatra around the country and bothering people until they talked to him about the man. And by writing around Sinatra so much, Talese showed more of him than anyone thought possible. That's what journalists call such stories -- "write-arounds." They are stories, sort of like this one, written about uncooperative subjects.
You might say, "But Andre Dawkins isn't Frank Sinatra -- he's just a college kid. Shouldn't you just leave him alone?"
I thought about that, too. And then I thought about Johnny Manziel and his recent troubles. When ESPN's Wright Thompson was trying to interview Manziel earlier this year, he basically lived in a hotel room in College Station, Texas, just waiting and hoping for a chance to talk to the kid. On a recent ESPN: The Magazine podcast, Thompson talked about the experience, to which he is no stranger. He said, "I sort of don't ever believe access is going to happen until I'm there with the person. But you gotta go."
That way, if you have the opportunity, you can meet with them right away. Said Thompson, "You always wanna be there."
As an ambitious, young journalist who believes his career hinges on each and every story, I wanted to be there, too. I planned to be there. I needed to be there.
Then I never even packed a bag.
Soon after Thompson's Manziel story, Manziel quit talking to the media, and Texas A&M has worked hard to keep it that way ever since. Seth Davis, whose father, Lanny Davis, served as counsel for President Bill Clinton and helped protect Clinton from the media during a variety of investigations, tweeted, "The fact that Manziel isn't being made available is a joke. By sheltering him [Texas A&M] is only enabling him. He can't handle a few tough [questions]?"
My gut reaction was, Well, no. Probably not. He's only 20 years old.
And then I thought, Should he have to?
This is, in part, why I didn't go to Durham. Something about stalking a kid -- which is essentially what I would have done -- felt wrong. So I decided to shift the focus of the story to how other athletes have handled similar tragedies, what it's been like for them to deal with it in a public light and thereby provide some perspective on Dawkins' struggles. I decided to speak with athletes more mature and grown up, who might have perspective on the issue, and I compiled a list of more than a dozen who had lost siblings or loved ones to random tragedies such as that experienced by Andre, and contacted them via their agents and/or their teams' PR people.
Not a single one wanted to talk about it. Too private, I was told. Too personal. Too painful.
At first, I was frustrated by this. Surely, I thought, they should be able to talk about this by now. Many already had. Surely, they could appreciate the good it would do for others to learn from their experience.
But they all kept saying no. And eventually, even if one of them had said yes, the reason why so many didn't want to talk made me even more curious.
Columbia University assistant professor of psychology, Dr. George Bonanno, recently spoke about the issue to Discovery Health. "People who are not showing grief symptoms, don't do anything -- they're fine," he said. "In fact, they can be harmed by intruding on their lives. They don't need to talk about it, but I think in this culture, we have this sense that people need to talk about it... No, leave these people alone. It's very important to let [them] talk about the loss at their own pace. If they don't want to, you don't need to bring it up."
"They don't need to talk about it, but I think in this culture, we have this sense that people need to talk about it."
Other mental health professionals made similar statements, and as I read them, I stopped seeing Andre as a character in just another story. The reality of his situation, how common and human it is, overwhelmed me.
We are all just trying to find our way, as best we can, through experiences no one else can fathom. And often, we don't want to talk about that.
I became curious about something else, though: I asked Plizga, Duke basketball's media manager, repeatedly, to ask Andre to consider talking to me about, if not his personal tragedy, what it was like to be forced to deal with things like that in such inescapable public light.
Until hours before my deadline, I didn't think Andre was even going to talk about that. Then, literally minutes after I'd finished what I had thought was going to be my final draft of this story, Plizga emailed me. He said that Andre had agreed to talk about what it was like to have to talk. "Reluctantly," he added. So I came to Durham to find out how Andre feels about telling a reporter for a major magazine about things he really doesn't want to talk about.
* * *
When I knocked on Plizga's door, he greeted me with a surly, abrupt, "Yep." I told him who I was and that it was nice finally to put a face to the emails and the voice on the phone. He responded by sending me to the media room. There was little else to it.
While I'm waiting for Andre, I can't help but notice the pictures on the walls. There are several massive canvases showing various basketball players ... well, playing basketball. They are like reminders of what they're really here for. One of the pictures is of their national championship banners. The others are of guys exploding into layups or celebrating -- of them doing all they really care to do. One shows Andre himself, wearing a gray uniform and stepping into a pass around a Maryland defender.
Plizga comes in to check on me. I tell him that I'm actually glad that Andre turned me down at first, because it made me think. A lot. We talk about the uneasy, unnatural nature of relationships between journalists and their subjects, especially in the case of a guy like Andre. Plizga said, "What 22-year-old male is going to sit down and talk about his feelings and emotions and the worst things that have ever happened to him with his friends?"
"Yeah, let alone media guys like me," I said. "And then I'm gonna go write about it for a bunch of people to read."
"I have to tell people ‘No' all the time," Plizga said, "and so often, they're like, ‘What do you mean, no?' And I'm like, ‘The kid just doesn't want to talk to you. And that's OK. Let it go.'"
"The more I think about it," I said, "the more it just seems crazy to me."
"And even when the media keeps it about basketball, it's still ridiculous," Plizga said. "If they don't live up to someone else's expectations, then they're called a goat and a bust and that's not only not fair, it doesn't make any sense. We help them as much as we can, but it's still so much pressure that they have to deal with. And at the end of the day, these are just kids, man."
* * *
"He's going to face these questions all season. He'd rather just get it out of the way."
Andre was 18 when Lacey died. He's still only 22. He's a smart guy, but recent research in neuroscience tells us that his brain and his ability to process and cope with such emotions are still developing. The reason: The prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain positioned directly behind your forehead, is the last part to fully mature, and that maturation doesn't occur until at least age 25, and often not until 28 or 29. And among other things, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for processing emotions and modulating moods. Significantly, studies show that depression and anxiety peak from the ages of 18 to 25.
The irony, of course, is that this is the age when we are at our physical peak. Neuroscientist Dr. Jay Giedd from the National Institute of Mental Health, in a recent speech that he gave at a NIMH event, said that while the early 20s represent an incredibly healthy time physically, "this isn't a great time emotionally and psychologically."
Yes, Andre is capable of getting on with his life. And thank God and his therapists for that, because it seems like he has. The fact that he's playing basketball again is no small thing.
But asking him to talk about it with me for the sole purpose of writing about it for people to read, just so I can earn a living and so people can have just one more distraction?
When I spoke with Kelly earlier, he said he thought Andre would give at least one big interview, but he'd be surprised if he gave much more. When I asked why, Kelly said, "Honestly? He probably doesn't even want to give that one, but he feels like he has to. Otherwise, you know how it goes with the media. He's going to face these questions all season. He'd rather just get it out of the way."
That last sentence hit me like a grenade. He'd rather just get it out of the way. Talk about your most private emotions, spill your guts, to "just get it out of the way." Isn't that a hell of a way to think about dealing with the worst thing that has ever happened to you?
Could that really be the way he feels about it?
Should athletes -- should any celebrity, really -- be made to feel that way? Especially college athletes? Why can't they just play their sports and that be that? Why has all of this other stuff become their responsibility?
I think it might be our fault. All of us.
Sports is big business, and college basketball is big business, and because of that, everything else about college basketball players is big business, too. The goal is to get readers and clicks and views and fans and circulation and rating points and dollars, just so people can be entertained for a few minutes.
Our brains all too often confuse real people who happen to be public figures for fictional characters. It's not that we mean to, or plan to. We just have an incredible innate ability to form narratives out of everything, because recognizing patterns is hardwired into our brains as a survival mechanism. Sports are entertaining and addictive not just because of the skill, but also because they provide us with an immediate, easy way to craft those narratives around people we see all the time.
It's entirely common for me and other journalists and our editors to refer to the people we're writing about as "characters." It's practically unavoidable, because in order to keep readers entertained, we have to make our subjects' stories as compelling as a movie, so we cast them a story based off their lives and give them the starring role.
And when you look at Andre's journey, he's as compelling a character as it gets. That's exactly how people have treated him: Like a character in a narrative.
But at what cost?
They love him again now, but the way Duke's fans treated Andre when he was struggling on the court his junior year was a stunning testimony to the astounding ease with which we take license to treat athletes the same way we treat characters in movies and on TV. We forget that they aren't fictional creations for our entertainment, but real, very real.
The worst part is that they themselves can forget, too. Remember, Andre had to be convinced to take a break and heal. He had to be reminded that he didn't have to be a hero.
* * *
Andre walks in wearing a long-sleeve white Duke dri-fit shirt, blue and white shorts with black piping, and he's barefoot. It's the first time I've seen him in person. For some reason, I expected him to seem bigger. He looks young, slight. A young man, still growing.
I take some of our conversation off the record, because I want to talk to Andre as just one young guy to another. We laughed more during that than during our on-the-record conversation.
how can you have an honest conversation with someone you ultimately just want something from?
Our on-the-record conversation doesn't last long. It's not deep. He's remarkably soft-spoken and says all the right things and his tone sounds sincere. He speaks carefully. He takes his time with his answers. He has thought about all of this, and maybe he even believes it. Or maybe he's just saying lines, words others have told him to say, becoming the character he knows people expect. His tone suggests both. But the truth is that I have absolutely no idea, because how can you have an honest conversation with someone you ultimately just want something from -- specially when that someone knows that, and didn't even want to have this conversation in the first place?
We talk about how much more magnified life is as a Duke basketball player, and how you just get used to it. He says it's strange and weird, but it also just comes with the territory. He says that, yeah, it seems really weird and unnatural to sit down with Sports Illustrated, knowing their reporter is going to be writing about him for millions of people to read, and talk about the worst things that have happened in his life.
He says if it helps at least one person, then it's worth it. That's the logic, that's the excuse we all use for doing this, that somehow, the end justifies the means.
But is that just another narrative, another manufactured part of this whole unnatural process, another excuse?
Plizga told me that I'd be able to read the story, about all that Andre has gone through, the week of Nov. 11, when Sports Illustrated's College Basketball Preview issue is released. It's supposed to include the lengthy profile of Andre written by Seth Davis. They spent a couple of days together and talked for several hours.
As for us, we talk for about 20 minutes. Plizga stays with us almost the entire time. Then it's over.
But this story needs an ending, like the one in Sports Illustrated will have, like every story must have -- something that wraps it up and resonates and shows the reader "what it all means."
I count at least five ways this story could go. I'm not sure which, if any of them, is true to who Andre really is, but I have to decide. If this had been about being truthful to how Andre really is, chances are I may not have met with him at all, but it's too late for that.
But this is what we do. Getting The Story is about getting the facts, and getting the truth, but ultimately it's about getting The Narrative. The Narrative requires an end, and I can't help but wonder about how intrusive and even perhaps false that is.
I could end the story in a way that wraps it up neatly, and shows the resilience of the young players and sets him up for a terrific season, like this:
Near the end of the interview, I say that Kelly also said that when he saw Andre playing this summer, he seemed lighter and happier.
"Yeah, definitely," Andre says.
"Well yeah, now that Ryan's gone," Plizga says, suddenly in a joking mood. "Little did everybody know that he was the real problem all along."
Andre laughs at this, too.
Moments later, I'm headed toward the exit and Andre's on his way to the training room. I stop and turn to Andre and say, "Hey, just as a basketball fan, I'm glad you're back."
He grins and nods. "Me too."
That works, but the thing is, that's not a totally honest scene. How we parted wasn't quite so pleasant and smooth, but rather a bit tense and awkward.
After the Ryan Kelly jokes, almost like it was a signal, Plizga told Andre, "The trainer's ready for you." He looked at me and said, "Andre needs to get treatment."
Andre stood, checking something on his iPhone. At first, I thought I was supposed to go with them to the training room. But then Andre stuck out his hand and said, "It was nice to meet you."
I thanked him for his time, then he walked toward the training room and Plizga pointed me toward the exit. Then I spoke to Andre.
I also could have ended it this way:
While driving home, I think about The Story and how I'm conflicted and how I'm going to have to make myself a character in a story exploring the morality of turning real people into characters. I think about the way this story is written, avoiding the usual act structures and plot points and narrative arc templates that one typically uses to frame a story like Andre's, and how even that is, in some ways, inauthentic.
I also think about how some people are probably going to hate the way I wrote this story. They'll say that I only wrote it this way because I couldn't "get the story."
That makes me think all over again about what that means and what The Story really is. It makes me wonder how authentic any story about Andre could be, what details another writer would choose to use and choose not to, and how those choices determine what type of character Andre will be.
Then I think about how even though I'm trying to write something authentic and meaningful, I'm still using Andre for my purposes, not his. He's still just a foggy reflection, a character that I'm using to explore bigger themes. I've tried to respect him as a fellow human being, but I wonder if it's ever possible. I don't really know what good this is going to do him. He'd probably be better off not having to worry about what anyone is going to write about him.
I think about something my wife said when I told her I was struggling with earlier drafts: "Death sucks. It's hard. It's consuming. I'm just glad he's able to play again. What else could we ask of him?"
I think that maybe I should just can the whole stupid thing. Maybe that's the most honest thing to do.
Because what I'm thinking about the most, what I've been thinking about for weeks, is a conversation I had with my dad about 20 years ago.
I was about 6 or 7 and I asked him if it was wrong to hate a character in a book I read. He laughed and said no, just make sure you don't think it's OK to think about people in real life the way you think about fake people.
I asked him why. What's the difference?
He said, You can't hurt fake people, but you can hurt real people.
I then asked, What if you'll get hurt unless you do something that'll maybe hurt someone else?
I remember this conversation so well, because of his response, which I still struggle with. I can't stop connecting it to my thoughts about how we treat athletes and celebrities like fictional characters instead of actual people. It also applies in a very specific way to what I do as a journalist. If I don't write the stories, I'm no longer a journalist. But I worry that writing those stories, even when they're good stories, comes at the cost of those I'm writing about.
My dad said, What do you think? Does that mean you still should?
I almost made that The Story's Ending. It's purposeful, it resonates with the issues previously alluded to in the story, and in a way that drives home an even bigger theme the story explores.
But I don't. I can't. Because in the end, I can't shake the feeling that the story shouldn't end with me, because it shouldn't be about me. It's still Andre's story, not mine. It ends with him. That's why I chose to leave out another part of the end of our interview: To save it for now.
Just before the Ryan Kelly jokes, just before we parted ways, sitting at the black table where the guys usually sit for press conferences and across from the canvas of Andre playing basketball hanging on the wall, Andre said that he'd prefer to just keep his public life as a basketball player about basketball, and his personal life personal.
I asked him, "Why?" Why give an interview about this when he didn't want to?
He looked at me. He looked tired.
He cracked a half-smile.
He said, "I just wanted to get it out of the way."
About the Author
Brandon Sneed is a writer based in eastern North Carolina. He's the author of an untitled narrative business book with Hwy 55 founder Kenny Moore (coming winter 2014) and the forthcoming novel "The Making Island" (spring 2015). He also wrote the book "The Edge of Legend" and has written for Men's Journal, GQ, ESPN The Magazine, Outside, SLAM, and more. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and does Twitter as @brandonsneed.