This story originally appeared in the Dec. 14, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The coach had a story to share. This was August 2011, on the eve of Ed Cooley’s first season as coach at Providence and Kris Dunn’s senior season at New London (Conn.) High, and this meeting, in Cooley’s new first-floor office, was the pair’s first sit-down conversation. They had first seen each other more than a year earlier, when Cooley was an ambitious coach at Fairfield scouting a scrawny reserve AAU point guard whom teammates called Peanut. Most coaches haunting those Connecticut Basketball Club games were there to court Andre Drummond, Dunn’s 6'11" teammate and current Pistons MVP candidate, but Cooley was taken by the littler man’s coltish motor and telepathic anticipation. After being announced as the Friars’ new coach the following March, he called Dunn to tell him, “You’re the only dude in America I want.”
Now Cooley told Dunn about himself. About his childhood in South Providence. How he lacked a father figure for years until meeting his biological dad when he was a boy. About the empty refrigerator, the corn flakes with water as a substitute for milk, the desperate measures his siblings undertook to scrounge up money. He told him about how sports had saved his life and how the hunger that ruled his early years was still the engine powering him today.
If he got here, thought Dunn, I wonder what he can do with me.
In the four years since that meeting, Cooley has helped Dunn grow into the Big East’s reigning overall and defensive player of the year, a two-way terror whose stat-sheet-stuffing excellence has helped the Friars surge to a Top 25 ranking. At week’s end the 6'4" Dunn ranks second nationally in steal percentage (6.3%), second in the Big East in scoring (18.2 points) and first in assists (7.3) and steals (3.6). Already this season he has told a Friars coach he was due for a triple double and then followed through the next night (vs. Hartford on Dec. 2), flirted with a quadruple double (22 points, 10 boards, nine assists and seven steals against NJIT on Nov. 23) and hit the opening month’s most Vine-worthy game-winner, a stop-on-a-dime turnaround jumper from the right block in the Friars’ upset of then No. 11 Arizona on Nov. 27. After that game, in which Dunn scored or assisted on Providence’s final 15 points, Wildcats coach Sean Miller declared the point guard to be “out-of-this-world good.” Two days later Chris Paul sat courtside at the Honda Center for the Friars’ loss to No. 3 Michigan State, then sought Dunn out after the game to laud his defense and joke that he dreaded Dunn’s arrival in the NBA.
“Spider-Man” is how Cooley describes his star, pressing two fingers to each palm to mimic superhero web spraying. “He’s everywhere.” That includes every early-season national player of the year short list. It’s a long way from when he was a backup called Peanut and, as with his coach, even further from the darkness that preceded.
Mom was gone again. By the summer of 2003, Pia James’s two sons, John and Kris, had grown used to her absences, a string of jail stints, usually no more than a few days at a time, for offenses ranging from credit-card fraud to driving while intoxicated. They largely cared for themselves in the family’s two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Va., with John, 13, waking and getting Kris, 9, ready for school and heating Hot Pockets for dinner. But when one absence dragged on longer than the previous ones, John realized that this time might be different. He told Kris that the two of them were now truly on their own.
For five months the brothers told no one, fearing possible separation in foster care. They stopped going to school, ignoring all knocks on the door. They sold their Air Jordan sneakers and Sean John jeans at a discount. John used trick dice to win games of craps and 7–11 in a nearby park. Kris played older boys one-on-one at a basketball court for $20, even when he had no money of his own to back up the bet. At night he fought teenage drug dealers and shook them down for cash.
“It was literally hell,” Kris says of this period. “There probably wasn’t one day we smiled.”
Some 350 miles northeast the boys’ father wondered where they were. Eight years earlier John Seldon had come home from work to find James had packed up and left their New London home with John and Kris in tow. In the years following her disappearance, he tried in vain to locate his family. Subpoenas were sent to James’s mother’s house, but lawyers were unable to find her. Then, in the summer of 2004, Seldon got a call from James. She told Seldon she would send their elder son to Connecticut for five days but would not disclose where he was living, going so far as to have the boy return via a flight to North Carolina.
About a month after his son left, Seldon sifted through his phone bill, finding a series of calls to Virginia numbers. He began dialing, asking strangers if they knew where his sons were. Finally a young girl told him where he could find them, and that James was incarcerated.
Seldon visited a Connecticut court to confirm that he could assume custody of his sons. He called a friend at 2:30 a.m. to join him in his 2003 Chevy Venture for a lead-footed, nonstop, six-hour drive down I-95. When they got to the Alexandria address the girl had given them—Dunn’s aunt’s house—a rail-thin boy answered the door wielding a hot-sauce bottle, barking at the two men to back up. John walked into the room to calm his brother. “That’s our dad,” he said. Kris set aside the bottle and began to cry.
In Connecticut, Kris and John were reluctant to warm to their new family—their father; his wife, Audra; his 10-year-old stepson, Rashad; and the Seldons’ two infant daughters. Kris bristled at the house rules, staying out past dark and steering the lawn mower over rocks in defiance of assigned yard work. At school he fought classmates for their shoes or PlayStation Portables, dealing his spoils for cash that he hid in books or behind posters in his bedroom. “If you need something,” Seldon tried to tell his son, “just ask me.” That Christmas, when Kris unwrapped an iPod along with a blue Mongoose bike and a pair of Jordans, he thought his name had been written on the gifts by mistake.
Soon Kris and his father found common ground on the gridiron. Seldon had been a linebacker at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, and Kris proved a prodigious youth-league running back and corner. As an eighth-grader he tagged along to workouts at New London High, where Seldon served as an assistant coach, and followed his father’s guidance in the school’s weight room five days a week. As Kris became more interested in basketball, Seldon researched Michael Jordan’s workouts and took Kris to scrimmage college kids at Central Connecticut. Seldon would follow his overnight shift as a poker room supervisor at Mohegan Sun by driving Kris to AAU tournaments, sneaking naps in the parking lot. When he was in the stands, he would lock eyes with Kris and flap his arms like wings, encouraging his son to fly around the court. Don’t let that motor stop, he would say. Keep fighting. The hardened boy began to soften. “Once he got that attention,” says Seldon, “he loved it.”
At New London High, Dunn started at point guard as a freshman, then led the Whalers to a state title game as a sophomore. An undefeated junior season followed, with Dunn winning the first of two consecutive New Haven Register state MVP awards. He earned a new nickname; Peanut was now Stretch, for how his defensive abilities reminded coaches of a character from the Fantastic Four. His McDonald’s All-American Game selection was the first for a Connecticut player in nearly three decades, when Charles Smith was named to the team. “He was rock-star status,” says New London coach Craig Parker. After one road game Parker had to usher his team out a back entrance to avoid the mob seeking Dunn’s autograph.
After a growth spurt, from about 5'7" to 6 feet, and a breakout performance during an AAU tournament in Little Rock in the summer after 11th grade, a court of college coaches began gathering as well. Suddenly Kentucky, Louisville, Florida and UConn all entered the picture, keeping the Seldons’ phone ringing past midnight. Dunn narrowed his choices to the Huskies—in-state royalty and the defending national champs—and the Friars. But when he sat down with Cooley, who’d haunted his games for well more than a year, his mind was made up. “I needed somebody who’s gonna keep me fighting in life and never forget my pain and struggle,” Dunn says. “I knew he was gonna be that person.”
Even for Providence’s most celebrated recruit since God Shammgod in the mid-’90s, Dunn’s path to stardom hasn’t been easy. His freshman season was slowed by recovery from off-season surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder; as a sophomore he played just four games before suffering a second injury to the same shoulder. A week later his mother, with whom he was hoping to reconnect, died in Virginia. Dunn spent the next month at home in New London regrouping. “He didn’t come out of his room for almost three days,” says Seldon. “I know he was in there crying. I know he was hurt. But what can you say to him?”
Dunn returned to the bench to cheer the Friars as they made a surprise run to the 2014 Big East tournament title, then spent last season as the type of game-changer Cooley had envisioned. As a long, do-it-all guard adept at handling the pick-and-roll on both ends, he was considered a likely NBA first-round draft pick if he declared. But Dunn saw holes in his game—a propensity for turnovers (he is down from 4.2 per game last season to 3.0) and a jumper that needed fine-tuning. He was in no rush to turn basketball into a job. “Guys ain’t [in the NBA] to laugh,” says Dunn, whom one team executive compares to the Magic’s Elfrid Payton. “Guys are there to win games and provide for their families.”
This too remains Dunn’s dream—to take care not only of the father and stepmother who swooped in to provide for him, but also the brother who did the same. (John, who is an accountant in Montville, Conn., is the father of a one-year-old daughter, Aubree.) Dunn has a chance to fulfill three predictions Cooley made during that meeting four years ago: that he would become an All-America, the national player of the year and an NBA lottery pick.
More immediately on Dunn’s agenda is a return to the NCAA tournament, where the sixth-seeded Friars were upset by Dayton in Dunn’s first March Madness game last spring. Even with a star as transcendent as Dunn and an 9–1 start, this is no guarantee. Dunn recalls the pain of his Virginia childhood every time he takes the court, and when he visualizes the course of this season, he sees opponents as still more obstacles. “You’re in my way right now,” says Dunn. “You’re in my path.” It has been a long one already, the lows never forgotten, more highs still to come.