Sam Dekker, Wisconsin's native son, has the Badgers on the cusp of a national title. All that stands in the way? Undefeated Kentucky.
INDIANAPOLIS—The best moped route from Zak Showalter’s apartment to Wisconsin basketball practices passes by Vintage Spirits and Grill, an eatery at the intersection of Gorham and Frances Streets. On warmer days, the spot offers outdoor seating with a clear view of passing traffic. When Showalter and his roommate pull their rides up to red lights there, the ritual never changes: Their scooters idle, but the diners do not.
When they recognize who they are seeing, they begin tapping the knees or thighs of their tablemates before pointing at the road.
“They point at us: ‘Look, look, look,’” Showalter said, “‘It’s Sam Dekker.’”
Dekker is a son of Sheboygan, Badger State born and bred, a big cheese in America’s Dairyland. There are more nationally luminous personalities on the Wisconsin roster at Final Four this weekend, to be sure. Within state lines, however, nothing surpasses the celebrity of the 6’9” junior in the midst of a breakout NCAA tournament. Recognition has followed Dekker since he was a high school sophomore, and his game-winning shot that won a state championship for Sheboygan Lutheran in 2012 is Wisconsin legend. He was homegrown five-star prospect who actually stayed home. He exchanges text messages regularly with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which to friends and neighbors means he confers with a god. And now he is playing as well as ever, driving the Badgers toward a national title that eluded them last April.
Anywhere else, Dekker might be considered a secondary star. In Wisconsin, the natives are all members of Sam’s club. If a second straight Final Four trip results in the school’s second-ever championship, the story of Dekker’s ascendance through expectations will filter through supper clubs and lake cottages for years.
“I’m sure at some point there will be a sign put up where it will be the city limits of Sheboygan, and it’ll say ‘The Home of Sam Dekker,’” said Nick Verhagen, the Sheboygan Lutheran High coach who was an assistant when Dekker was a prep star there. “That’s not there right now. But I have no doubt it will be.”
Wisconsin faces unbeaten Kentucky on Saturday in one of the most anticipated national semifinal games in recent history. Conveniently for the Badgers, Dekker enters the weekend playing at a level he never has before. His regular-season output (13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) was laudable enough to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors, even as an ankle injury hampered him through much of November and early December. His breakout play in the postseason is enough to earn a pass to the NBA draft green room. Dekker’s 87 points in four tournament games trails only teammate Frank Kaminsky’s total of 91, and the junior set back-to-back career-highs for scoring with 23 and 27 points in the West region semifinal and final, respectively. He’s shooting 48.1% from three-point range and an absurd 73.1% from inside the arc.
“The basket is looking big to him,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
The moment, evidently, is not.
“There were just a lot of opportunities for me,” Dekker said, in a quiet moment before the Final Four commotion began. “And I was getting the ball in spots that I was able to attack from. Since mid-January, I think I’ve been playing high-level basketball, back to myself, and these last two weeks here in the tournament, I’ve been able to play at an even higher level. It’s big for my confidence and it’s big for my team.”
In some ways, Dekker has been on this path since, well, birth. He literally had a basketball in his crib. He was hardened by regularly playing tackle football games in his yard with friends of his brother John, who was six years older. Dekker was the scrawny but feisty guy who lost a couple teeth along the way and occasionally ran inside crying but always returned for more. “We like to think we got him ready a little bit,” John Dekker said.
Not much could prepare Dekker or his family for the swell of attention that followed his commitment to Wisconsin between his sophomore and junior years at Sheboygan Lutheran. Before that, keeping prime talent in-state had been a 50-50 proposition. From 2005 to 2012, the year that Dekker graduated, the state produced 10 top-100 recruits in the Rivals.com rankings. Three signed with Marquette. Jerry Smith (Louisville), Korie Lucious (Michigan State) and J.P. Tokoto (North Carolina) left. And three signed with the Badgers, most notably Dekker, a five-star prospect and the No. 13 player in his class.
He was the best of all of them, and he was staying home, which meant everyone knew where to find him.
By the time Dekker drained the title-clinching three-pointer for Sheboygan Lutheran as a senior, his name was soldered into the minds of Wisconsinites. Long lines of expectant, autograph-seeking kids formed after games. Homemade replicas of his Sheboygan Lutheran jersey popped up in the stands. Once Dekker arrived at Wisconsin, special-ordered No. 15 jerseys began appearing on residents of Sheboygan and beyond.
“When you’re tattooed with being the best basketball player in the state, and also playing for your home university, that just attracts celebrity status,” Verhagen said. “It can’t help but do that. People just adored him. But the reason people adored him wasn’t just because of his hoops. The reason they adored him was because of his personality and his willingness to be one that fits in with the crowd, although he’s the best basketball player to ever come out of this area and potentially this state.”
It was impossible to hide in Sheboygan, a city of about 50,000 hugging the Lake Michigan coast about an hour north of Milwaukee. It is the sort of place where the Dekkers can return home at 2:30 a.m. from their trip to Los Angeles for the West region action last weekend and find balloons tied to their porch and a cooler full of casseroles at their doorstep. (This being Wisconsin, the casseroles were not the only contribution. “Well, there were a bunch of beverages,” Todd Dekker, Sam’s father, conceded.) There are places where Dekker and his family can find some peace now, like Stefano’s or the Sheboygan Yacht Club, where the patrons generally give their local hero a wide berth.
But usually on visits to Sheboygan, Dekker prefers to spend much of his time at his house, lest he tempt the masses. “Everywhere he goes, people are grabbing at him, asking for autographs or pictures,” Todd Dekker said. “It doesn’t matter where we are.”
For the most part, this is not a burden. “I know what kids are feeling when they talk to us,” Dekker said, conscious that he was once one of those awestruck kids. He also finds it humorous that his is a household name, but perhaps not an easily written one. “I feel bad for the kids that tried to make signs for me and they spelled my last name wrong,” Dekker said. “Their parents obviously didn't push 'em in the right direction there.”
And sometimes, it gets weird. During a brunch in Madison with his brother, an old man approached the table, asking to measure his hand against Dekker’s. When Dekker and Showalter walk the Memorial Union Terrace on Campus, another ritual unfolds: Passers-by catch a glimpse of Dekker and maybe roommate and fellow Wisconsin native Josh Gasser. The onlookers then turn and pull their phones from their pockets to open up their camera or Snapchat apps and click away. “That’s the move,” Showalter said. “I’ve seen my fair share of people caught in the moment and not even realize it.”
If it is a bit claustrophobic, it is nothing compared to the Elkhart Lake Fourth of July parade two years ago. The village about 20 miles west of Sheboygan hosts a popular parade on Independence Day—the Wisconsin band plays in it—and the Dekkers love going. So they decided to visit one recent summer, only to find that Sam was more of an attraction than the floats or flags. “It got a little bit out of hand,” Todd Dekker said. People swarmed Sam to the point that he retreated into a nearby store for refuge, only to have fans follow him into the store. Father and son managed to hustle to their car and drive off, missing the rest of the event. Dekker grew accustomed to scenes like this by recognizing he had no other choice.
“You have to grow up quick because you’re in the spotlight,” Dekker said. “You go places, and people know who you are when you’re a junior in high school. It’s just like, man, I can’t be doing what my friends are doing all the time. I have to check myself whenever I’m doing stuff. Because no matter what you’re doing, it can be spun into a bad story, and all of a sudden stuff’s online. And then knowing high-profile people at a young age, it turns into part of every day life. Being sought after here, people look up to you, and you take over that role.”
Having an ideal role model doesn’t hurt, either.
At the 2011 Wisconsin Sports Awards following his junior year at Sheboygan Lutheran, Dekker won boys’ high school basketball player of the year honors. This required him to deliver a speech to the audience at the Harley Davidson Museum, and he was asked if he’d like to thank anyone in particular. Unprepared and stammering, Dekker thanked his father, and then his mother, Carol, especially for all the meals she had made him along the way.
Later that night, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the overall player of the year award for the state, comprising college and professional athletes. This, too, required a speech.
“First,” Rodgers began, “I’d like to thank my Mom for the meals.”
“I remember tweeting, ‘Oh my God, Aaron Rodgers just made fun of me!” Dekker recalled.
That was the night Dekker first met Rodgers and Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, a heady moment for any diehard Wisconsin sports fan. After the event, Rodgers approached Dekker and told him the joke was all in fun, not that any apology was necessary. The two struck up a rapport, one that existed long before Rodgers visited the locker room after the Badgers’ Elite Eight win over Arizona in 2014, or was seen on television cheering the team along in Los Angeles last weekend.
During one family dinner, Dekker’s phone buzzed and he silenced it, knowing his parents’ disdain for telecommunication at the table.
John, however, asked who called.
“That was Aaron,” Sam replied. “I can get back to him later.”
“It is cool—it’s cool to have friends,” Dekker said. “I don’t see it as something that’s special or different. It’s just a friend of mine. Some people may think it’s unique and a fun thing to have. But he’s just an ordinary guy.”
An ordinary guy perhaps—“To everyone else, Aaron Rodgers is the guy,” John Dekker said—but also a valuable one. As a resource for managing attention and hype, especially whatever variety Wisconsin produces, no one could offer more than a two-time NFL MVP for the team whose fortunes swing the state’s mood. Rodgers, who could not be reached for this story, can fill a void for Dekker that even his family—despite their best efforts—cannot. “Aaron deals with it on a whole different level,” John Dekker said. “I wish I could give Sam advice on how to handle this stuff, but if you’re not an elite athlete—coming from Aaron, it’s a little different. He’s walked the walk and now he can talk the talk with it.”
Dekker arrived as the most decorated, celebrated recruit of Ryan’s tenure. He was one of only four true freshmen to start for Ryan at Wisconsin. He also averaged 9.6 points that first year, which was approximately 30 to 40 fewer than sectors of overheated Wisconsin fans anticipated. But it was only last year, in fact, that Dekker had his final growth spurt, adding two inches to his frame and filling out to 230 pounds and needing to shop for some new shirts. His basketball acumen sprouted, too; Ryan guessed that Dekker’s notations on teaching clips—not blocking out, not rotating defensively, not running the floor—dropped “probably 80%” between last year and this one.”
As he progressed, Dekker tried to ignore the murmurs about how people hoped the process would have been quicker. “You hear it, sometimes you think of it, sometimes it makes you mad,” Dekker said. “At the end of the day, I can put my head on the pillow and realize I worked as hard as I could. I did stuff to get myself better. The people that talk and the people that are your biggest critics aren’t in the gym with you early in the morning or late at night.”
So he keeps his circle tight. He’ll be fine if he does that, he says. He’ll be fine as long as he only listens to his older brother, a former Division III player; or his father, who was his head coach at Sheboygan Lutheran before he retired two years ago; or even the quarterback at the other end of the line.
What infuriates Sam Dekker is that someone took his chair.
After last year’s Final Four appearance, Wisconsin players were given the chairs from their bench at AT&T Stadium. Dekker is not one for contrived inspirational tactics. But he exchanged his Kohl Center locker room seat for the one from the national semifinals last April, as a reminder of his purpose for this season. If he was tired, if he wasn’t sure he wanted to lift weights, he only had to look at the chair.
And then the Badgers got new chairs for the locker room. And now Sam Dekker’s Final Four chair is gone.
“Someone who has my Final Four chair,” he said this week, “send it to me.”
He hasn’t had to work hard to find alternate means of motivation. He came to Madison not to resurrect or rebuild anything, because this program didn’t need it. Dekker came instead to add to a program’s history, to lift it beyond what anyone thought possible.
So now it is another April and Dekker arrives at a second straight Final Four. A championship, the school’s first in 74 years, is two wins away.
It’s a common euphemism for players: They want to bring home a title. For Dekker, it's a little different because it is his home. “You feel more pride when you’ve watched a team since you were little and you can take that program to the next level,” said Showalter, a Germantown, Wis., native. “It’s different if you go to a different school, and people don’t know you until you got onto campus. Then they know you for three or four years and you’re an afterthought. People will remember Sam for years down the road.”
Dekker pledged to play for Wisconsin and his life changed in ways he couldn’t fathom. Yet for all the autograph demands, photograph requests or furtive entrances into a cordoned-off room at The Great Dane—set up just so he and his family and other Badgers players can eat in private—Dekker has no regrets.
The expectations carry a lot of weight, Dekker admits. But in helping to bring Wisconsin this far again he has come to believe he shed that load after all. He has done something big during his time at his home away from home. “There’s more to do, though,” he says.