ROSEMONT, Ill. – One of the faces of college basketball is a scowl, probably intended to be a smile, brow scrunched and teeth clenched. The rest of Doug McDermott is sand-colored hair and bare arms and bare chest splashed by the sun. He’s a bit blurry, too. In fact, he’s a little kid, playing in the backyard, almost certainly in constant motion except in this moment his Dad decided to share with the universe almost two decades later.
A player might complain about this to his coach, except this player's coach is also his Dad, laying on a bed and watching film the night before his son’s 22nd birthday. It then occurs to Greg McDermott to have a little fun with his kid. Thus begins the Twitter dump of #happybirthdaydoug pictures, from birth all the way up to now. What moves Dad is ultimately what moves everyone else as it relates to Creighton’s star and maybe the nation’s best player: An appreciation of what’s before him, because it may never be seen again.
“I realized this is the last birthday I’m going to be with Doug,” Greg McDermott told SI.com after an 81-62 win over DePaul on Tuesday night. “I’ve been with him for 22 straight. That’s pretty rare for a parent to be able to experience 22 of your kid’s birthdays, where he’s with you, every time the calendar flipped.”
One of the faces of college basketball was often a wince or a grimace, actually, on Tuesday night at Allstate Arena. As usual, Doug McDermott made an emphatic cut headed for a scoring position. This time his left shoulder collided with the chest of a DePaul defender with a bit of a pop. After he beat the halftime buzzer with a layup, he immediately grabbed his left shoulder and spat out an expletive. He basically couldn’t raise his left arm above his head for the rest of the evening.
And with one arm, McDermott scored a team-high 19 points, relegated the low block after intermission, hitting exactly one jump shot all night. He still slapped hands with fans lining the tunnel to greet him after halftime. He still did the postgame radio show, he still made multiple stops to greet multiple well-wishers lingering outside the locker room. He now had 2,581 points over three-plus seasons at Creighton. The only thing that was new was the ache in that shoulder and the forthcoming MRI that likely would reveal a sprain. All other systems were go. It’s precisely what McDermott has stuck around for when just about no one else would.
“I’m having fun, man,” Doug McDermott told SI.com outside the locker room Tuesday night. “It’s college. You don’t get these opportunities (often) to enjoy a senior year of college. The money doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me. I play for the love of the game, not for the money. My parents are doing well, it’s not like I needed the money by any means. I just really enjoy Creighton. It’s been a great four years. We have a special thing going here, and I don’t want to leave it.”
For a player in constant motion, he has been resolutely in place. A top-level talent charting that course is basically an endangered species. “It’s been a while since there’s been one like him, and it probably will be a while before there’s another one,” Greg McDermott said. “It’s really an incredible story.”
Not that many braved the Antarctic temperatures Tuesday to experience the minor disappointment, but the shoulder issues and a DePaul game plan aimed at clogging the space in front of McDermott actually preempted much of the pristine footwork and incisive cuts that are the most enjoyable parts of the show. That show was relegated to the sonata of pregame work with sideline chairs staggered near midcourt for McDermott and his teammates.
He dribbled through the chairs to a floater. Then he flared to the corner for a three-pointer. Then he came around to the top of the key for a bomb, then it was a jab step and a flare to the wing for a jumper, then into the post for a spin and a lefty hook shot banked home. McDermott seemed to cut harder in warmups than some players do during games.
“There’s few guys, if any, in college basketball who compete and play as hard as he does at both ends of the floor,” said Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, who saw McDermott drop 27 points on his team in a Creighton victory on Nov. 28. “In a lot of ways, it really manifests itself on offense, the way he cuts and posts and moves. There’s a relentless edge to his game, there’s a toughness to his game that allows him to really be hard to deal with.”
Even before McDermott's injury, DePaul did a fine job making it difficult the other way around – “He’s the best college basketball player in the country and we didn’t want him to get 35 points,” Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell said after the game – and that would inspire one of the few instances of basketball quietude for McDermott. A video coordinator would provide him a TV copy of the game by the time Creighton boarded for a flight home, and McDermott would throw it on his laptop during the ride to dissect whatever bothered him about his performance, a player churning out 24.3 points per game looking to discover the smallest sliver of room for improvement.
“I like to check to see how hard I’m playing,” McDermott said. “I got off to a slow start, I wasn’t playing my hardest. Just different cuts, different reads I could have made. Maybe forced a couple bad shots. Just trying to see what I missed.
“For me, it’s a lot of on to the next one. I really take a lot of time preparing for the opponent, the guy who I’m guarding, the guy who’s guarding me, his tendencies. I really love doing that. If you know what they’re going to do before you even touch the ball, you’re at a huge advantage.”
Part of what kept him sated was this predictable appetite for deconstruction. He was a first-team All-American as a junior. But he guessed the first season in the Big East would feature longer, quicker players than he faced in the Missouri Valley Conference. So McDermott dug in on ball-handling and shot fakes improving the speed of his shot release, an almost infinitesimal tweak but one he believed carried immeasurable repercussions.
“You can’t dip the ball when you catch it,” Doug McDermott said. “Right when you catch it you have to go straight into your shot. I still have to get better. It’s something I work on every single day.”
And all of it is nearly over, maybe never to be seen again. Players will stay four years, and players will be productive for four years, but players just won’t stay for four years and be this productive, piling up points by the barge-load. Extenuating circumstances won’t align so exquisitely for many others either – Greg McDermott remembers his son telling someone that no one ever regretted spending more time with their parents when they were younger – and it makes this feel like nostalgia before the end.
That would be Doug in the back. I think he made that face at the officials a few times Tuesday! #happybirthdaydoug pic.twitter.com/1FGziiMoFs
— Coach McDermott (@cucoachmac) January 3, 2014
Even when the nostalgia spills out of old photo albums. “I liked it,” Doug McDermott said of his Dad’s surprise Twitter montage. “He didn’t take too many embarrassing photos. He could have made it a lot worse. That was really cool of him. My brother was giving him a hard time, because on his birthday, he only got one photo. It’s our last year together, being around him every day, so we have to make the most of it.”
He’s done so like few will. In the year of those who come and go, the best player in the land may be the guy who stayed. Enjoy it while it lasts.