BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – A lot of basketball folks were scratching their heads when skinny little Al Durham from Georgia committed to Indiana as a junior back in 2015. There were plenty of basketball experts who questioned whether he was a Big Ten player or not.
Fast forward more than five years later, and it's safe to say that he has exceeded expectations at Indiana. Through a coaching change, four straight years of double-digit losses and unfulfilled goals, it's still safe to say that Al Durham has had a nice career for the Hoosiers.
He's no all-Big Ten player and he won't be on an NBA roster anytime soon, but here's one thing that's true about Al Durham that no one can take away from him – he showed up every day and worked his tail off to get better.
And that means a lot to Indiana coach Archie Miller, who's been with Durham from the beginning.
"You go through a lot of ups and downs as players, and Al is a special player to me. He's as loyal as it gets,'' Miller said after Saturday's 73-57 loss to Michigan. "He's as coachable as it gets, and he's as hard of a working guy as you'll ever be around.
"To me, right now he's finishing the way that you like seniors to finish, by rallying our troops and staying positive, but at the end of the day, he's playing so hard. He's working very, very hard right now for us, and it's up to us to figure out how we can deliver a better performance on his Senior Day, but it's also up to us to figure out how we can keep playing with him.''
When asked about Durham on Friday, Indiana star Trayce Jackson-Davis said he appreciates all of Durham's leadership skills.
"Aljami brings hard and his dedication very day,'' Jackson-Davis said, "He's a real leader, he's very vocal, especially with the young guys. He put his blood, sweat and tears into this program and he's reaped the benefits this last few games and he's playing at a high level.
"He always tries to bring us together, and he's going to be missed throughout Hoosier Nation.''
There's plenty of truth to that.
Pushing his teammates every day
There's been almost nothing good about this COVID-infused college basketball season, played without fans, without external energy, with stops and starts in many programs.
The only plus when covering these games in person is that you can hear everything that's going on at the bench in front of you, and you can see the expressions on their faces. Want to know the kind of leader Al Durham is? The final few minutes of Indiana's win at Northwestern on Feb. 10 tells the whole story.
Indiana was in a funk early, falling behind by double digits. They scratched their way back, but had fallen behind again with time running out. During a timeout, Durham was right in the faces of his teammates, imploring them to "stay in it,'' that "every possession matters'' and "make a play.''
Down seven with less than two minutes to go, the Hoosiers did exactly that, and Durham was right in the middle of it all. They got steals, defended like crazy and attacked the basket. Durham made five straight free throws and then hit a jumper in the closing seconds to send the game to overtime.
They were behind again in the first overtime, but Durham came to the rescue again, hitting a jumper with a second left. In the second overtime, he made four straight free throws in the final few minutes, and the Hoosiers had themselves a much-needed win at the time.
The leading, both in words and example, never stopped.
Sure, there are flaws to his game, but the effort has always been there. He's been a good college basketball player, and whatever he does going forward, he'll likely be successful.
"Al is a guy that 10, 15 years from now right now, I mean, I be wouldn't surprised whatever field he's in, how successful he's going to be just because of the personality, the teamwork, he's likable, smart. I mean, he's just got so many different types of things going for him.'
So is this the end?
The history behind Senior Day has always been something special at Indiana, so it was a shame that Saturday's event was pretty much an afterthought. There were no speeches – they'll be recorded later and posted online – only a quick picture for Durham with Miller and athletic director Scott Dolson. Walk-on Cooper Bybee did the same thing.
After the game, Durham talked about what four years at Indiana has meant to him.
“It’s been a blessing, I’ll say, to have the opportunity to play DI, play on the highest stage in America,” Durham said. “ It’s all been a blessing, filled with hard work and pain, sweat and tears. I feel like there’s too many jewels I’ve taken from Indiana, whether that’s relationships, basketball, friendships, anything.”
" I feel like there are too many things I’ve been blessed with. I would say just seeing the hard work come to fruition. I feel like working my behind off since freshman year is listening and learning a lot. There are a lot of things I’ve taken from Indiana in terms of relationships, basketball, friendships, anything it’s all been living, learning and a blessing. It has been a great experience all the way around.''
Durham had a moment with Clif Marshall, Indiana's director of athletic performance for the basketball team, before the game. They've become close in his four years, and Marshall has been instrumental in turning him from a scrawny kid to a grown man, both physically and mentally.
"I told him I wouldn’t give a speech without talking to him. Clif has been a big part of who I am today,'' Durham said. "I feel like he has impacted my life on and off the court. I came in a buck-60 and he has helped me in that way.
"He has helped me in life situations off the court being there for me and also creating a great relationship with him throughout my four years with him. It has been nothing but amazing with her and that is considered family with him. I appreciate everything he has done for me and it’s nothing but great vibes with him.''
Miller took Durham out of the game in the final minute, and they had a good embrace and a few words. Durham got hugs from this teammates, too.
It certainly looked like the end.
But Durham was asked about it after the game and had "no answer'' about his future. Because of COVID, seniors are eligible to come back for another year. Durham didn't say anything about that, and no one else is talking, either.
Does he want to play another year? Here, or elsewhere? Does he want to look for a pro opportunity, maybe overseas, where shooters are always in demand? Is he ready for life to go on?
We don't know any on that, which is probably why Durham wanted to have a Senior Day. That was a certainty in a year of uncertainty.
Joey Brunk opted not to have one, and the 6-foot-11 senior who hasn't played all year because of a back injury just might be coming back to Indiana then. He hasn't talked to the media all year, so we don't know his plans.
But for Durham, this sure looked like the end. Indiana has two road games left at Michigan State and Purdue, and then the Big Ten Tournament. Their NCAA hopes are slipping away during this three-game losing streak, so the end could be near.
He was the team's leading scorer on Saturday with 15 points, and he passed the 1,000-point mark in the process. That's quite a select group of company at Indiana, and once you're in the club, that never goes away.
Durham put in the work, and he's reaped lots of rewards.
He's a 1,000-point scorer, and that's not a bad deal for a skinny kid from Georgia.
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- 1,000-POINT SCORERS: Here is the list of all 53 players who have scored 1,000 points or more during Indiana's storied basketball history. CLICK HERE
- MICHIGAN BEATS INDIANA: No. 3-ranked Michigan proved why they are one of the best teams in the country by soundly beating Indiana 73-57 Saturday at Assembly Hall. CLICK HERE