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Back with a Vengeance With Roshown McLeod reaching heights he had despaired of attaining and freshman star Elton Brand's foot miraculously healed, top-ranked Duke is hitting its stride at just the right moment

March 09, 1998
March 09, 1998

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March 9, 1998

Back with a Vengeance With Roshown McLeod reaching heights he had despaired of attaining and freshman star Elton Brand's foot miraculously healed, top-ranked Duke is hitting its stride at just the right moment

Imagine how Duke forward Roshown McLeod must have felt. About
three months ago his basketball career seemed to have turned to
ash: His risky transfer to Duke after his sophomore year, this
senior season, a future in the NBA. He saw tape of himself
playing, and he wanted to puke. But he blamed his teammates and
his coach for his travails. McLeod knew that something had gone
sour and very soon his collegiate career would be over and he
wouldn't know what had happened. He went home for Christmas
break, and his most trusted friends told him, You're the
problem. "The longest four days in my life," McLeod says.

This is an article from the March 9, 1998 issue

Imagine, then, how he felt last Saturday. Just minutes before
one of the great episodes in the epic Duke-North Carolina
rivalry, minutes before his final game at Cameron Indoor
Stadium, McLeod stood at center court as an avalanche of
applause piled on him and his two-year-old son, Anthony. He held
the boy in his arms, and the two waved like royalty. McLeod
never felt so accepted, never felt so loved. But that was
nothing. Two hours and 21 points later he plowed through Tar
Heels junior forward Antawn Jamison, everybody's national player
of the year, and banked in a driving layup to give No. 1 Duke a
77-75 lead that held up in the closing seconds. Soon afterward
an ear-smashing throng of fans stampeded the floor. "A lot of
people, their time comes, and they don't even notice it," the
6'8", 220-pound McLeod had said the day before. "This is my
time."

Imagine. Just three weeks earlier Duke had suffered a 24-point
hammering by the Tar Heels in what appeared to be a North
Carolina declaration of greatness. Since then, though, the Tar
Heels' lack of depth and overdependence on Jamison and junior
forward Vince Carter had begun to tell. On Feb. 21 North
Carolina lost at home to N.C. State, and then, after again
dominating Duke for much of the game--with Jamison at one point
blowing a kiss to the Cameron crazies and mouthing the words,
"We're bustin' your ass"--blew a 17-point lead last Saturday.
The Tar Heels scored just two field goals in the final 11 1/2
minutes, and they head into this week's ACC tournament suddenly
looking both weary and suspect. "If I don't touch the ball the
last nine minutes, something's wrong," said Jamison, who
finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds but was a nonfactor when
it mattered most. "We took a giant step back. I'd rather lose by
20 than like that. When you have the game in your hands and you
let it slip away, that's not the sign of a great team."

Duke, on the other hand, may well be starting to exhibit just
those signs, and coach Mike Krzyzewski is positively giddy.
Three years ago Coach K took the last three months of the season
off because of exhaustion and back surgery, and the Blue Devils,
winners of the NCAA title in 1991 and '92, dropped out of the
elite. But this season has seen all the old indicators crop up:
Krzyzewski's name is surfacing again in talk about NBA coaching
vacancies--he says he's not interested, for the moment--and his
team has won two ACC regular-season titles in a row. "I was
determined to get our program back in the position to be
competitive for the national championship," Krzyzewski says.
"That's the program we had here for a decade, and if I leave or
stay, that's the program I want at Duke."

For the first time since he returned from his time off, that's
the program he thinks he has. "We have a chance to do more,"
Krzyzewski says of advancing through the NCAA field. "Last
year's team didn't have a chance. We just weren't that good.
This year we are that good. We have a shot at it."

That he can say this, Krzyzewski knows, is a small wonder and is
due in large part to Elton Brand. When the 6'8", 245-pound
Brand, the preternaturally poised star of Duke's vaunted
freshman class, broke out in the season's first 11 games to lead
the Blue Devils in scoring, rebounding and, more and more,
leadership, Krzyzewski finally had the gritty post-up threat
he'd lacked for years. "I'd see him every day in practice, being
ravenous, I mean, just eating up instruction, drills and putting
up numbers that were just off the charts, and I'd say, 'Holy
mackerel, what do we have here?'" Krzyzewski says. "He has
unusual athletic ability, an unusual body structure, but he also
has a great mind and competitiveness to go with them--and a
maturity to handle all of it. He had an impact that no other
freshman I've coached had."

But on Dec. 27, just days before the ACC season began in
earnest, Brand pulled up in practice with a stress fracture in
his left foot and was thought to be lost for the season. A
devastated Krzyzewski visited Brand in the hospital to cheer him
up after surgery, but it was the 51-year-old who was cheered up
by the freshman. "Don't worry, Coach," Brand told him. "I'll be
back sooner than everyone says."

A few days later a limping Brand turned his attention to McLeod.
"He came to me and said, 'Ro, this is your chance,'" says
McLeod, a Jersey City native who had kept tabs on Brand when the
latter played at Peekskill (N.Y.) High. "Coming from a freshman,
that's shocking," says McLeod, "but you have to understand: It
was comforting because it was him. I was frustrated coming back
from Christmas break, not playing as much. He was the guy who
got me over the hump." Just in time.

After an unsatisfying two-year stint at St. John's, McLeod in
April 1995 became Krzyzewski's first transfer at Duke. He put up
decent numbers last season--11.9 points, 5.3 rebounds--but with
the Blue Devils' talent level and expectations higher this
season, McLeod struggled early. His coaches kept riding him for
his inconsistent play, and just before the break he hit bottom.
"I only played nine minutes against Mercer!" McLeod says, still
horrified by the thought. He was sure it was someone else's
fault. It was only when McLeod got home for the holidays and
heard from his high school coach at St. Anthony's, Bob Hurley,
and longtime mentor Brian Doherty that he understood whom to
blame.

"I just stepped back and looked at myself with a new
perspective," says McLeod, who viewed tapes of Duke games while
still at home. "Watching myself, the reactions I'd have--when I
didn't get a loose ball, and knowing I could've gotten it--I
knew I was better than that. It turned my stomach. So I started
applying myself more and became more aggressive offensively and
defensively. I went home and got back the love for the game and
the feeling for hard work and for not just trying to fit in, but
trying to be the best guy out there."

When he returned to Duke, McLeod began spending extra time on
conditioning, shooting and working on new moves. His game
exploded. He averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds a game in
ACC play to help Duke (27-2, 15-1) become the first team in
conference history to win 15 league games, and he appears to be
improving still. He averaged 20.6 points over the Blue Devils'
last nine games--including a career-high 27 against N.C. State
and 14 in last Saturday's massive second half. "Everything's
different," says Duke senior point guard Steve Wojciechowski.
"He's a lottery pick now. Before, he wasn't."

Still, there's little chance that the Blue Devils would have
beaten the Tar Heels without Brand, who began needling McLeod
weeks ago, "Ro, you better watch out. I'm coming back, and I'm
going to take your spot."

Usually an injury like Brand's--a broken fifth metatarsal
bone--takes three months to heal. But doctors at Duke cooked up
an elaborate rehabilitation program for Brand that included
full-scale conditioning from the day he left the hospital, a
series of special training shoes, a daily dose of ultrasound
therapy and nights spent sleeping with a packet taped to his
foot that applied constant electrical stimulation. In half the
usual time Brand was running with no pain. News traveled. He
became, suddenly, the key to the ACC tournament, to the NCAAs,
to beating the Tar Heels. "I get E-mail every day from random
people: Oh, Elton, glad you're back. Now you guys will kick
their butts," Brand says. "That's a lot of pressure. I'm still
coming back. I'm not the same player I was two months ago. I
can't jump as high, maybe I'm running a little slower. But this
is why you come to a school like Duke, for that challenge."

In his first game back, on Feb. 22 against UCLA, Brand played 16
minutes and scored 14 points in a 102-84 rout of the Bruins, and
by last Friday he was ready to take charge again. That night
Brand pulled out the stat sheet from the 24-point loss to North
Carolina and said to his freshman roommate, William Avery, "That
will never happen again." But the next day it nearly did.
Lacking defensive intensity and outplayed on both boards, the
Blue Devils dropped into a 25-9 hole and spent the first half
looking nothing like a No. 1 team. At that point, Brand says, "I
knew folks were saying, 'Duke is terrible. It'll never beat
Carolina.'"

But the second half was unlike the first. Suddenly the Blue
Devils were gaining poise with every possession, attacking the
boards, pushing an obviously gassed Carolina back on its Tar
Heels. Jamison may have ruled inside in the first half, but
Brand took over in the second. Rusty only at the foul line, he
took North Carolina apart inside, banging in 10 of his 16 points
in one three-minute stretch that slashed the Tar Heels' lead to
five. "We couldn't stop him," said North Carolina coach Bill
Guthridge afterward. "I think the coach should be able to find a
way to stop somebody. I'm disappointed I couldn't come up with
something."

Problem is, for Guthridge--and everyone else who hopes to win
the title--Duke has more players needing to be stopped than it
did a month ago. Brand's injury had the classic silver lining:
Every player who had let Brand take over at the beginning of the
season had had to grow up faster without him. So, while Brand
works his way back into shape, the team that lost just once in
the seven weeks he was gone is only going to get better.

Already, that's noticeable. Krzyzewski was so angered by the
Blue Devils' tentative play in the first half against North
Carolina that sweat soaked through his shirt and tie. But there
was no panic in the locker room at halftime. "I got chills
looking at the way the guys' eyes were," McLeod would say later.
"I saw guys who were hungry and were going to fight." By the
time Duke began its comeback in the final 11
minutes--Wojciechowski whipping the ball inside to Brand and
McLeod, junior guard Trajan Langdon hitting jumpers, McLeod
forcing turnovers--Krzyzewski felt his team humming at a high
level for the first time all season. "It was," he says,
"beautiful for me to watch."

No, better than that. It was, as McLeod put it, "delightful."
Imagine. McLeod had come so close to never knowing all he could
do. Now he has done it. "Thank you for giving me a new home, a
new birth," he shouted to the Cameron crowd after the game.
Imagine how he feels. He has never been happier.

"But I want more," McLeod says. "We have a great opportunity to
get more."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO UP TO THE CHALLENGE Brand (42) and Shane Battier were a force inside as they helped to hold the Tar Heels to two field goals over the last 11:40. [Antawn Jamison, Shane Battier and Elton Brand in game]COLOR PHOTO: BOB DONNAN Headed off at the pass Chris Burgess helped Duke erase a 17-point deficit against Shammond Williams and the Tar Heels.COLOR PHOTO: BOB DONNAN Over the top McLeod went out with a flourish in his final home game, hitting 9 of 15 shots and scoring 23 points. [Antawn Jamison and Roshown McLeod in game]
Jamison blew a kiss to the Cameron crazies and mouthed the
words, "We're bustin' your ass."
Krzyzewski says Brand "had an impact that no other freshman I've
coached had."