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Father Knew Best Showing his eye for talent, Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy foretold big things for Mike Jr., a freshman who's delivering in spades for Duke

Feb. 28, 2000
Feb. 28, 2000

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Feb. 28, 2000

Father Knew Best Showing his eye for talent, Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy foretold big things for Mike Jr., a freshman who's delivering in spades for Duke

Mike Dunleavy had come a long way from Brooklyn. He was at the
Harvard Club, in midtown Manhattan, all leather chairs and low
voices. He was there to tell NBA war stories to a couple dozen
businessmen over lunch, fellow graduates of Nazareth Regional
High in East Flatbush. Dunleavy played with Julius Erving and
against Michael Jordan, and he coached Magic Johnson. He's an
insider's insider. But in the middle of his talk, Dunleavy
strayed from the pro game and made a passing comment about his
son Mike Jr., then 17 years old. "He's tall, he's good, he's
bright," the coach said. "You'll be seeing him." The men in the
room knew Dunleavy, knew he was not a braggart. They took note.

This is an article from the Feb. 28, 2000 issue Original Layout

That was two years ago, when Dunleavy was in his first season as
coach of the Trail Blazers and his oldest son was a junior at
Jesuit High, a private school in Portland. Big Mike, 45, is
still coach of the Blazers, who at week's end had a 42-11
record, the best in the NBA. As for the kid, he's grown into
more than an aside. Little Mike--who at 6'7" has a good four
inches on his father--is a freshman at Duke, playing guard and
forward. He's the first player off the bench, and through Sunday
he was averaging 25.2 minutes, 9.5 points and 4.2 rebounds for
the second-ranked Blue Devils. Though tests last weekend
revealed that Mike Jr. has mononucleosis (he hopes to be back by
the start of the ACC tournament on March 9), Mike Sr. was
correct. You'll be seeing him--if you haven't already.

It doesn't always work out this way. Being the kid of the coach
is like being the son of the minister. You're expected to be
dutiful and perfect and follow in Dad's footsteps. Often, the
expectations are too weighty and the son wanders off to find a
career and an identity of his own. But in this case the son
always loved what his father loved, and he was good at it too.
Wherever Big Mike went, Little Mike went--to shootarounds, to
practices, to games in college gyms and NBA arenas. Mike Jr. was
forever on the floor or in the stands, watching, experimenting,
dreaming. Mike Jr. will not be wandering off. "Saw your boy
making a Dr. J move last night," a Portland player recently told
his coach. "Where'd he learn that?"

Not from the old man. When Dunleavy left South Carolina with a
degree in psychology and joined the Philadelphia 76ers as a
sixth-round pick in 1976-77, his job was to take the charge,
make the smart pass and hole the open jumper. He did that with
high competence if not highlight-reel flair for nine seasons,
averaging 8.1 points per game for four teams. After two years as
a trader with a New York investment firm, he joined the
Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant; in the stretch runs of 1988-89
and '89-90 he even came out of retirement to help out in the
backcourt. In his first season as a head coach, 1990-91, his Los
Angeles Lakers reached the Finals, in which they lost to the
Chicago Bulls. In those waning days of Showtime, Magic Johnson
made two new friends: the Dunleavys, big and little.

"Little Mike wasn't your regular gym rat," Johnson says. "When
the kids got chased off the court [at practice], they'd all
scamper, but Mike would sit in the stands and study the game.
When I see him playing now, I see a freshman with the court
sense of a senior or an NBA rookie. He'll play in the league, no
question. He's got Larry Bird's shot, my passing game and his
father's smarts."

Dunleavy Jr. throws a Magical no-look pass and also hurls a
Johnson-style baseline-to-baseline outlet bomb. He learned some
other things from Johnson: that a shooter can rebound, that a
big man can dribble, that life is fickle. Little Mike was 11 on
that grim November day nine years ago when Johnson announced he
was HIV-positive. Big Mike had learned the awful news the night
before the world did. Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen, had gone over
to the Dunleavys' house to tell him. Mike's wife, Emily, and
their three boys, Mike Jr., Baker and James, were asleep. "When
I told Mike, the only thing he worried about was Earvin," Rosen
says. "What the loss of Earvin meant to his team--that was the
furthest thing from his mind. Then, much later, he says, 'What
am I going to tell the kids? What am I going to tell Mike [Jr.]?'"

The next day the father explained Johnson's plight as candidly
and succinctly as he could. Magic was not so much Mike Jr.'s
idol as his big buddy. Little Mike's first thought was that his
big buddy would be dead in three or four years. He was
terrified. The entire Dunleavy household sagged. "I remember Dad
coming back after the press conference," Mike Jr. says. "He was
wearing sunglasses in the house. He didn't want us to see his
eyes. I had never seen him weep before. I tried to act like
nothing was happening. I never want people to worry about me."

The Dunleavys are a tight unit. The parents say that frequent
moves--Mike Jr. lived in a dozen houses before graduating from
high school--have made the family members uncommonly reliant on
one another. During the family's two years in Los Angeles,
Little Mike and his brothers thought they were in heaven: The
sun shone, the ocean glistened, their father was the coach of
the Lakers. At the end of the 1991-92 season, though, father
Dunleavy was handed a rare opportunity: an eight-year contract
to be the coach and vice president of basketball operations back
in Milwaukee, a city whose solid Midwestern values the Dunleavys
knew well. The parents told the kids it was for the best, for
everybody. Little Mike wasn't thrilled at the news. But he
didn't fuss. He never did.

Mike Jr. enrolled at the University School of Milwaukee, an
academically superior private school. All through middle school
he excelled at soccer, football, basketball, tennis, baseball,
his studies. He made friends. Everywhere he went, people were
impressed by his poise, his intelligence, his manners. He took
neither his privilege nor his talents for granted. "I'd see him
at Bucks games," says Garry Howard, sports editor of the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He'd say, 'How are you, Mr.
Howard?' And I was like, Whoa--from a coach's kid!"

All the while, another dimension of the boy was developing. The
kid's polish and manners masked a grittiness that his father had
developed on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, that his paternal
grandfather had brought over from Ireland. Little Mike knew
early on that he didn't want to be another suburban rich kid
with a pretty jumper but no heart, and he did all that he could
to make sure of that. People who play tennis with Mike Jr. on
Nantucket--Emily Dunleavy's Texas family has been spending
summers on the island since World War I--say he is a bull
terrier. Like his father, he has to win, no matter what he's
playing.

As a freshman at University, Dunleavy started on the varsity and
became close with the team's sixth man, classmate Fred Bell, a
scholarship kid from Milwaukee. Bell would sometimes spend the
night at the Dunleavys' house in River Hills, one of Milwaukee's
most affluent suburbs. On Saturdays when the Bucks were at home,
Fred, Mike Jr. and Mike Sr. would play one-on-one in the
driveway, winner keeps the court. Mike would hack, talk a little
trash, do whatever he had to do. Mike Sr., that is. "It wouldn't
get to fistfights," says Bell, now a freshman on the basketball
team at Lake Forest College, outside Chicago. "But he played us
like he was playing Michael Jordan."

The father has never been a passive observer of his oldest son's
athletic life. Mike Sr. was impressed with a University teacher,
Dave Liccione, who coached Little Mike's seventh-grade
basketball team. When Little Mike was a freshman, his father
urged the school to make Liccione the varsity coach. Liccione
got the job, started Mike Jr. and improved the team's record by
five games. But when the season was over he was relieved of his
coaching duties. Two school officials declined to discuss the
firing, but Liccione knows what he was told. "They said I was
too intense," he says.

Mike Jr. was floored. He loved playing for Liccione, who told
him something his father never had--that he was talented enough
to play for a Kentucky, a Duke, a big-time program. Mike and
Fred resolved to transfer to a public high school, Homestead.
Mike Jr. knew that the transfer would mean he'd have to sit out
his sophomore basketball season. But Liccione's firing had
angered him. He had to leave. That's what he told his parents.
"I was proud of him," the father says. "He thought the coach was
being treated unfairly, so he took a stand. It was his decision.
I respected it."

In the summer before he was a junior, after sitting out his
sophomore year, Mike Jr.'s father took the coaching job in
Portland, and the family was on the move again. No fussing from
Little Mike, of course. At Jesuit he blossomed. Named all-state
as a junior, he averaged 23 points and 8 rebounds as a senior,
leading his team to the Class 4A title and winning MVP honors in
the state tournament.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam, a friend of the
Dunleavys on Nantucket and the author of three books on
basketball, has observed the Mikes together over the years.
"It's very hard to be the son of a famous father and in the same
profession," Halberstam says. "In this case the son of a famous
father has skills that may be even more natural than the
father's, and he goes naturally down the same course."

According to Halberstam, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the
senior Dunleavy that he wanted Mike Jr. more than any player
since Grant Hill. Coach K knew that the boy's playpen had been a
basketball court, that his early tutorials had come from NBA
pros. Junior's regal basketball education might have intimidated
some coaches, but Krzyzewski embraced it. "His maturity has had
a lot to do with why we've been successful this year,"
Krzyzewski says. "He understands what I say during practice,
during timeouts. He gets my dry sense of humor. Most freshmen
are afraid to talk. He's not, because he knows what's going on."

This has been an odd basketball season for the Mike Dunleavys,
big and little. Except for rare occasions, they see each other
only on TV and talk to each only over the phone. Back in
Portland, Emily runs a family press service, keeping her husband
abreast of the basketball activities of Baker, 17, a junior on
the Jesuit varsity, and James, 12, a rec league player, when
Mike Sr. is on the road. He waits until he's back home to watch
the Duke games that he has taped.

When Mike Jr. knocked down two overtime free throws to help seal
a Blue Devils victory over North Carolina recently, Mike Sr. was
on a plane, flying to yet another road game, thinking up new
ways to parcel out minutes among the highly paid Blazers and to
keep forward Rasheed Wallace out of foul trouble. Last week,
with Mike Jr. playing despite his illness, Duke clinched at
least a share of its fourth straight ACC title, while Mike Sr.'s
team stretched its winning streak to eight. Come May, his
freshman year done, Little Mike will fly west to Portland,
hoping to join his father as the Blazers march to the NBA
Finals. If the Blazers don't get that far, he'll still head to
Portland. That's where his family is now. That makes it home.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES BE LIKE MIKE He may be the younger Dunleavy, but at 6'7", Little Mike has four inches on his 45-year-old father.COLOR PHOTO: BOB DONNAN AIR BORN While Mike Jr.'s off to a flying start as Duke's sixth man, it was grit and savvy that kept Mike Sr.'s pro career afloat for nine years.COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT [See caption above]
"When kids got chased off the court [at practice], Little Mike
would sit in the stands and study the game," Magic Johnson says.
"He'll play in the NBA, no question."