One on one with Elton Brand

He embodied Duke’s resurgence in the late 90s before being the face of, perhaps, the most exciting Blue Devil squad of the last 20 years. Then, Elton Brand became the first player to leave early to the NBA Draft. Since that time he’s been a multiple time NBA All-Star. Now, with his professional career winding down, we had a chance to sit down with Brand to reflect on his basketball journey.

Reflecting back on your NBA career Elton and the longevity you have had, what are your thoughts on how your career has unfolded?

Elton Brand: You know, I’m just truly thankful man. It’s a blessing to have played for this long in the NBA, at this stage, it’s just a lot of fun. Practice is fun, being on the bus is fun, everything about it is fun to me and I know everything is going to be over soon, so I’m just enjoying every moment of it. Every city that I’m in on the road trips, I’m soaking it up for maybe the last time, just doing things like that, I’m enjoying it.

I know a lot of long-term players make plans for the future as they are nearing the end of their careers…I’m curious to hear what future plans you are making for once you retire from the NBA?

I’m actually still trying to work that out right now. I took some courses with the media, seeing how I liked that. I’m taking a management course this summer, but it’s family first for me of course. I’ve got two young kids, I try my best but I miss a lot of their stuff at school and PTA meetings and their plays and musicals and shows and everything like that, so definitely want to catch up on stuff with the kids. Other than that, I’m not sure yet, still working that out.

Shifting back to your Duke career Elton—you were the first Coach K player to go pro early—can you shed some light on what that experience was like for you

Yeah, I think I was their first, first player to go pro early right to the NBA. Coach K worked with me on that, especially with the financial situation that I was in. I even went and explored going pro after my freshman year and I would have been a Top 20 pick they were saying. So I actually sat down with Coach K to talk about it. He was the one who said “Look, if you come back, we’re going to go to the Final 4, and you will be on the cover of a ton of magazines, and you will be a Top 5 pick.”

Coach was the one who told me that and basically put together that plan for me to stay my sophomore year and get to the Final 4 like we did and be a Top 5 pick instead of a Top 20 pick and I actually went number one overall.

So Coach K, he doesn’t get a lot of credit for adapting it seems like, but he was on that trend early. I mean this was 1999 and then going forward with Luol Deng, Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker, he’s had some guys who have come in for a year or two and then gone off to successful careers.

When Coach K recruited you in high school, was the expectation between both of you that you were going to be a one and done?

No, no, no.

Back then guys came out of high school, but I just wasn’t one of those guys. I went to Duke and did the academics there. I mean I went there with my mind on getting it done in the classroom. I went in with Chris Burgess who was a McDonald’s All American, Shane Battier, and Will Avery who was a Top 40 player, and then myself who was also Top 10 in the class. We were a highly touted class. With Shane and Chris and the other guys they already had there, I didn’t know if I would play a lot early on because guys from my area didn’t really go to Duke. They didn’t go to the top Division One level like that. So I was going for the academics first.

How much did your freshman year injury affect your considerations to come back to Duke after completing your first year?

It didn’t, you know it really didn’t because I still had a great second half after I came back. We beat Carolina at home, that’s when Wojo and Coach K embraced during Senior Night. That game…that’s one of my fondest memories of Cameron Indoor. Then I had a great NCAA Tournament. I had a great game against Syracuse, I don’t remember my stats in that game but it was a great game. For me coming back, it was because of that great meeting that I had with Coach K. He was straight up with me and he said we’re going to do this the right way and this is how it’s going to happen and he was right, every single step of the way. That meeting really changed everything.

Was there a lot of felt pressure for you in deciding to come back for the second season?

Oh no, no, no. If anything it was harder or more pressure to stay after the second year. Coming back after the first year, it was real easy because I don’t think most people even knew I was at that point.

In your two years at Duke, which players did you form the best relationships with?

Oh yeah, Shane Battier was my roommate, and we still talk to this day. We talk about his retirement and he had a really good joke the other day. He said “I see a current walk-on is wearing #42…and I see they will let anybody wear your number.” We had a good chuckle about that. Even a couple of weeks ago he emailed me a picture on that and I was laughing real hard at it. We stay in touch pretty often but it’s also all the guys from those teams. Chris Carrawell, Nate James, and Wojo who is at Marquette now, which is cool. He’s been asking me about a few players, it’s pretty cool to see. 

Really those years everybody was close, but different guys hung out with different guys. It was kinda a class type thing if you know what I’m saying. Like the guys you came in with as a class, we were really tight, Chris Burgess, all those guys we were really tight. Then the older guys, guys like Mike Chappell and Chris Carrawell and Nate James, they kinda hung out together because they were in the same class and it was kinda that way but we were still all teammates and we stayed together.

Duke fans routinely call the teams you played on as a “machine” from how you guys played. In your estimation, what was it that made the team so good?

It was a great mix of guys both years, but especially that second year. With Trajan Langdon being a senior, guys coming in and meshing with those guys already on the team - we did well.

I was just disappointed that we didn’t get the Championship. Connecticut had that miracle run that year, beating us by three and then the only other game we lost that year I think was the buzzer beater at the Alaska Shootout, which was another Championship game, we lost by 1 point at the buzzer. So we lost two games the whole season by a total of four points.

We ran through the ACC that year, we were undefeated, so that was a great year. That was a great mix of young and older guys and then having great leadership from Trajan Langdon, Chris Carrawell, guys like that.

To follow up on that Elton, do you consider that team you just described as one of the best Duke teams ever?

I think to be considered as one of the best Duke teams ever, you have to put that banner up and win a National Championship. So, I really have to give it to teams like the 1991 and 1992 teams…teams that went back to back National Championships and put those banners up. I have to say that those types of teams are the best Duke teams ever. Even that 2001 team, I played with some of those guys like Shane and Jay Williams, that team was a monster and they were pretty darn good too with guys like Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer. I’d have to say those eras were some of the best.

How did you guys handle the Connecticut loss afterwards?

Absolutely it was tough…that was a really tough loss. It was a difficult loss. We were steamrolling teams and winning by 20 or 30 points per game. I think UConn even had to hit a buzzer beater just to get to the Sweet 16 or something like that. It took a crazy shot for them to even get there, but once they got there…they beat us by three points. It was difficult…very difficult to swallow that for sure.

Switching gears a bit, every Duke player has their own relationship with Coach K—what is yours like with him?

Yeah it has changed over the years for sure. Before he was like the boss, you know? And now he’s more like a friend. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s still a father figure, and stuff like that as well. We talk about a lot of different things like family, so many other things besides basketball now.

Since we have to wrap this up early Elton, I wanted to close by asking your impressions so far of the latest Duke big man, Jahlil Okafor?

Yeah he’s figuring things out really well, and he’s got excellent footwork man. It’s even better than I did when I was his age. It’s all about growth though, you know? Especially when he gets to that next level. I think being at Duke is going to help him prepare for that next level because I can see that the sky is the limit for sure. He has a lot of talent, a lot of size, great footwork and great hands. I like his game a lot.

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