One on one with Chris Duhon

From being the nation’s top point guard prospect and deciding to play alongside Jay Williams to winning a championship and then making the NBA, Chris Duhon’s had quite the basketball journey. Now he’s taking the next step by stepping in as an assistant coach at Marshall. We spoke with Duhon about that and much more in the latest installment of the alumni series.

What prompted the new coaching venture?

Chris Duhon: It’s always something I eventually wanted to do. While playing in the NBA, the league does a great job at presenting opportunities for you for different things to consider doing after you finish playing basketball. There was a coaching program that they do every year where they come coach at the NBAPA Top-100 Camp in Charlottesville, VA and I went and did that and it was great to be around some coaches that I already wanted to be around with Coach K and my high school coach, and then Scott Skiles in Chicago. I really enjoy discussing the X’s and O’s with them, how to prep for game situations, just the whole aspect of coaching and so when I had the opportunity to go to that Camp, it just kinda solidified what I wanted to do once I was done playing.

This past summer I was asking myself do I continue to want to play and continue to do the things that are necessary to play or am I ready to start the next phase of my career? So I chose the next phase and then the opportunity came to join Marshall University and after talking it over with my family and friends, I felt like that was the best situation for me.

How did the Marshall assistant coaching opportunity present itself?

Well Dan D’Antoni, he was my assistant coach when I was in New York and LA, he actually really helped me understand Mike D’Antoni’s offense and he and David Lee really worked together and built a great relationship both on the court and even more off the court. With that, I saw that he got the Marshall job for their head coaching job and it really started with a text to be honest with you. I didn’t know what direction I was going in, I just sent him a text message to congratulate him and then he texted me back and said that you should come coach with me. I told him in a joking manner that yeah I’ll be right there and he told me that this was serious. Then he called me like 15 seconds later and laid it all out and I asked him to give me a couple of days to think about it and I decided to take it.

How are you adapting to being an assistant coach at the Division I level?

It’s tough. The rules are different from what I grew accustomed to in the NBA, so that’s been an adjustment. Obviously the shot clock, you can’t do certain things in the post that you used to do in the NBA, so it’s just an adjustment with that. Then in general I just have to get re-acquainted with the college game itself. The talent level across the board is obviously not as good as it is in the NBA, so you have to adjust to guys not being able to see things or react as quickly as you may be used to in the NBA.

In recruiting, that aspect of it it’s just a part of my job like breaking down film or preparing for a team that you are scouting for as well as the team you are getting ready to play next, just watching to try and learn different college games and coaches while at the same time to hopefully preparing to be a head coach one day and knowing what kind of scheme I want to do. It’s just a constant adjustment of just recruiting and trying to develop the guys with as much timeframe as you are allowed with the rules. In the NBA you don’t have those time rules while in college you only have a certain amount of time per week that you are allowed to be working with the guys, so that’s an adjustment as well. It’s all been a great learning experience and while it’s been an adjustment in a lot of different ways, but I’m loving the whole process of it and I’m enjoying the opportunity to continue to learn.

What’s it been like for you being a “recruiter” now as opposed to what you were before being recruited?

I’ve kinda been fortunate with that. I’m at the point with Dan and with my name that he really wants me doing more on court stuff in getting our team prepared, team defense, working on player development…that’s kinda my main mode I’m in but I am helping with recruiting and again, that’s an adjustment for me as well because the rules are so different now because you can pretty much call or text anytime you want to and with social media with tweeting and all these other things, there are times are you can call and certain times you can visit.

When I was being recruited one of the primary ways you were recruited was by mail, so whatever a team would send you, that was a primary way you got your education about a program recruiting you. Now you can talk to the kids on a consistent basis and I think that’s a good way to really develop a relationship with the kids and the parents by talking to them more than just about mail you send them. So that whole aspect of trying to recruit kids to your program, trying to convince them that this is the right spot for them and showing the parents that we are going to take care of their babies and that they are safe and that they are in a safe environment, that whole thing is where I am learning how to share my pitches and really learn what’s too much, am I calling too much, those are the little things that I will eventually figure out. It’s a learning process and you really have to enjoy the whole learning process.

It sounds like this has been a real opportunity for growth in several ways…

It is, and I just feel this is what I was meant to do in being a coach because I think I have a knack for being able to relate to this kids. Now it’s easier with being so closely removed from playing, and these kids really have an idea about my career and what I’ve done and my accomplishments, they use me and I’m the final answer as to who really is better between Stephen Curry or Chris Paul. Any claim they want to make with stuff like that, I’m the guy they usually go to which is great that I can relate to these kids. I’ve always thought I had a high IQ on the court, so I would see things happen on the court before they happen and I’m able to make adjustments. I think that’s one of the reasons why Dan brought me along is from our time together I would sit next to him a lot during games and I would throw out suggestions and bounce ideas off of him. And it wasn’t just with Dan, a lot of the assistant coaches that coached me, they always said that I had a real good knack for that. And again, I think that coaching program in Charlottesville, VA played a big part in me doing this.
What are your major takeaways from your professional career as you look back on it?

Nine years is a pretty good stint for an NBA guy. I played under great coaches and played with great players and I think a lot of my career really helped me to be set up for what I was going to be doing after my basketball career. I enjoyed it and it was a great learning experience for me and it was great to fulfill a dream of mine by playing in the NBA. I’m very thankful and blessed for it and I really had a blast.

Any specific memories really stick out to you from those nine years?

For me it was my start into the League. I wasn’t a first round pick, and I wasn’t guaranteed to be on the team. I remember right before training camp, the team asked me if I wanted to go overseas and I told them that I really wanted to go into training camp and prove I belonged. I think that’s what I really valued about my career the most was that I had to fight to get my way in and I had to fight to stay in the NBA. That was probably my biggest memory and biggest accomplishment for me that you played for a long time and quieted the nay-sayers and had the career that I had. That’s probably the most memorable thing about it for me is just the way I got into the NBA.

How do you think your time at Duke prepared you to have the career you ultimately had in the NBA?

Being at a program like Duke, it’s kinda like being in the minor leagues of the NBA. Duke is first class all the way in how they take care of us as players, how they treat the players, how they prepare the players, Coach K is obviously the best coach in college basketball and he was big on preparation and we were able to prepare for every game and for every player, what each player’s tendencies were, we knew their schemes and we knew if they did this, this is how we were going to attack it. Just being in that program and if you have a high IQ, no matter what your physical qualities are, you can compete at the highest level just because you are reacting quicker and it gives yourself a chance to outsmart or beat him with your mind.

Being at Duke definitely prepares you for the next level by doing the things that you need to do at the next level. By being a Duke player, every time you play another team you know they are trying to beat you and so having that tradition of what everybody has built before you came and knowing that everybody wants to beat you because you are Duke, you have to be mentally tough every game knowing that every night you are going to get the other team’s best shot, especially on the road. They will say whatever they want to say about you to try and get under your skin and things may not go right all the time, but as you see with this team this year, having the ability to come back in big games and make big shots, that’s what you learn at a program like Duke. You have to be mentally tough and believe that you can do things.

Really, a program like Duke is built around a family environment, you tell the truth to one another and I think that’s one of the things I loved the most about Duke. Everybody with what they said to you, it was honest and you knew that I’m going to give my best because the next person is going to give their best. Having what I consider to be my brothers and the coaches there, the University, you just learn to not ever settle on or off the court. There are things that I had to grow from in my time at Duke off the court to get better as a person and Coach K and the assistant coaches always told me what was best for me and that his family helped me grow as a man while I was there. The thing at Duke is becoming a better man is even more important than just winning all the games and how we carry ourselves is how we represent ourselves, the team and the University. We’re not just representing ourselves, we’re also representing our family name and Duke University. It’s a lot bigger than just you and when you understand that, you really learn a lot more about who you are as a person and as a basketball player and that’s something you don’t get from every college. I’m very blessed that I had that.

You came into Duke the year after Jay Williams arrived as a freshman. Can you shed some light on what kind of recruiting approach did Duke with you and dealing with that situation?

Well, that was my main concern actually. Not that I needed to start, but I really didn’t want to go to a place where I was only going to be playing 10 minutes a game. I wanted to go to a place where I could hopefully contribute right away and have the opportunity to do that.

Now I understood that if I wasn’t ready or wasn’t good enough to do that right away, I got that and I would have worked harder to be able to do what I wanted to do but I wanted to make sure in my recruiting process that I would have that opportunity to do that. So with Duke, Jay played a lot of minutes, I watched him a lot the year before I came in and I couldn’t even tell you who the backup point guard was because of how many minutes he played his first year there. I just kinda wanted to know what my role was and I kinda knew that if I came to Duke I would be the backup to Jay which was fine, but I still wanted to know if there were other ways that I could contribute and not just solely be brought in to be a backup point guard. Coach K right away told me from the get go that they played on playing me and Jay together and there would be a lot of time that you guys would be playing together. I had done that in AAU and I knew it could work but even saying that, I always remained the primary ball-handler on my AAU team, so when I went on my official visit to Duke, we played pickup and they made sure that Jay and I were on the same team. You could just feel the natural connection that we had right from the start and I felt really, really comfortable and I felt like this is something that could really work and just being around that whole team, I felt really comfortable and I just knew that that place, I would have an opportunity to win and that’s why I ended up going there because I knew I could play and gel with Jay and the team was ready to be great.

Were those the two primary reasons for choosing to go to Duke?

Well that and the academics for sure, the status that they have with Duke being one of the premier academic programs. So getting a degree and education from there says a lot and it’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Honestly being able to play for an iconic figure like Coach K and being able to learn from the best was also a big factor and I just kinda liked the small atmosphere in Durham, they just made me feel right at home on my visit. It was ultimately my decision and my mom told me to make sure that I really thought it through and to sit down and really think about the pros and cons of each school. At the end of the day after that visit, she really knew that that was the place I really wanted to go to. She agreed with it and she really enjoyed Coach K  and we made that decision.

You went in freshman year into what was eventually the National Champion that season. When you got to school were you thinking about that kind of run?

That was our goal from the get go. Our summer workouts and preseason workouts, that’s all we would talk about. It just came from our Senior leadership with Shane and Nate James, Ryan Caldbeck, all our seniors. Every drill they would always tell us to give more and to work harder and when we were in the weight room, they set the expectation that we were going to be committed. It’s something we were all committed to and all we wanted to do was to be in the best shape that we could be in. We hated losing and we just knew from the get go that that was the mindset right from the start that our goal was to go all the way that year.

What were the main challenges as a freshman at Duke?

The main thing  was learning time management. With going to school you still had to pick out time in your day so you could still get your workout in and study, that was an adjustment with the rules and the time and a different talent level. Everybody at Duke could play and guys were bigger and faster and stronger, you couldn’t get away with not being precise and sharp in the details. Every little detail mattered, it was a big adjustment. Then I was also learning how to find my role and how I fit in with the team. Understanding who our main guys were, understanding how I could make an impact on the team and just continuing to grow throughout the year. Those were all adjustments I went through.

With whom did you form the strongest relationships?

I keep in touch with all the guys pretty much. That’s why we are still brothers because Coach K does a great job at getting us all back together in the summertime when guys have the chance to do that. It’s great that we can still be committed to it and to be able to re-connect with the guys. It’s funny because you get together and you have some of the same stories about Coach K. I have a great relationship with all of those guys and we have a great family bond.

Shane Battier mentioned some memories he had from the ACC Tournament and National Championship season when you came in. Do you have any memories that stand out from that time?

That was an incredible run that we had. Obviously it started from Shane being a senior and how hurt we all were in losing to Maryland in the regular season. One, not only did we think we were losing Carlos Boozer for the rest of the year but that we lost during Shane and Nate and the rest of the seniors Senior Night at home, that was really hard. That’s what I mean about that family atmosphere because we all were really hurt, we were all disappointed and we really felt like we had let those guys down. That was tough and obviously the fact that we lost Carlos, it was just like another blow and it was kinda, I know for myself I felt like we had lost our season, our season was going to be over after that, there’s no way we can win. I remember Coach K came in there and said to us, “Look, if you guys believe in me and believe in what I’m going to say and what I will continue to say to you guys, we’ll win the National Championship.” Your initial reaction to that is like “Yeah, OK, that’s what coaches are supposed to do.” Then we had practice the next day and he could tell that we weren’t really believing, so he kicked us out of practice. We came back and he told us that you guys have to believe. Shane called a team meeting after practice and he told all of us, “look guys, Coach K has never lied to us and whatever he has said to us that we followed, we accomplished what he said we would do. So we’re going to believe him and we love each other.” That team meeting, we left united and next game we made some changes in how we played.

One of my best memories for me was that next practice, he made the switch with me coming off the bench to starting for Nate. I admire Nate, Nate is one of my best teammates ever and it took me a couple of days because I felt bad for Nate knowing this is his last year and I didn’t know how to react to starting. I was real tentative and after practice I remember Nate came and grabbed me and he said, “look, does this hurt for me? Yes, it does hurt that I’m not starting, but my main goal is for us to win, so I will be OK. You just need to focus on going out there and being who you are.”

After hearing those things from him, it took a big weight off of my shoulders and I was able to just go out and play. Then the run started at Carolina. Coach told us that anytime we got the ball, just go ahead and shoot it, we’re not going to call plays, we just started playing and Jay started doing what he did, Shane made plays and we got the win. Then we got into the Tournament you gotta remember Jay exploding against UCLA and then the Final 4 being down 22 to Maryland and Coach calling that timeout and asking us, “What are you guys scared of? You think it’s going to be more embarrassing if you lose by 40? Just go out and play, just relax, don’t worry so much.” To be able to come back and once we beat Maryland, I knew we were going to win it all. I just felt at that time that it was meant for us to win. Then seeing the countdown go down and seeing all of us embrace each other knowing all the hard work and sacrifice we had done to get to that point, it was just an amazing run, something I’ll never forget.

What do you think you remember most from the day of the National Championship game aside from winning it?

For me I had that little collision before the end of the game with Steve Blake in the Final 4, so I had like a mild concussion. I just remember the trainer and the doctors making absolutely sure that I was cleared to play and just trying to get mentally focused to play. Just going through that whole preparation because I was not going to allow anything to stop me from playing in that game.

Obviously that was just the first year of a four year Duke career that led to you playing with some other really talented guys like J.J. Redick and Luol Deng and many others. What was the adjustment like for going from being a freshman contributor on National Championship Team to being an upperclassmen on what were some really good Duke teams also?

Yeah for me, I had pretty much four different teams. Freshman year Shane was our captain and he’s probably the best leader I’ve ever seen do it. He just made everything easier for us because he kinda took the burden  off of everybody to where everybody could relax and just go play.

Then the next year that’s kinda what we lacked. We didn’t have a true leader, and we just tried to do everything by our talent and that’s why I think we fell short because we didn’t have that leadership. We didn’t have that senior leader, that was Jay’s and Carlos’s last year we thought and we didn’t know about Mike, but we kinda knew that those guys might be gone, so it was a different kind of year.

Then junior year it was a different role for me being one of the older guys and having six freshman come in and they were playing significant minutes. I know for me personally that year I put too much burden on my shoulders just trying to do everything perfect, everything right and it kinda hurt me a little bit because I wanted everything so bad and it was a learning experience for me.

My senior year I really figured it out and being able to make that run with those guys, that was just a really great feeling. I think we should have won it all that year, I felt like we kinda gave it away against Connecticut. That was a real fun team to be around and I really enjoyed being around that team, it was just a blast being a captain of that team and being an extension of Coach during that process.

What was your relationship like with Coach K after four years at Duke and especially that senior season?

It was great, our dialogue with one another was off the charts. I kinda knew what to expect from him year to year and he knew what to expect from me. With us it was more about us preparing to make sure that everybody was on the same page. Just being able to go up and suggest things to him and him bouncing ideas off of me. Working together with him was just really fun and again, being an extension of him out there on the court, it was a lot of fun for me and there were a lot of times where he didn’t even have to call plays because I knew what the situation was in the game, how the game was flowing and so he would just let me be the quarterback out there and whatever he needed, he would step in and we had a great working relationship.

What do you point to that allowed that working relationship to form as it did?

It was time, definitely time and it starts from your freshman year. Coach does a great job at building relationships with all his guys and it’s not just with the stars, it’s with the walk-ons, the managers, everyone there has their relationship with Coach. Being his point guard especially with that being the position that he played, that’s kinda a special bond because he understands that as a point guard you have to play well and also be a leader. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that and you have to be prepared not just physically but also mentally and you have to condition for that. We did everything necessary to make sure that I felt like I was in the condition necessary to do that.

How have you seen your relationship with Coach K evolve over the years?

We still have that relationship, I talk with him all the time. I’m always calling and checking up on him and he’s always doing the same. We built that family relationship and that’s what always there when you leave Duke.

Last question…having played a part in a large number of wins, what was it like to see Coach K get his 1,000th victory?

It was great. It just solidified his greatness and what he’s built especially at the Duke program. There’s no one who has done what he has done, people don’t really understand just all the many lives that he has really touched. To see all his former players come back and really be genuinely thankful that we were a part of that, that’s special to us to have been coached by him. It’s also really great to see the special relationships that he has built with all of us as players but also his staff, everybody affiliated with the program.

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