One on one with Roshown McLeod

He was the first transfer taken by Duke in the Coach K era and he lead the Blue Devils to 56 wins in two seasons before heading to the NBA. Since that time he’s remained active in the game of basketball on several fronts. Here’s the full story on Roshown McLeod.

Thanks for making the time to be interviewed for The Devils Den Duke Alumni Series, Roshown. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing several of your former teammates including Elton Brand and Will Avery, Trajan Langdon and several others and we appreciate you being willing to be a part of this series.

Roshown McLeod: Yeah absolutely, glad to be a part of it, that’s a good group of guys you got there. Trajan was actually my roommate and we were really close man. I got to know him real well both in the locker room and on and off the court since we lived together, really ended up being more like a brother to me. I still actually keep in contact with a lot of my teammates.

Let’s start with your relationship with Trajan since you mentioned him….

He and I were roommates and with that being said, we were from opposite ends of the country which was great because I got a chance to learn a lot about his background and I got a chance to spend time with his parents and with his sister. I still keep in contact with his sister to this day, she lives in Charlotte. His family has been a part of my family and we’ve always kept in contact with each other. As roommates, it was just one of those things. When you think about a guy who would get up the morning and workout and late at night go shooting and watching games on film and getting in the weight room and spending a little more time with the program, him  and I were able to do that and I really learned a great regard from him and I think he learned a lot from me too, especially with coming from different backgrounds and different approaches to the game of basketball.

Was Trajan your roommate during your sit out year after you transferred into Duke?

No, just my senior year and his junior year.

Before we get into your Duke career, I was hoping to learn more about what you are doing now professionally?

I’m coaching high school basketball in Georgia. This was my first year with this team, and we went 23-8, it was a really successful season. I also started my own foundation and I’m waiting for my 501 status to kick in so I can really get going with some of the programs that I want to put out there.

What’s the purpose for you with your Foundation that you’ve started?

The purpose is really to educate young people on taking responsibility for their actions, good or bad and being able to take that information and still become successful. Also, how to build relationships and sustaining them. Also how to get a job, keep a job and manage money, so teaching them important skills for the game of life. I would sum it up by saying that a lot of kids and we all did it because you don’t understand the capacity of just paying bills every month, you don’t give it any thought especially when you are between 13-17 years old of how to organize your life and just learning how to live a certain type of way so you can build a network of people so that they can share with you their experiences of what they learned from what they went through. It’s about more than just tomorrow, it’s about what their future holds, especially with going to college.

It’s interesting you are doing that kind of work with kids because in this series we’ve talked with Will Avery and Sean Dockery, both of whom are doing similar things like what you are trying to do.

Oh yeah, with Will it’s really similar and especially Will and I, he’s here in Augusta, so we talk all the time and get some stuff together. We are going to actually do a couple of events together for sure.

I’ll ask you what I asked Will and Sean regarding this type of work—what is it for you personally that led you to want to do this kind of work with kids ? What are the motivating factors?

Growing up in Jersey, I was around a lot of kids who were not necessarily….I would say needed help, they needed opportunity. After going through my process I realized that the people I met and the more educated I became, I realized that you kinda create your own opportunities and people will help you develop that. People won’t want to help you if you don’t even know what you want to do and they can help you mightily. But when you have a clear plan and goals with what you want to do, people are more likely to be invested in wanting to help you do what you are hoping to do. So for me growing up in Jersey City, I saw a lot of kids who just really needed opportunity and a little bit more focus. If they had that and if they had a little bit more focus and if you could have helped them, maybe their lives could have been a little bit more different.

Speaking of having a mentor and growing up in New Jersey, you obviously had a great one in being able to play basketball at St Anthony’s for one of the most legendary coaches of all time, Coach Hurley. What was that experience like for you being able to play for him and be mentored by him?

It was amazing because I didn’t start playing basketball really until I got to St Anthony’s. Actually, I went to St Anthony’s to play baseball. I went to play baseball and from my eighth grade year to my freshman year I grew five and a half inches. So my friends switched to basketball and obviously you go where your friends go in high school, so I played on the freshman team and we had a pretty successful season that year and I think we only lost one game that year. Then I didn’t even play my sophomore year, I think I only played 4 games and quit. By then I was about 6-foot-5 and Coach Hurley and one of our assistants, his son was on the team as well, and they just saw something in me and they met with me and my mom and really opened our eyes up to what the process could be like. They just kinda planned out my life for me right there. I’m grateful for that because being a 14 or 15 year old kid, you really have no idea what the future holds but having Coach Hurley and Coach Abdullah and my mom keeping me together, they buckled me down and kept me focused because my junior year and senior year went like this. Danny Hurley picked me up from school and Coach Hurley brought me home so that I could be focused. I think they sensed after awhile that I was 6-foot-7 and the game became a little bit easier for me. But, that whole summer going into my junior year, every camp that Coach Hurley or Danny Hurley or Bobby Hurley spoke at, I was the guy they brought around to demonstrate the drills, so I worked on my game every day and it was religiously. Over the course of a three month period, I became a better player without even realizing it. Once I started my junior year, I could see the fruits of my labor because the game was a lot easier and I could see the game a lot differently because I was around Coach Hurley every single day.

Since you spend so much time that summer around the Hurley family, is there anything you remember that they said to you that made a major impact in your life?

Of course, I got stuck sitting in the front seat sitting with Coach Hurley all the time, haha. Whenever we went he would drive us where we needed to go and nobody would want to talk to us, so I got stuck in the front  seat all the time and I was kinda forced to talk with him and he would ask questions about current events and things that happened in media, newspapers. For me it made me aware of what was going on around me outside of my community and it opened my eyes up to just being outside of Jersey City. I started to walk more and more information as I started getting into reading more and more current events. So really it just started with answering his questions and it helped me to see that the world was bigger than just Jersey City.

What was the relationship like for you with Bobby Hurley since you mentioned being around him?

Well we played in the Pro-Am a lot together, so I got a chance to really have what I consider to be a second-hand Duke experience with Bobby. Being that Duke is such a great program, I got a chance to experience that through him. So, you see him on TV every week and I always had a lot of questions for him like what it was like to play in front of those great crowds they did every game, to play with Grant Hill and Cherokee Parks and Christian Laettner all of those guys. It was just amazing to listen to me for me as a young player, so it just gave me something to strive for and the St Anthony’s family is also really close too. So the guys in that program had some success in college, but I was really closer to Bobby and he got drafted and when he did, playing and becoming a pro became a little more realistic to me. As a kid I wasn’t thinking about being a pro, I just wanted to be a good college player. Guys didn’t leave early back then, so it was more like it became a reality because I knew somebody who had done it.

We interviewed Bobby for this series a few days before our interview today and he discussed what it was like for him as a young NBA player dealing with the injuries coming back from his accident. For you being in the community and around him after that, what do you remember about how he was handling that adversity?

I remember the injury and I know it’s very, very difficult. Even after the injury, he tried to make a comeback and we would play pickup basketball a lot and you could just see the frustration he had because of his physical inability to do some of the things that he was used to doing as a player, his speed, his agility, his growth in his shot, and it became frustrating for him. But, the funny thing is I went through something similar to what he went through, so I know God had me on his side the whole time because I went through the whole career ending injury process myself and he really helped me through that because it was very difficult to have the game taken away from you in that fashion. For all the talk of what happens if you get injured and you can fall back on your education, you say that but nobody ever believes you.

So what kind of things did Bobby say to you that were helpful as you dealt with your serious injury?

He would always say enjoy your family because that’s when he would really buckle down and build his relationships. It’s weird because the family was so successful, everybody was doing their own thing. So he really started to build up a stronger bond with his mom and his brother and he was starting to do the things that you really want to do. We all know when you get a bunch of money, you realize that horse racing isn’t as great an investment as you may think. So he would tell me to make a greater investment with your family and really be conscious of what you spend your money on. Those are two things that I can really remember him telling me that I have taken with me to do this day.

What’s it like for you seeing Danny and Bobby coaching now?

As great as players as they were, I think Danny is the spitting image of his dad as a coach. I think Danny’s a great coach and I think Bobby, he will be a great coach because Bobby is like me, he learned so much of the game at such a high level that sometimes you have to dumb yourself down and really grow with your team. I had to learn that as well in my coaching career and I think once he figured that out, he’s getting the players that he enjoys coaching and I think he’s going to be a great coach as well. I’m always referring players to both of them that fit their personality and their toughness. Whenever I see players, I’m always reaching out to them and telling them that this is the type of kid you should be recruiting, so I’m in constant contact with those guys, just making sure they have the best teams they can have to play. I always want those two to do well, those two are like brothers to me.

So when you were deciding to transfer from St John’s to Duke, was the Hurley family really involved that process?

Coach Hurley and Bobby were big factors in that and Mike Brey actually was a big factor because he recruited me out of high school. When I went to St John’s and afterwords, he had initiated that process to me for Duke even though he was going to Delaware. He told me that before he left he had more one thing to do and he got the ball rolling with Coach Hurley because I was just going to transfer to Arizona, I wasn’t even considering Duke. That was really my first choice but I was so young that I was afraid of being really far from home. When Duke came into the picture, it was like a wow moment and then after the season, Coach K was in the hospital and wasn’t doing well, Grant Hill had gone to the league and Tony Lang was gone, so all the guys at my position when I looked at the Duke roster were gone and Arizona had Miles Simon, Damon Stoudamire in the League, they were picking up Mike Bibby and then Dickerson. I was like “man, there is nobody like me on the Duke roster who is 6-foot-8, can step out and shoot it, play inside and outside and can change the game in a different fashion where as Arizona has three pros.” So Duke became a strong candidate when I looked at the roster with Coach Hurley and what I saw, I saw that they needed me and I needed them. So we started building the relationship which was unbelievable and I think the coaches did a really great job at talking with me about how they would use me as a player because that was the reason I left St John’s. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing as a player there but when Coach K mapped out his vision for me, it made it really easy for me to choose Duke. As a school and as a program for sure.

What kind of vision did Coach K present for you during their recruiting process of you?

Well the first thing he said was I’m always going to have a guy from Jersey, haha. We always keep at least one guy on our roster from Jersey and that’s a good thing he said, haha. That made me smile and the second thing was I saw how he used guys like me. The toughest part really was they had never done it before with a transfer, so I had nothing to compare it to which I was nervous about. But the biggest thing was seeing guys like Grant Hill that played my position, Tony Lang, and the forwards that could step out and have freedom. Everybody always thinks that the point guard is Coach K’s favorite position, but with the Shane Battier’s and the Grant Hill’s, the guys that have changed the game for him has been the four man that can step out and do a lot of things and be a matchup nightmare. I liked the way he presented it to me and he told me I would use you in multiple ways, you won’t be restricted because I played the five at St John’s. I told him I don’t care what position I play, I just want to be able to play my game and that’s what he allowed me to do.

You mentioned you were nervous having never seen a transfer before come to Duke under Coach K…were they nervous from the Duke side?

Well if he was nervous, I didn’t see that which Coach is really good at. He just seemed very, very confident and even though I was nervous, it wasn’t a question because he was so confident and the biggest thing was the team really. I knew Jeff Capel, we were in the same class together and we went to a lot of the same camps together in high school. I knew Ricky Price and Trajan Langdon from playing AAU, so I knew guys and they made me feel welcome. They really made me feel like they needed me and they wanted me, so that question of whether it felt like a transfer, it never felt like a transfer because I knew those guys.  

When you are there the first year sitting out as a transfer student—what was the adjustment like for you being a Duke student and athlete?

Academically it was challenging but not being able to travel, I was able to buckle down and take on my academics and really get to know my professors and the lay of the land. Athletically it was difficult because I wanted to play but with the plan that Coach K talked with me about, he didn’t allow me to look at myself like I wasn’t a part of the team. So there were moments where I wouldn’t be as engaged in practice and Coach K would get on me and I would say to myself, “why is he getting on me when I’m not even playing ?” He brought me into his office and he told me, “I don’t want you to play like you are going to play next year. I don’t want people questioning what your role on the team is going to be, so when we scrimmage in practice and even when we practice, I need you to be as engaged as you possibly can be.” That moment made me feel even more wanted and it set me up with that plan so that when I was eligible to play, I wasn’t fighting to find an identity with my teammates.

When you stepped on the court your first game as a Duke Blue Devil once you were eligible—how were you feeling?

I got to play in the Blue/White game I think I scored almost like 25 points, something like that. It was really a great experience for me putting the uniform on for the first time to play. It was everything that I imagined with the excitement of coming off a season where I wouldn’t say that they over-achieved a little bit but they earned everything they got. For me it was a dream come true back to watching all my teammates play and watching Bobby play before and knowing the pageantry that comes from playing at Duke. So when I got to play, it just brought back all those memories and it made me feel like I don’t want to let Coach K down, I don’t want to let Coach Hurley down and I don’t want to let my team down, so I gave it everything I had every single time I stepped on the court. 

Then senior year comes and you are joined by one of the most talented freshman classes ever in Duke history. Guys like Will Avery, Shane Battier, Elton Brand and Chris Burgess. What was that like for you as a player and as a senior adapting to a new group?

Well my junior year we won 25 games or something like that. We had some success and we hit number one in the country a couple of times my junior year and we were getting every one back except for Jeff Capel and Greg Newton but we were bringing in a freshman class that was by far the best freshman class that I’ve seen in a long time at that point. I helped as much as I could  to get those guys in. Knowing Elton from New York, I knew him from a young age and then Shane came on his visit and Will, I just saw a vision of doing something great and the thing about Duke, when you are playing, there is no freshman, sophomore, junior, senior status. It’s the guys that work the hardest who play and the message from those guys was always how do we get better as a team and I think that was a good focus that Coach instilled in us that year that led to us being very successful. 

As a senior leader, what was your approach to leading on that team?

Well, going into my senior year and having had some success my junior year, a goal for me personally was I would say lead by example because I didn’t start off my senior year as a captain. It was a little disappointing but I used that as motivation to enhance who I was and tried to take on a bigger role and halfway through the season, because of the way I played and the new level I reached, my teammates talked to Coach and voted me the third captain. So for me that’s one of my biggest successes as a basketball player was to be able to have my team want me to come and lead them. That was a huge accomplishment for me to see how much my team respected and wanted to be led by me.

From a basketball perspective Roshown, what was it like for you practicing against the level of talent you guys had those years?

Yeah man, we had 12 guys that could start on any team in the country with Nate James and Chris Carrawell and Mike Chappell, those guys were sophomores at the time and for us the memorable moments for me was the practices and just how much more difficult they were than the games because we had so many good players. It really didn’t matter who was on what team in practice because there was always good competition and when the games came about, they were always easy because the other teams weren’t better than our second unit. We had Chris Carrawell, we had Shane Battier, myself, whoever, our guys were better than most other teams and my most memorable experiences were in practice. It was always competitive and we had guys like Ricky Price, Shane Battier, we all played the same position but we were all different so we could play in different ways and play together and it didn’t matter who was on the court because we all had different roles and we understood those roles and we tried to play those roles to the best of our abilities for one purpose, which was to win games.

Was there anybody outside of Trajan that you really grew close with during your time at Duke?

Elton and I still talk to this day. I’m still close with his mom and Will and I are really close, we still talk to this day. Chris Carrawell, him and I are close and we still talk a lot. Up until this year, I would get back to Durham like five or six times a year. Then during the Coach K Academy I would develop relationships with guys that I didn’t know like Grant, him and I text back and forth often; Robert Brickey I’m close with now, I’ve just developed a relationship with the family of Duke. Christian Laettner and I speak regularly since he’s got some basketball things going on down in Florida so I like to ask questions to guys that are doing things similar to myself. I talk with Shane, when Shane comes into town we go to dinner and I go watch him play when he’s in town. So the relationship has been very consistent with guys on my team because even when I was playing in the pros, all those guys, I’ve even got a relationship with Kyrie Irving, I’ve got a relationship with Nolan Smith, guys that are younger. It’s really a family thing more than it’s just a team thing.

What’s that like for you building all those relationships over time with so many former Duke players?

It’s funny because it’s really unique. I don’t know any other school that really does it like that. I think that’s a part of what makes Duke great is because of the connection of the past to the present and it’s all been under one guy. That’s very, very rare to have so many guys to play for the same guy and it’s funny because I got that experience very early playing for Coach Hurley. To be able to get that experience with Coach K, it was very familiar for me in a way.

Let’s talk about your relationship with Coach K. Since you took a different route to get to Duke—how have you seen your relationship with him grow and change over time?

We still talk, actually I just bought my son a Duke uniform for the first time when we went to the game against Clemson, and I just sent Coach a picture of my son with the jersey on and said “put me in coach haha.” So he and I we speak regularly, every birthday, every Christmas, it’s just like clockwork with either a phone call or hand-written note saying it was great to coach you. When I first started coaching myself and being able to lean on him for advice or to pick up the phone and have a  reference for anything like that, it’s been amazing the support he’s given me and the other guys as well. I see it this way and I think he does do, when his guys are successful, that makes him successful. He and I have been very very close and when my mom passed away, my mom passed away at the Duke hospital. He’s been a mentor for me and like a father in some ways and I wanted to keep my family close to him because I see his family and how they help him create the Duke family because of how close he is with Mickie and his family and all of those grandkids, they are all a part of that family and they all have one goal as a family.

It’s interesting you mention Coach K being there for you with your mom in the hospital. I remember reading about Jay Williams when he was in the hospital and Coach K went to be with him right after. Do you remember any of the interactions you had with Coach K as your mom was in the Duke Hospital?

Oh yeah, Jay and I are both from Jersey and we actually played for the same AAU program even though he was younger than I was, he was cool with my sister. He and I learned that we had the same exact injury with the type of nerve injury. I remember I was playing in Cameron and Jay would be like, “I need to talk with you Ro” and we would go out in the hall and sit on the steps and he would ask me what I thought he should do. He’d say “I really want to play but physically I’m not sure I can, what did you go through with that?” So I just told him what I had gone through and what I did and I basically just told him you have to go with your heart but you also have to listen to your body because your heart may say one thing but your body might say something else. Which one is going to help you gain the most success? I think I opened his eyes up to what else could you be good at? You are a good looking guy, you can communicate, and people told me that too but I wanted to be around my son and then I had three kids and I wanted to come home at night and spend time with them and not be on the road all the time. So just talking with him was huge with having gone through the same injury and it made us closer.

With Coach K man, the words of encouragement for my mom was unbelievable. When we got to Duke Hospital, he was the first person at the door and all the great doctors, everybody that he could get his hands on for us, he got because we didn’t find out until she was there that my mother was eternally ill. He was very influential in getting me the information and helping me understand where we were and how to approach the situation because my mom was sick, but I didn’t know how bad. Once we were able to find that information out that she was terminally ill, it was a lot easier to prepare for the next step. We had a sense of how long she had and were able to be prepared for her passing.

Those are stories that you don’t hear a lot about. What did it mean it mean to you to have Coach K be there for you and your family during that difficult time?

Yeah Coach Hurley was a very similar mentor, so it gave me a comfort that was familiar. A lot of times when you leave your high school coach and you were close, you are looking for some more comfort and Coach K was able to, I didn’t have that same comfort when I was at St John’s because I had a child my second year at St John’s. I didn’t get the same comfort as a 19 year old father but having something that’s not as happy as the birth of your child with the passing of my mom, it really helped for me to get that comfort from Coach and really from the whole staff, not just from Coach K, it was also from Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, it was Quin Snyder and David Henderson, it was the whole staff that was there for me. It made things a lot easier to deal with.

How did they help you work through being a parent while also being a Duke student athlete?

Well you know, Dave Henderson was huge at always making sure my focus wasn’t one-sided. He would say that if you want to be somebody and really make it in this game, that’s a way to potentially support your child. A lot of times when you are a young father, you want to see your son, you want to make sure he’s ok, you want to hold him and with him living in New Jersey with his mom, I was homesick a little bit. To be able to hear from your coaches that what you are doing is for your son is the best situation for you to be able to provide for your son. That always helped me become focused and that always helped me to look at what was most important. Sitting next to him at home was not going to help me be able to provide a great lifestyle for him because I knew what it was like to grow up in a single parent home where my mom made $18,000 a year and that’s not what I wanted for my child. I wanted him to be able to go to a good school and to have the opportunity to meet people on a higher level and not just grow up in the city and only know what’s in a six to eight block radius.

What’s it like for you seeing yourself go full circle from your high school days with now you are the coach?

For me I’ve taken on the identity of the coaches that is really a combination of the different coaches that I played for. Some of my most memorable coaches obviously have been Coach Hurley and Coach K but also Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson and Quin Snyder and Tommy Amaker and Tim O’Toole, those guys really affected my life a lot and I’ve taken a piece from each of them and I’ve created what I think works best for me and for the players that I’m coaching who play for me. Some of these kids are even referring to me as their second dad which is great for me and I always help them understand that if you have a father in your life, it may not be the relationship that you want, but you can change that by asking the right questions. Never assume that your dad doesn’t love you or that your dad doesn’t want to know you. Because of the way I grew up, my father and I weren’t close but we weren’t not close, so as I got older I started to see some of the challenges that he went through as a follower and it helped me understand some of the decisions that he had made as a young man and I was able to forgive him and really build a better relationship with him. So I try to share that experience with a lot of the kids that play for me because you really truly don’t know what your parents are going through unless you keep an open line of communication. I try to do that with my players because I was always able to keep that line of communication open with my coaches and I could talk with them about anything I wanted to and they would always answer the question.

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