After personal tragedy, Andre Dawkins shares emotional journey
Andre Dawkins had walked by the photograph dozens of times, yet he never noticed he was in it. Blown up to three feet by five feet and hanging in the Duke media room, it was taken on Nov. 18, 2011 -- when Dawkins, a shooting guard, was a junior -- and shows a row of Blue Devils joyously erupting off the bench. One player is leaning over, arm raised, ready to slam his towel. Five others are leaping, their mouths agape. What prompted the celebration is not visible, which is precisely why the image hangs in such a prominent place. The players are happy not for themselves, but for their teammates. It's the spirit of champions.
Leaning closer to the picture, Dawkins finds himself, mostly obscured by the airborne shins of forward Josh Hairston. Dawkins isn't jumping for joy; he isn't even standing up. Rather, he seems glued to his seat, a glum expression on his face.
"That was before they made us stop wearing Jordans," Dawkins says, because it is easier to change the subject.
He stares a few seconds more, then says, "Man, that's the highest Josh has ever jumped."
Finally, he turns soulful: "It's tough to see that because our team is supposed to be a family." The truth is spilling out.
"I should be one of those guys jumping around, but all I could think about was what was going on in my head, not what was going on around me," he says. "Doesn't make you feel good looking at it, I can tell you that."
It is the face of depression, frozen in time. If Dawkins looks in the picture as if he had lost his best friend, it's because he had. The cheerless kid who is barely visible is about to vanish from the Duke basketball picture for a year.
It has been a long and lonely journey, this young man's search for clarity. He is asked: If you could climb onto that bench, sit next to that kid and whisper in his ear, what would you say?
"Get some help, dude," he replies. "Sooner rather than later."
How did this happen? How did the basketball get so heavy? The simple act of tossing a ball into a hoop always came so easily. When he was in elementary school in Laurel, Md., Dawkins was a post player on an AAU team that won a national championship. By seventh grade he was telling his father, Andre Sr., a huge Duke fan, that he wanted to play for the Blue Devils. On his high school basketball team in Chesapeake, Va., where he and his family had moved, Dawkins became a shooting guard. As a rising sophomore on the summer circuit, he caught the eye of the Blue Devils' coaches, who thought his textbook form and exquisite touch reminded them of another sharpshooting Virginian, Duke All-America J.J. Redick.
Growing up, Dawkins had a distant relationship with his mother, Tammy Hill-Dawkins, who had met Andre's dad when she was 18 and already pregnant with a baby girl. Andre was born in 1991, and a year later Tammy and Andre Sr. were married. They separated when Dawkins was five and divorced when he was seven. While Tammy and her daughter, Lacey, eventually moved to Columbus, Ohio, Andre stayed in Virginia with Andre Sr., who is a financial adviser, and his second wife, Pam, a school guidance counselor whom Dawkins still calls "Miss Pam."
As a child he didn't cultivate friendships, preferring to spend social time with family. When he reached his teenage years, Andre's contact with his mother became more frequent. They discovered that they shared more than just DNA. They both loved Lacey.
She was tall and pretty and a ball of fire. A member of the high school drill team, she dabbled in modeling and studied to be a pharmacy tech. Andre was about 10 when he first visited Lacey and their mother in Columbus. He tried to wrestle with her, only to find himself quickly pinned. He noticed that even when Lacey was with her friends, she hovered near him. He felt protected. "She could mess with me but nobody else was allowed to," he says.
Andre Sr. and Miss Pam have three children of their own, and Andre adores them, but Lacey was his kindred spirit. When she was a teenager and visited the Dawkins home in Virginia, she and Andre would disappear into his room for hours. Their conversations were deep and silly and everything in between. "I always [kept] to myself, and she was the social butterfly," Dawkins says. "She was always laughing, always smiling. You couldn't help but be happy when she was around because she was always happy."
Dawkins was an outstanding student, so there was no question he could cut it academically at Duke. By the end of his sophomore year the Blue Devils believed he could succeed on the court as well, and they offered a scholarship.
In just his fourth game at Duke, Dawkins came off the bench to score 20 points against Radford. Six days later he had 11 points in a win over No. 13 Connecticut. He was looking forward to a Dec. 5 game in Durham against St. John's, not only because it was going to be on national television, but also because Tammy and Lacey were making the drive from Columbus so that Lacey could see him play at Cameron for the first time.
Dawkins noticed before tip-off that they had not yet arrived, but once the game started, he was too caught up to look for them again. It wasn't until afterward that he learned from his dad that Tammy and Lacey had been in a car accident. Andre Sr. told his son that Lacey was hospitalized and in serious condition, but that she was going to be O.K.
Tammy doesn't remember the collision, which happened shortly after she had driven through a toll booth in West Virginia early that morning. She only remembers waking up behind the wheel to see that Lacey was pinned against the passenger door.
"We're gonna be O.K., Lacey," Tammy said. But her daughter did not reply.
They were taken by ambulance to a hospital. Tammy had a concussion, but Lacey's injuries were so severe that she had to be moved to another hospital to undergo intensive surgery. Several of Lacey's organs had been crushed. The doctors kept pumping blood into her. It kept pouring out. By the time Tammy got there, her daughter was gone.
Tammy did not want her son to learn just how dire the situation was until after the game, so she told her mother, Carolyn Staten, to lie when she called Andre Sr. to report the news. That's why Andre Sr. was so shocked to get a second phone call from Staten after the game was over. When he returned to where his son was standing outside the Duke locker room next to assistant coach Nate James, Andre could see in his dad's face that the news was bad. "She's gone," was all Andre Sr. could say. He and James hugged Andre tight. Then Dawkins staggered down a back hallway, overcome with grief.
The next few days were a blur. The trip home to Virginia. Traveling to the wake and the funeral. After the service Lacey's body was cremated, her ashes bagged and placed into a nondescript gray box. Andre broke down a few times, but tried to hide his sorrow. "His face was buried in his pillow, but he wouldn't let me see him cry," Miss Pam says. Krzyzewski and James attended the funeral and told Dawkins to take as much time as he wanted before returning to school, but Dawkins didn't want to take any time at all. He flew with them to Durham and dived back into the hyper-pressurized life of a Duke basketball player.
What else could he do? No amount of grieving was going to bring his sister back. At least basketball could keep his mind occupied. His friends and teammates offered their condolences, but there were no deep conversations. He didn't want to discuss it; they didn't want to pry. "It was kind of just me dealing with it," Dawkins says. "Which I don't recommend."
For a while the strategy worked. Dawkins was a productive reserve throughout his freshman season, drilling two timely three-pointers during Duke's win over Baylor in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. The next week the Blue Devils squeaked by Butler to win the NCAA championship. Dawkins was elated. Afterward he wandered around the stadium with Kelly looking for mementos. When the players went out to celebrate that night, Dawkins demurred, as usual, preferring to sit in his hotel room and watch television. Alone, his mind drifted to the magical night's missing piece. I wish she were here for this, he thought.
When his sophomore season started, Dawkins showed flashes of the skills that had made him such a promising recruit, but something seemed off. "Even when he was playing well, there was no spark to him," associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski says.
His mother, who had moved with Staten to Durham, noticed the same thing. Andre did not want to talk about the accident. He wouldn't even say Lacey's name. An undercurrent of guilt flowed through both of them. Andre was the reason Lacey was in that car. Tammy was driving it. On the few occasions when Tammy would ask how he was doing, Andre would reply, "I'm O.K. I just stay busy." Tammy did not want to press further, but she sensed trouble coming. "You can't just stay busy all the time," she says. "That's just pushing it down. If you keep doing that, one day you're going to explode."
Dawkins's junior season started early, with a summer-time exhibition tour through China. By the time preseason rolled around in October, Andre was spent. Still, he turned in his best game in a Duke uniform on Nov. 15, 2011, scoring a game-high 26 points in a win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, lifting Krzyzewski past Bob Knight on the NCAA's alltime wins list.
In his next game, however, Dawkins was invisible against Davidson, making just one basket. That was the game during which a photographer caught him marooned on the bench while his teammates celebrated an alley-oop. Krzyzewski places a huge emphasis on body language and facial expressions. When he noticed Dawkins's non-reaction while watching video, he played it for the rest of the Blue Devils and called Dawkins out for being a lousy teammate.
As Dawkins's play soured, so did his attitude. Andre Sr. and Miss Pam noticed that he rarely called home anymore. When they sent him text messages, they got one-word replies. Dawkins seemed snappish when he came home during Christmas break. He also told them that Lacey's death had made him question his faith, which was especially troubling to them because they are devout Christians.
Krzyzewski had several meetings with Dawkins to help him find his spark. It was as if the kid had a different Andre speaking over each shoulder. "The one on the right was telling him, 'Let's not work, you've got enough, don't listen, show a mood,' " Krzyzewski explains. "The one on the left was saying, 'You know you shouldn't do that. You should be how you played against Michigan State.' My feeling was he needed to tell one of them to go to hell. I said, 'You can't be friends with both those guys. It's not gonna work.' "
Left-shoulder Andre made one last appearance in February, when he scored 22 points during a pivotal win at No. 15 Florida State. From then on, however, right-shoulder Andre had his way. Dawkins went scoreless in two of his final three regular-season games, including an embarrassing 18-point loss at home to North Carolina. Dawkins knew that something inside him wasn't right -- and hadn't been for some time.
"I just remember halfway through the season waking up and thinking, God, I've got to play basketball today. I don't want to go to practice. Something dumb is gonna happen," he says. "We'd be in warmups and I'd be thinking, I have no energy. We're in Cameron. It's packed, but I can't get up to play this game. And I don't know how to express that. I can't go up to Coach and say, 'Hey, Coach, I don't want to play. I feel like crap.' I would sit there and be like, Man, I can't wait for this game to be over so I can leave."
Dawkins tried switching his routine to see if that would help. He ate more. He ate less. He went to bed earlier, woke up later, took a nap before the game. Still, he could not shake the torpor. Krzyzewski suggested that Dawkins meet with his daughter, Lindy Frasher, a counselor in the Duke basketball office who holds a master's in clinical psychology from Pepperdine. Andre spoke with Frasher a couple of times, but he was just going through the motions.
The ball got heavier. Forget drilling three-pointers as if they were layups -- he could no longer make layups. As Dawkins's teammates watched him unravel, they never guessed that his problems might be connected to Lacey's death. "Everybody goes through ups and downs with how they play," says Ryan Kelly, a 6' 11" forward who roomed with Dawkins his sophomore and junior seasons and became his closest friend on the team. "That's just the world of basketball."
Things bottomed out in the postseason. "You couldn't trust him in a game," Krzyzewski says. The Blue Devils earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they were shocked in the first round by 15th-seeded Lehigh. Dawkins shot 2 for 9 from the field in the loss. The players and the coaches were crushed. Dawkins wasn't. "It was embarrassing to lose, but at the same time it was kind of a relief because the thing we've been doing since July is done," he says. "Now we can do something else, which is not basketball."
In the days that followed, Dawkins came to the practice facility for weightlifting, but he noticed that he was not on any of the schedules for individual workouts. That's weird, he thought. When he went to Krzyzewski's office for what he assumed was a standard end-of-season meeting, Coach K dropped the bomb on him. "You're not going to play for us next year," he said.
Dawkins was stunned, but Krzyzewski explained that the coaches had decided that whatever issues Dawkins was having, he was not going to solve them while continuing to play. "I knew this kid was having problems, fundamental things that went way beyond basketball," Krzyzewski says. "I told him, 'Look, I'm not professionally able to help you at the level that you need to be helped, and you being in this environment, I believe, is not healthy for you. We need to get you out of this so you can find out what makes you happy, what keeps you on an even keel.' Because if he was only playing ball to get away from something, then he would never really face up to his problems."
The coach laid out the options. Dawkins could transfer to another school and then play after sitting out for a year. He could remain at Duke on scholarship and complete his degree in African & African American Studies, at which point he could transfer somewhere else and play right away. Or he could take the year off from school completely. Krzyzewski indicated Dawkins might be able to play for Duke again, but at that moment the possibility seemed remote. "I was angry, upset, sad, everything," he says. "I decided, I'm going to get my degree, and I'm leaving to play somewhere else."
For the first time in forever, a game did not rule Dawkins's life. "He didn't even want to talk about basketball," Tammy says. Since he was no longer a part of the team, Krzyzewski said he couldn't live with Kelly, so Dawkins asked his mom to move in with him. Dawkins was allowed to use Duke's practice facility, but only if neither the men's nor women's team was in there. He could attend home games but not visit the locker room.
When Krzyzewski broke the news to Dawkins about the decision, he suggested that Dawkins meet with Frasher again. This time Dawkins was willing to commit to getting better. During one of their first visits Frasher asked Dawkins to fill out a questionnaire. She read his answers, looked up at him and said, "It sounds like you're depressed."
Depressed. Dawkins had to admit it made sense. Frasher referred him to a psychiatrist at the Duke Medical Center, who suggested that he start taking daily doses of Zoloft, an antidepressant. It took a few weeks to figure out the right dosage, but the medicine eased Dawkins's anxiety. He slept better and could feel his energy returning.
Dawkins also met regularly with Frasher to root out the causes of his depression. They talked about Lacey's death, about his habit of bottling up his feelings and about how he ended up in that dark place. Dawkins began to feel cleansed by something the world seldom heard -- the sound of his own voice. And he got better. "I was able to say how I was feeling without feeling like I was being judged," he says. "I've never, ever done that. As I did it more, I started feeling this relief. I learned that people are there and they want to help. You've got to let them help."
Now that he had all kinds of free time, Dawkins tried new things. He took up golf. He agreed to perform in a musical, which meant attending daily rehearsals during March Madness. (He watched the games on his phone during breaks.) Though barely 100 people attended the shows, when it came time for Dawkins to perform his solo, he was far more nervous than when he had played in the Final Four before 70,000 spectators. He sang his heart out anyway.
There was no single turning point, no eureka moment when Dawkins said to himself, There. I'm cured. But slowly the darkness lifted. He weaned himself off the Zoloft early in the spring semester. He went to all of Duke's home games and found himself wishing he was out there. Senior Day was the toughest. As he watched his former classmates bask in their final ovations, Dawkins stood in the bleachers and thought, This sucks. He started playing ball on his own, driving to Raleigh or downtown Durham to work with trainers and get up some shots. When he practiced at home with his father, he shot free throws just as if he were in a game, even reaching out his fists between attempts to dap imaginary teammates.
After Duke's season ended, Dawkins knew that he wanted to play college basketball again. But not for anyone. He wanted to play for the Blue Devils. That had been his dream. That's what Lacey had been coming to see him do. But did Duke want him back?
He took a deep breath and decided to send a text message to Coach K. Just as he started typing, Wojciechowski called. They agreed to meet the next day. When Wojciechowski asked Dawkins how he was doing, Andre opened up about what had been going on inside his head during that tumultuous junior season. He never used the d-word, but as he spoke, he could see Wojciechowski's eyes filling up. "It kind of validated why I came here," Dawkins says. "Duke has always had my heart."
Wojciechowski relayed Dawkins's wishes to Krzyzewski, but Coach K wanted to talk to some of the other players, not to mention Dawkins himself. When they got together, Krzyzewski suggested that Dawkins wear a different number, signifying a fresh start. Dawkins had been thinking the same thing; he chose 34, Kelly's old number. Krzyzewski also warned that if Dawkins came back, he had to be a better player, but more important, he had to be a better teammate. "He said it's not going to be the same," Dawkins says. "That was fine. I didn't want to be the same anymore."
During the worst of times Dawkins had sat through many tense meetings in Krzyzewski's office. As those sessions drew to a close, the coach would often ask, "Do you have anything else you'd like to say?"
"Nope," Dawkins would reply.
Krzyzewski's scornful retort: "I didn't think so."
"That made me mad," Dawkins says. "Now, when I go in there, I have things to say. I have things I'm trying to get off my chest."
It is one of the many ways Dawkins has changed. Now, if Andre Sr. or Miss Pam don't immediately return his voice mails, he will call them back and ask why. His teammates have noticed as well. "You can easily see a difference," Hairston says. "Having a year to be on the outside looking in, I think it really did humble him. It's been good to see him laughing and joking with everybody again."
"I don't want to say he's a much better kid, because he's never been a bad kid," Krzyzewski adds. "He was a good kid who just went into some emotional ups and downs. But he is in a much better place. I think Andre really likes Andre. He has his arms around his life right now."
Now that he's back on the team, the 6' 5" Dawkins is not looking for sympathy. "This isn't a year for me to ride off into the sunset and be a feel-good story," he says. "I'm coming back to play basketball. I want to start, and I want to score. If I didn't have that mind-set, there would be no point in me playing."
Tammy has been making her own strides as well. She lives with her mother a few blocks from the apartment Dawkins now shares with Kelly's younger brother, Sean, a team manager. Though Tammy and Andre were disconnected for much of Andre's childhood, they now share a bond. It is a bond sealed by tragedy, but it promises to endure. "Me and him are the only two who really suffer this loss," Tammy says, brushing away tears. "He has his guilt, and I have my guilt. That's what makes it so hard."
Before Andre spoke out, maybe a half-dozen people -- including the two professionals who treated him -- knew that he had been diagnosed with clinical depression. Even Ryan Kelly, his closest friend in the program and now a member of the Lakers, was unaware. "I wouldn't say it surprises me, but I don't mind at all that he didn't tell me," Kelly says. "I'd venture to guess most guys don't talk to each other about this kind of stuff too much."
That, Dawkins knows, is part of the problem. He hopes that by coming forward he might help others who are lost in the darkness. "I've gone through woods, forest, everything, and I'm on my way out," he says. "I'm just trying to leave bread crumbs." More than anything else, Dawkins's ordeal has taught him the power of his own mind. If his thoughts can shut his body down, they can also lift his spirits when times get tough. "I went home for a couple of weeks before the school year started, and my dad said to me, 'When you're doing stuff you don't want to do, like running wind sprints or something at the end of practice, just think to yourself, What's the alternative?' The alternative is sitting on my couch and not having anything to do."
That attitude was on display during a recent workout at the Duke practice facility. As Dawkins played a series of pickup games with his teammates, he moved around the floor with grace and good cheer, drilling long-range jumpers with his customary ease. Sitting on an adjacent court, assistant Nate James nodded in approval. "It's not just that he's happier. He's present," James said. "That's what I like to see."
As the last five-on-five game was drawing to a close, Dawkins's team had game point. Suddenly, there was a scramble for a loose ball. As several players dived to the floor, Dawkins bent down and snatched the ball out of the scrum, but his right foot remained caught under the pile of bodies. With the shot clock winding down, he had no choice but to contort his body in order to face the basket. Dawkins was way off-balance, but his form remained picture perfect -- elbow cocked at a proper angle, right wrist flicking just so. The shot splashed through without touching the rim. As his teammates groaned, Dawkins stumbled away from the pile and laughed as he jogged downcourt. Those dreaded wind sprints were coming up next, but that was no reason to be glum. Life was good. The ball felt light.