Imagine how Duke forward Roshown McLeod must have felt. About three months ago his basketball career seemed to have turned to ash: His risky transfer to Duke after his sophomore year, this senior season, a future in the NBA. He saw tape of himself playing, and he wanted to puke. But he blamed his teammates and his coach for his travails. McLeod knew that something had gone sour and very soon his collegiate career would be over and he wouldn't know what had happened. He went home for Christmas break, and his most trusted friends told him, You're the problem. "The longest four days in my life," McLeod says.
Imagine, then, how he felt last Saturday. Just minutes before one of the great episodes in the epic Duke-North Carolina rivalry, minutes before his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, McLeod stood at center court as an avalanche of applause piled on him and his two-year-old son, Anthony. He held the boy in his arms, and the two waved like royalty. McLeod never felt so accepted, never felt so loved. But that was nothing. Two hours and 21 points later he plowed through Tar Heels junior forward Antawn Jamison, everybody's national player of the year, and banked in a driving layup to give No. 1 Duke a 77-75 lead that held up in the closing seconds. Soon after-ward an ear-smashing throng of fans stampeded the floor. "A lot of people, their time comes, and they don't even notice it," the 6'8", 220-pound McLeod had said the day before. "This is my time."
Imagine. Just three weeks earlier Duke had suffered a 24-point hammering by the Tar Heels in what appeared to be a North Carolina declaration of greatness. Since then, though, the Tar Heels' lack of depth and overdependence on Jamison and junior forward Vince Carter had begun to tell. On Feb. 21 North Carolina lost at home to N.C. State, and then, after again dominating Duke for much of the game—with Jamison at one point blowing a kiss to the Cameron crazies and mouthing the words, "We're bustin' your ass"—blew a 17-point lead last Saturday. The Tar Heels scored just two field goals in the final 11½ minutes, and they head into this week's ACC tournament suddenly looking both weary and suspect. "If I don't touch the ball the last nine minutes, something's wrong said Jamison, who finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds but was a nonfactor when it mattered most. "We took a giant step back. I'd rather lose by 20 than like that. When you have the game in your hands and you let it slip away, that's not the sign of a great team."
Duke, on the other hand, may well be starting to exhibit just those signs, and coach Mike Krzyzewski is positively giddy. Three years ago Coach K took the last three months of the season off because of exhaustion and back surgery, and the Blue Devils, winners of the NCAA title in 1991 and '92, dropped out of the elite. But this season has seen all the old indicators crop up: Krzyzewski's name is surfacing again in talk about NBA coaching vacancies—he says he's not interested, for the moment—and his team has won two ACC regular-season tides in a row. "I was determined to get our program back in the position to be competitive for the national championship," Krzyzewski says. "That's the program we had here for a decade, and if I leave or stay, that's the program I want at Duke."
For the first time since he returned from his time off, that's the program he thinks he has. "We have a chance to do more," Krzyzewski says of advancing through the NCAA field. "Last year's team didn't have a chance. We just weren't that good. This year we are that good. We have a shot at it."
That he can say this, Krzyzewski knows, is a small wonder and is due in large part to Elton Brand. When the 6'8", 245-pound Brand, the preternaturally poised star of Duke's vaunted freshman class, broke out in the season's first 11 games to lead the Blue Devils in scoring, rebounding and, more and more, leadership, Krzyzewski finally had the gritty post-up threat he'd lacked for years. "I'd see him every day in practice, being ravenous, I mean, just eating up instruction, drills and putting up numbers that were just off the charts, and I'd say, 'Holy mackerel, what do we have here?' " Krzyzewski says. "He has unusual athletic ability, an unusual body structure, but he also has a great mind and competitiveness to go with them—and a maturity to handle all of it. He had an impact that no other freshman I've coached had."
But on Dec. 27, just days before the ACC season began in earnest, Brand pulled up in practice with a stress fracture in his left foot and was thought to be lost for the season. A devastated Krzyzewski visited Brand in the hospital to cheer him up after surgery, but it was the 51-year-old who was cheered up by the freshman. "Don't worry, Coach," Brand told him. I'll be back sooner than everyone says."
A few days later a limping Brand turned his attention to McLeod. "He came to me and said, 'Ro, this is your chance,' " says McLeod, a Jersey City native who had kept tabs on Brand when the latter played at Peekskill (N.Y.) High. "Coming from a freshman, that's shocking," says McLeod, "but you have to understand: It was comforting because it was him. I was frustrated coming back from Christmas break, not playing as much. He was the guy who got me over the hump." Just in time.
After an unsatisfying two-year stint at St. John's, McLeod in April 1995 became Krzyzewski's first transfer at Duke. He put up decent numbers last season—11.9 points, 5.3 rebounds—but with the Blue Devils' talent level and expectations higher this season, McLeod struggled early. His coaches kept riding him for his inconsistent play, and just before the break he hit bottom. "I only played nine minutes against Mercer!" McLeod says, still horrified by the thought. He was sure it was someone else's fault. It was only when McLeod got home for the holidays and heard from his high school coach at St. Anthony's, Bob Hurley, and longtime mentor Brian Doherty that he understood whom to blame.
"I just stepped back and looked at myself with a new perspective," says McLeod, who viewed tapes of Duke games while still at home. "Watching myself, the reactions I'd have—when I didn't get a loose ball, and knowing I could've gotten it—I knew I was better than that. It turned my stomach. So I started applying myself more and became more aggressive offensively and defensively. I went home and got back the love for the game and the feeling for hard work and for not just trying to fit in, but trying to be the best guy out there."