Scheyer waits for another shot
Having recovered from a serious eye injury, the former Duke star has NBA dreams
CHICAGO -- The Cameron Crazies were hopping and Dickie V was bellowing. North Carolina and Duke! Tobacco Road! Cameron Indoor Stadium!
For four years, Jon Scheyer was right there; flush in the middle of what some consider the greatest rivalry in college basketball.
Whatever happened to that guy anyway?
Early on, he studied the game impassively, watching North Carolina put on an impressive first-half run against his team.
His girlfriend, a pretty brunette with bangles on her arm, sat beside him, alongside his close friends from high school. His family was there, too, as they always are.
His sister Brooke was in charge of the night, which was a fundraiser for his eponymous foundation (jonscheyer.com). (The purpose of Scheyer's foundation is to support other charitable endeavors.) It was billed as: Watch the Duke game with Jon Scheyer.
A year ago, they were watching Scheyer, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who epitomized Duke basketball, regardless of what you think about it.
Was it tough for him to watch dispassionately from afar? You bet it was.
Last year at this time, he scored 24 points to lead the Blue Devils to a 10-point win over the Tar Heels, breaking a modest losing streak for his team in Chapel Hill, N.C. A few weeks later, Scheyer scored 20 when Duke destroyed Carolina 82-50 in his last game at Cameron. A month after that, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Blue Devils nipped Butler to win the national championship.
Since then, his luck has changed and his public profile has been significantly downsized. The coverboy of the most famous college basketball program is now a man in transition, waiting for his present to become his future.
You might have forgotten about Scheyer shortly after Gordon Hayward missed that half-court shot in the NCAA title game.
He had an unfortunately timed bout of mononucleosis last spring, hampering his draft workouts. He went undrafted in June, and after signing with the Miami Heat summer league team, he suffered a horrible eye injury when Golden State's Joe Ingles poked him in his right eye. Thought at first to be a laceration of the eyelid, it turned out Scheyer suffered optic nerve damage and a tear in the retina.
After a miserable two-month recovery, visits to specialists and more games of Monopoly than allowed by the Surgeon General or Parker Bros., his vision recovered enough for him to try out for the Los Angeles Clippers, though he now has to wear glasses and goggles when he plays.
But he wasn't in the right kind shape, mentally or physically, and he was cut. Taken out of context, that's the harshest blow of all, right? National champion at Duke to the Clippers' rejection list.
"I think it was a little shock to his system, coming off winning a national championship and then getting released by the Clippers," his agent Mark Bartelstein said.
Since then, Scheyer has worked compulsively on his game, stayed active with his foundation, and traveled. He worked out with Christian Laettner in Jacksonville recently, and has visited campus a couple times to play with the Blue Devils, and New York to see friends. Mostly, he's been out of sight. He said he's been to one Bulls game, to see former teammate Gerald Henderson play for the Charlotte Bobcats.
"This is the first year in eight years that I've been out of the media," he said. "You haven't been seeing me. I was probably more watched as a sixth- or seventh-grader than I am now. I've been in the gym by myself, lifting, working out. I've gotten back to the love of the game."
Scheyer was a teenage phenom in Northbrook, Ill. Tom Crean offered him a scholarship to Marquette in eighth grade. He led Glenbrook North to a state title as a junior. He was more popular in the North Shore than Ferris Bueller.
After going undrafted, the nightmare scenario for any big-time college player, Scheyer signed on with the Heat summer league team about a week before LeBron James and Chris Bosh committed to join Dwyane Wade. The roster was gutted and the situation seemed perfect for a shooting specialist who could play a little point guard, scrap in practice, and also dole out high-fives at timeouts.
"Oh man, the first thing that happened after LeBron decided, all my best friends were texting me, 'Only you would go to the most hated college team to the most hated pro team,'" he said. "They were mad they might have had to root for the Heat after rooting for Duke."
Scheyer hit a game-winning shot in the Heat's first summer league win. But it was in the second game in mid-July, he suffered a life-changing injury.
His parents, Jim and Laurie, decided to go to Las Vegas on a whim to see him play. It was a good decision by them, because he wound up needing their help. When he crumpled to the ground after Ingles' errant swipe at the ball, it was obvious the injury was bad.
"I had one of those sick feelings," Jim said.
Scheyer was taken to a Las Vegas hospital where he was treated and released. With the situation stabilized, Scheyer was back in Durham within days, where he received expert care at the university hospital, Jim said. He saw experts in North Carolina and Chicago, and all they could really prescribe was medication and rest.
But how could Scheyer rest?
The competitive junkie wasn't allowed to exercise, and he couldn't even watch TV. He had to keep his head still and couldn't be exposed to bright lights. He wore an eye patch. He suffered from debilitating headaches.
So the family played board games for more than a month, mostly Monopoly.
"He needed something to channel his competitiveness," Brooke Scheyer said. "He's competitive in everything he does, and Monopoly is the worst. He gets a sick pleasure out of buying properties and making people give him money."
"I hope I never have to see a Monopoly board again," Jim said. Those two wound up playing a gin game that ended 3,800 to 3,600.
Jon said he is forever grateful for his family after that ordeal.
After his eye healed enough to begin working out, Scheyer accepted that ill-fated training camp invite with the Clippers. He said the two months off left him in no shape to make an NBA roster, and he doesn't want to repeat that mistake.
"I talked to my agent and said I need to get back to 100 percent before I do anything," he said. "I took some time off."
Bartelstein agreed with the decision. Like most athletes of his ilk, Scheyer has been playing basketball nonstop since before puberty. He played 144 consecutive games at Duke, a school record, and holds the ACC's single-season record for minutes played at 1,470.
"He needed time to take a deep breath and evaluate what he wants to do," Bartelstein said in a phone conversation. "Now does he want to go to the D-League, go overseas or wait to take his shot with an NBA team this summer?"
Bartelstein said there has been interest overseas, but not the right situation. Scheyer had a better selection of suitors in the summer, but he was committed to going to training camp.
Scheyer was upset, but he his spirits never wavered, his family and Bartelstein said. Of the accident, he said, "For better or worse, you adjust and move on."
He thinks the time off has helped his game. He's gained back the weight he lost from mono, and added some more. He's up to 195 pounds now.
"I don't look like Dwight Howard or anything," he said, which is good, because you often get them confused.
Always a good shooter, he said he's worked harder at his stroke. He'll never wow the league with his lateral quickness or brute strength, but anyone who has watched him play knows he can shoot.
"You need something to hang your hat on in the NBA, something where you say 'This is what I'm really good at,'" Scheyer said. "Shooting can be that for me." Scheyer also has great court vision, and Duke got better once he started playing point guard. Is his vision affected by the damage done to his right eye? While his vision is slightly impaired, he said corrective lenses have worked to rectify the problem.
"The eye is doing well," he said. "I would like to think the only thing different is that I'm wearing goggles when I play. I can't tell any difference. I don't know any difference."
"The eye is not an issue at this point," Bartelstein said.
Unless a prime spot opens up somewhere, Scheyer will spend the rest of the winter and spring here, waiting for the summer and opportunities. He has been active in his own foundation.
Jim tells a story about his son meeting a second-grade basketball player who plays with goggles because of a degenerative eye condition. It put things in perspective. The money from Wednesday's event went to that boy's foundation.
"Things happen for a reason," Jon said. "I feel truly great about what's happened to me this year."
I asked Jim Scheyer if he's noticed how introspective his son has become.
"That's a good observation," he said. "That's a really good observation."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.