- Tom Friend, ESPN.com Senior writer
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Where's Shelden going? Why is he up out of his chair? Doesn't he know the game starts in 30 minutes? Coach K's gonna walk in here any second to go over the game plan, and he's gonna want everyone in their seat. So why is Shelden rushing across the locker room, headed for the dry-erase board? Wait, is he gonna talk?
So far, all he's doing is writing. He's got a marker, and he's jotting down the keys to beating Maryland. Damn, Shelden hates Maryland. He writes: 1. Emotion. 2. Duke defense. 3. Deny. 4. Shoot your shot. 5. Attack. 6. Be mature. 7. Follow me. He hasn't said a word, and he isn't going to.
Shelden sits down, and the whole team is clapping now, pounding the floor. Here comes Coach K. He sees the board, sees what Shelden has written. He's got nothing to add. Coach K says, "Guys, Shelden told you what to do. Now let's go out and execute."
Everyone goes wild. Shelden too. On the court, that is. He gets a triple-double: 19 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks. Gets then-No. 1 Duke a 24-point win.
When Shelden doesn't talk, people listen.
EVEN STRONG, silent types have something to say. It's just hard to drag it out of them.
Ask J.J. Redick about his 6'9'' center, Shelden Williams, a guy he's been playing with for four years, and he says, "Shelden is a tough nut to crack." Is it his basset-hound expression? Is it because he's the only Blue Devil who locks his locker? Is it because he's always in bed by midnight? Is it because he goes to exactly one party a year? Is it because he prays before the national anthem, during the national anthem and after the national anthem? Is it because his voice is sheer gravel? Is it because of the accusation?
If they only knew him when. Back in Forest Park, Okla., when he had an Afro and wore a headband. He once blocked 16 shots in a game as a high school freshman and began answering to Landlord because he owned the paint. He even wrote "Land" on one sock and "Lord" on the other. He pounded his chest and did Tarzan calls after dunks. He had a mouth in those days. The Cameron Crazies wouldn't have recognized him.
He was by no means an obnoxious kid; he was just a kid. His parents docked his allowance if he cursed. His dad was a basketball coach, teacher and church deacon, while Mom worked for the state insurance board and sang in the church choir. Shelden often slept over at the reverend's house.
That was Shelden's life. Even in the summertime, his parents, Bob and Jeannette, wouldn't let him out of the house until he'd studied the Bible and a schoolbook, and they didn't let him sleep past 10. He could shop for music only at Wal-Mart, where the rap CDs were the edited versions, and his year-round household chores included scrubbing bathrooms, mowing the lawn, tending the garden and cleaning the gutters. He never tried to beg out.
So everybody loved Shelden. Teachers did, because his GPA hovered above 3.7. Pastors did, because he sang in the youth church choir and brought meals to the homeless. And of course his coaches did, because he D'ed up. Long before, his father had taught him to block shots with either hand, to tap them toward teammates instead of out of bounds, to never sulk when he wasn't scoring. Did this sound like a Duke recruit or what?
Mike Krzyzewski thought so. He first saw Shelden as a rising ninth-grader, just after he'd gone for 42 points and 10 blocks in a national AAU game, and quickly made him a priority. By Shelden's senior year, he'd held his own against guys like Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, and Coach K flew in with assistant Steve Wojciechowski for a home visit.
Wojo remembers the evening for Jeannette's delectable macaroni and cheese--"only home visit I never said a word; I was too busy eating"--and Shelden remembers that it clinched his decision to become a Blue Devil. Not that he told anybody. Local Sooner fans certainly didn't want to hear it. They were telling him that if he chose Duke, he wouldn't see playing time until his senior year. He was a naïve kid, a sheltered kid, and he considered his college decision some sort of state secret. He had bumped into Redick at a camp, and Redick, who'd already committed to Duke, asked, "Do you know where you're going?" Shelden said yes, and when Redick asked where, he answered, "I can't tell you, but I will say this: The city that the school is in rhymes with Abraham."
Redick said, "Shelden, Durham and Abraham don't rhyme." As a grinning Redick recounts the exchange now, he says, "Shelden was young then."
And about to go into a shell.
WHAT HAVE you gone and done, Shelden? The police are here. They say they want to talk to you. They say a young woman has made a complaint that you and four of your teammates had her up to a hotel room during a tournament in Ohio. That you and two buddies had your way with her while the other two watched. That she said stop and you guys didn't. She's calling it rape. You, Shelden? You?
You tell the police they've got it wrong. You go to your pastor, Rev. Kenneth West, and say, yes, something happened in that hotel room, but you had no hand in it. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you don't want to say much else. But your high school friends want to say it for you. They say you and a buddy were in another room after curfew and that a coach shooed you back into your own room. They say when you entered, this 19-year-old girl was already inside with some teammates. That she left for another room and then returned one last time. They say you didn't touch her, that you were guilty of nothing but freezing up and staying put. That a coach finally broke it up.
Now your life's a shambles. The police--after conducting interviews-have decided there's insufficient evidence to arrest or charge anyone, but your season's still over. You've been kicked off the team at Midwest City High, and you can't be a McDonald's All-American. You say you're embarrassed to show your face in public, that you don't want to go back to school and face your peers, that your name has been dragged through the mud. Your mom says it's "the most horrific" time of her life, and your dad says, "It's shaken my world."
But what will Duke say? Will Duke still have you?
WHO BROKE the news to Coach K? Shelden, that's who. Before the incident hit the newspapers, Shelden dialed up the coach and said, "I want you to hear it from me before you hear it anywhere else. I want to tell you what really happened." It took guts to do that, not only because Duke rarely accepts guys with baggage but because a shaken Shelden didn't want to talk to a soul. Coach K said thanks, he'd be in touch.
The Duke administration did its due diligence and in time reaffirmed its admission offer. Bob and Jeannette dropped Sheldon in Durham that summer and said, "Don't forget God." They also prayed together that Shelden would be able to trust again and stay true to his roots. But he admits he had a "wall way up" that was virtually impenetrable.
Redick, also an incoming freshman then, says, "I probably didn't say more than 10 words to him until March. He had that deep voice and that really rugged look, and people were just maybe afraid of him. Like, I don't know if I really want to talk to Shelden about this or that.' I mean, he never talked." Coach K and Coach Wojo noticed the silence too, and because Duke basketball is predicated on communication, they knew they had to thaw the new guy. So they put him with Melchionni.
Lee Melchionni was a wispy, loud freshman from Lancaster, Pa., whose father, Gary, had been a star at Duke and whose uncle, Billy, had played in the NBA and the ABA. Lee often said he "could talk to a brick wall for an hour." In Shelden, he had his chance.
Coach K assigned them to the same dorm room, along with a third freshman, Michael Thompson, and Melchionni quickly noticed how rigid Shelden was. His new roommate locked the door as soon as he entered, made his bed every morning and dusted and vacuumed every Saturday. He alphabetized his CDs and DVDs and color-coordinated the clothes, shoes and hats in his closet. He even lined his dresser drawers with white linen. Loosening up Shelden would not be easy, and one of Melchionni's first attempts was to hop up and down on Shelden's pristine bed. That got only a stare-down.
There were no breakthroughs on the court, either. Coach Wojo, who handled the big men, told Shelden that if he didn't start talking on defense, he wouldn't play. At Duke, the center often is the quarterback of the D, but Shelden was too reticent to even call out, "Pick right." Part of it was the wall he'd put up, part of it was Maryland.
On Jan. 18, 2003, Shelden got his first taste of life in the vicious ACC. Coach K had warned him about razzing, and in College Park that day, as Shelden was about to shoot free throws, the chants rained down: "No means no!" Clap clap clap-clapclap. "You're a rapist!" Clap clap clap-clap-clap.
The top-ranked Blue Devils were beaten by 15, but Shelden was beaten much worse. Coach K played him only 13 minutes, perhaps out of sympathy, and Melchionni remembers the look on his roommate's face at the foul line. A look that said, "I don't want to be here."
"I didn't," Shelden admits. "It was something I'd never experienced before. I'm looking into the stands, hearing what people are saying. I'm like, Why am I here? Can I handle playing on the road, being this far from home?' I was battling myself, second-guessing myself."
Melchionni was dying to get inside Shelden's head, and while the two freshmen were in their beds one night, engaged in a tame conversation about high school, Melchionni finally blurted out: "What really happened with that girl?" After a tense pause, his raspy roommate spoke.
"It almost made me cry," Melchionni says. "It may have been the turning point. He told me exactly what happened, and being his friend, I've never told anybody. Because of that, I feel closer to him, and I'm sure he feels closer to me."
When they'd met, Melchionni says now, he thought Shelden would be the person he'd least get along with. "But as it ended up, we were so similar," he says. "Both homebodies. This huge, massive man from Country Bumpkin, Okla., and me, this white kid." When the year ended, he asked Shelden to visit him in Lancaster. Shelden said yes. One teammate had gotten in. Thirteen to go.
BUT HOW long would Shelden stay at Duke? The next season, he and his teammates made it to the national semifinal against UConn, and Shelden thought he might turn pro if he dominated Emeka Okafor. Imagine, no more trips to College Park!
But he flopped that day, going 1-for-9 in only 19 minutes. He fouled out with five minutes to go and watched helplessly as Duke blew a late lead. On the bus, no one dared to approach him, except, of course, Melchionni, who plopped down next to him and said, "You didn't play so great, man." When Mr. Tact asked if he'd gotten caught up in the matchup with Okafor, Shelden admitted, "Probably so."
At some point, Shelden would have to buy into the Duke philosophy, which meant start talking on defense and stop getting into foul trouble. He would have to trust again, and that meant letting everyone else see what Melchionni saw: a teddy bear, someone who cooked chicken, greens or mac and cheese on off days and bought a matching towel set, bath mat and shower valance for the bathroom.
Shelden's junior year began with an appearance at the Lee Melchionni Annual Birthday Bash at a local club. Honestly, it was the first time some people had ever seen him out. He leaned against a wall all night, sipping a soda-"sort of watching from his perch," the birthday boy says-but it was a start. Soon, he had a girlfriend. "If not for Lee," Shelden admits now, "I'd still be my standoffish self." When the season began, he shocked his teammates by saying, "Gimme the ball," at halftime of a game against Virginia. "I was like, Cool, man,' " says Redick, who often carried the scoring load. "When that happened, I knew he was into the game. I liked it."
This attitude change meant Coach K could finally get off Shelden's case. For two years, Coach K had barked at his poker face, but now the center consistently directed traffic. "His voice is so deep," Melchionni says. "I'm like, `I better do what he says or I'll have hell to pay.'"
Shelden became the first Dukie to average a double-double for Coach K (15.5 points, 11.2 rebounds) and fouled out only three times, down from six the year before. He spent the first four minutes of every game gauging the refs and then played accordingly. He rarely left his feet on defense, and when he did, he leaped straight up to avoid whistles. Duke began to guard the arc with four defenders, baiting opponents to attack the post. Shelden was named national Defensive Player of the Year, and his dad asked him to consider turning pro. But now Shelden was fond of school. Redick was jabbing him for "being the one guy on the team who's always in class," and a marketing professor even wrote a note to Coach K, praising Shelden for doing a class presentation in a suit and tie. "There hasn't been a better kid in our program," Wojo says.
So out of loyalty to the school that stood by him during hard times and found him his best friend, Shelden said no, not now, to the NBA.
IS THAT Shelden? Is that him singing? It is! He's in the locker room before practice, singing "My Girl" in baritone. He and Melchionni and Sean Dockery sing Motown all the time. If they throw in a little country, Redick will join in too.
Shelden even dances sometimes. His voice mail has the Chicago Bulls theme music and his voice saying, "No. 23 on your charts and No. 1 in your heart: Shelden Williams!" The first thing his teammates do each morning is check his away message on AOL. One day he'll write, "Can a man with no legs kick it?" And the next day he'll write, "What do you call a piece of cheese that is someone else's? Nacho cheese."
Shelden's a comedian? Who knew?
It's his team now. He offers to do laundry for injured teammates and text-messages struggling shooters. Turns out four years heals a lot of wounds. Or at least one.
It doesn't mean his game face is any less sullen, and it doesn't mean he lets everyone in all the way. It just means that these days, the once-silent Shelden is-yes-the voice of the Blue Devils.
The players absolutely adore him--and fear him a little, too. This past summer, sophomore forward David McClure was subletting Shelden's apartment and threw a party. When the crowd cleared out, the immaculate carpet was stained. Before Shelden returned, McClure and freshman Josh McRoberts were on their hands and knees scrubbing. For days.
No one wants to bring down the wrath of Shelden. That's why the players were mesmerized when he walked to the dry-erase board and offered his seven ways to beat Maryland. "Shelden is literally the big man on campus," McClure says. "J.J. might be more openly the BMOC, but behind the scenes, we all know--Shelden's the rock, the core, the thing that holds us together."
So as the NCAA Tournament begins, and with a weary Redick struggling off and on with his shot, the season is even more on Shelden's shoulders than on J.J.'s. Duke's first loss this year was to Georgetown on a day when J.J. scored 41 and Shelden scored 4, which only proved that if Shelden doesn't show up, Duke doesn't win. On the flight back from Georgetown, Coach K skewered Shelden profanely. He said he was selfish and too casual. It didn't appear to Coach K that Shelden wanted to win. After the team arrived on campus, Shelden prayed, then called the team together to apologize. He told them he'd been childish but assured them he'd never show an empty face again.
Three weeks later, the team traveled to Maryland. When the fans chanted, "No means no!" it didn't sting. When they held up a poster of Shelden and Melchionni hugging that read, "Unlike the girls back home, Lee says yes," it didn't sting. Matter of fact, a laughing Melchionni tapped his buddy on the shoulder and said, "Wish we could hang that thing up at home." Shelden, who finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, 7 blocks and a smirk, nodded right back.
When Maryland talks, Shelden Williams doesn't listen.
Yes, seniors do still matter in college hoops. But Shelden Williams and the rest of the Class of 2006 know tourney time is their last chance to make the grade