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Michel Dukes: Dear Basketball

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Michel Dukes is the top-rated two-sport athlete in South Carolina. He’s the highest-rated unsigned football prospect left in the state. He’s run for more than 8,000 yards on the field and scored more than 1,500 points on the court. He’s won two state championships in football and been to another title game in basketball. Dukes has received more than 20 scholarship offers, many for football, some for basketball, others for both.

These are his words, his story, told his way. This is Dear Basketball.


D

ear Basketball,

You know you’ve always been my first love, right?

I still remember how we met, when I was 4 years old and my parents walked into the house with that plastic Fisher Price hoop. My dad immediately set the rim to the tallest height. I tried to dunk it every single time, man. I never wanted to shoot. Dunks only.

I fell in love during those pickup games at the Northwoods Recreation Center. A lot of good memories as a kid running around on that stained brown floor with the crack down the middle of the lane. Remember how my dad used to tie my right hand behind my back to make me use my left? I used to hate that, but I kind of loved it too. Or how the older guys at the neighborhood blacktop used to push me down, swat my shot into the weeds and make me go get the ball? My cousins were twice my age just straight dogging me at 10 years old. I felt like if I could play with them, though, I could play with anyone. You taught me I had to be tough or I wasn’t ever going to make it.

I can’t get the feeling I get with you anywhere else. There’s nothing like being free out on the court, just running with my brothers. There's nothing like catching a defender with bad feet, hitting him with an in-and-out crossover, a little hesitation, and just floating to the rim.

Which is what makes this so hard for me…

See basketball, as much as you mean to me, right now, football is what’s best for me. I’ve been blessed with scholarship offers from some of the best football programs in the country. Schools from all the way up in Syracuse, New York want me to play for them. Schools way out in Eugene, Oregon call me daily. Me, little Mikey from 10 Mile off Remount Road and Rivers Avenue. And they want me to be the future. Come on now, man.

It’s weird because it feels I’m leaving a relationship that I want to be in. It feels like a divorce. I guess I don’t even really know what a divorce feels like but this is probably pretty close. At the same time, it feels like the best day of my life. It feels like everything I’ve been working for. When I say it’s a dream come true, I mean I’ve really been dreaming about this my whole life. I’ve prayed on it more times than I can count, more than I’ve ever prayed on anything.

That's how I know I'm making the right decision in leaving you behind, basketball. From now on, I'm focused solely on football. That's it. I’m committing to the national champions, the Clemson Tigers.

I know people have been wondering what took me so long to decide. I wonder if those same people have ever had to leave something behind that they loved. Imagine how I felt trying to figure it all out. I got my first offer in football from Wake Forest before my junior year. I was only 16 years old sitting with my dad in coach Dave Clawson’s office, just nervous. I remember him telling me how much the scholarship offer was worth at Wake Forest and then staring back at me with this look. My dad started crying and all, right in his office.

Almost 20 more offers came in over the next couple years. Some teams would just offer, talk to me for a month and then I wouldn’t hear from them again for like a year. That’s no kind of relationship. Other teams would call me every day. It got to the point where as soon as I’d wake up coaches would be calling me. It’s a blessing but I haven't even brushed my teeth yet. I mean, my phone’s just constantly buzzing in my pocket. Even right now. I had to start keeping it on Do Not Disturb mode all the time.

And once the basketball offers started coming in this year, it made me feel more and more like I should stick with basketball. I used to go into the gym before football practice and get 200 shots up on the gun just to make sure my craft was always right.

The whole recruiting process can be a lot to handle sometimes. It gets nerve-wracking. Sometimes I really enjoyed it. It has its ups and downs. I don’t ever want to feel like I'm letting somebody down, you know? Sometimes I’d get stressed out. I’d just wanted to be done with it all, to the point that sometimes I wanted to just commit somewhere to get it over with. Thankfully, my parents always kept me grounded. 

My last offer came from Clemson two weeks ago. And honestly, Clemson has always been my dream school. I used to say that Oregon was my dream school but, really, I just liked their colors and De’Anthony Thomas was my favorite player at the time. I didn’t really talk about Clemson much because I didn’t even have a real offer yet.

I’d get a little worried sometimes wondering what was taking so long for Clemson to offer. I even told myself I was going to go somewhere else in the ACC just to play against them if they didn’t want me. It’s weird though. I always felt like I was a part of something with Clemson anyway. I knew in my heart the whole time that if I didn’t play basketball, Clemson was where I was going to end up. Even when I didn’t have an offer. And really, that’s because of coach Tony Elliott. That man is different.

There’s just something I could feel with him. I don’t know the right way to describe it. My dad was, you know, a street dude. He can always read people quick and tell you if they’re good or bad for you. I think I get that from him a little.

I’ve known Coach Elliott since eighth grade. I’d call him every once in a while, just to see what he had going on. We hardly ever talked about football. It was always about family and life situations and that kind of stuff. It was such a different vibe with him.

He FaceTimed me right before the state championship game a couple years ago just to wish us luck. His kids were all running around in the background, the whole family environment. It just makes you feel good, man. No other coaches were doing anything like that. It was a real different connection like he genuinely liked me and wasn’t just trying to recruit me. That’s why I always trusted him when he told me to be patient.

He came to watch our basketball game against Porter-Gaud on a Tuesday and I knew something was up. He already had my offer ready and didn’t even tell me. He asked me to come take another visit to Clemson and I’m thinking, “Why do they want me to visit unless they’re about to offer...Oh snap.”

The last day of my visit, everybody else was leaving, and my parents and I are still sitting in coach Dabo Swinney’s office. He was just smiling, telling me how I fit into the team and that I was going to be a great piece to their offense.

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I looked at Coach Elliott and whispered, “Does this mean I have an offer?” He just winked at me and was like, “Hold on a minute.”

So Coach Swinney kept talking until my dad stopped him like, “Wait, does he have an offer?”

“Does he have an offer?” Coach Swinney said back in his Dabo voice, kind of laughing too. “What? He had an offer two weeks ago.”

I looked over at Coach Elliott and he was  just laid back laughing. He said later that he didn’t tell me about the offer because he wanted me to have this special moment, in the office here with Coach Swinney. I really respected that. That moment meant a lot to me. I stood up out of my seat and committed right there on the spot. It was the first grown-man decision I’ve ever had to make on my own. My parents both started crying they were so happy.

The first time I touched a football I scored. Eighty-yard touchdown. My first play ever. The play was called Wing-T, Speed Right. We were the Danny Jones Patriots against the North Charleston Raiders. It was me, Dakereon Joyner (USC), Adonicas Sanders (Georgia Tech), Dexter Freeman (The Citadel), Jordan McDaniel (NC A&T), Raquan Simmons (Wingate) all on the same team. That team was stacked, man. It’s crazy to think where we all are now. That seems like so long ago now. Maybe I should’ve been able to see back then what was going to come.

So basketball, I hope this helps explain why I have to leave you now. I hope you know it’s for the best. I know not every kid gets these chances in life. You can believe I’m going to make the most of it. And it’s not really goodbye for good. I saw Tee Higgins and them have an intramural team during the offseason up there at Clemson. I might see if they need someone to run the point or something.

I told Coach Elliott the other day that I couldn't wait to get up there and get to work. Trust that I’m going to be going hard in everything I do. And you know what he said? He told me not to forget to enjoy the present moment. He told me not to spend so much time focused on what’s ahead. After years of spending all day trying to figure out what’s ahead. He told me I needed to enjoy the rest of high school, finish things out right with a state championship in basketball. No other football coach would ever mention that. I told you, Coach Elliott is just a different guy. But you know what? He’s right.

So if this really is it for us, basketball, we have to go out the right way. For all the years I’ve spent loving you and all the years I’ll spend missing you. It’s been a long road to get here. There’s a lot I'm looking forward to in the future. But right now, at this moment, I know I’m truly blessed.

Yours truly,

Michel Dukes

mikey sig