PROVIDENCE — There’s always a late game. It’s the AAU’s version of the short stick, and Kris Dunn drew it more than a few times. Tipoff was around 11 o’clock. The gym was all sneaker squeaks and bouncing-ball echoes. There weren’t many bodies in the bleachers.
But one face kept popping up.
Ed Cooley was fascinated by Dunn, even when Dunn was just a sophomore with a light buzz out of New London (Conn.) High School. Dunn checked all the boxes: natural athlete, intense defender, Tasmanian devil on the court.
“He just had the ‘it,’ ” Cooley said. “Something about him that I loved.”
So Cooley came to the late games to see it over and over again.
“He would be there,” Dunn said. “It’s 11 o’clock, there’s no other coaches and he’s there.”
Dunn kept seeing the same face. Even the next year, when Dunn was a high school junior and Cooley moved up the coaching ladder to Providence College.
“He’s still there,” Dunn said. “If you keep seeing that same person, you’re like, ‘All right, he wants me.’ I knew right away that I was going to go to Coach Cooley.”
Dunn was the first recruit Cooley called when he took the job at Providence. He could see how high Dunn’s ceiling was, and he wanted Dunn to see it for himself.
“I told Kris, ‘You come to Providence College, you’ll be the Player of the Year, you’ll be an All-American, and you’ll be a lottery pick,’ ” Cooley said.
But the more they talked, the more Cooley learned.
Cooley didn’t know about the years Dunn and his older brother John spent simply trying to survive in Alexandria, Va., when their mother was in jail and life’s bare necessities weren’t guarantees. He didn’t know about the upheaval when Dunn was 10 years old, from a chaotic environment in Virginia to a more stable — if unfamiliar — situation with his father in New London. He didn’t know all the turns Dunn’s life had taken.
But the more he listened, the more they connected.
“I wanted to help him more,” Cooley said. “I didn’t see me. I saw some of my friends. I saw some of the people I grew up with and I knew how their lives went. I knew how their lives were affected by drugs, by the streets. The athletes that never got to a high school court that were great.
“The more I heard, the more his dad opened up to me. The more I talked to his stepmom, I said I want to be a part of this kid’s life. I can help him.”
Cooley shared his own story. Growing up in South Providence as one of nine children. Siblings who succumbed to substance abuse and incarceration. Breaking down doors to get into New Hampton School when he didn’t have enough money to pay tuition.
“That’s where he and I connected,” Cooley said. “I shared my story with him and I said it’s OK to let people know. That stuff hurts, man.
“I said a lot of people can’t walk in your shoes and become the person they become without sharing it. When you share it, there are so many people in your shoes that you’re going to help.
“I said, ‘Kris, we all want a lot, but what do we really need? We need love, we need support, we need people that we can hug and touch and feel.’ I said I’m your guy. I’ll do anything in the world for you.”
Not ready for NBA
Almost everything Cooley envisioned for Dunn has come true. Last year, Dunn was showered with honors by the Big East: Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, first-team all-conference.
The NBA draft was waiting for him last June, but the 6-foot-4-inch guard put it off.
“Everybody asks the million-dollar question: How did I get Kris to come back?” said Cooley, whose Friars are 8-1 and ranked 15th. “Kris got himself to come back. He told me the whole year. And I actually told him, ‘Kris, you better think long and hard about his one, baby. But if this is what you want to do, I will support you either way.’ ”
He considered more than just the dream of playing in the NBA and the life-changing money that would come with it. He asked himself if he thought he was ready, and he answered himself honestly.
“Everybody’s telling me, ‘Kris, you’re one of the best players in college basketball,’ ” Dunn said. “That’s fine, but I watch way too much basketball. I’m not going to be lying to myself.
“I know in order to play with those guys, I’ve got to be right. I can’t have any flaws in my game. I want to be as polished as I can be and I’m going to take this full year to be polished.”
He looked at himself on the court — whether it was dribbling too high in transition and turning the ball over or whether it was becoming a more accurate 3-point shooter.
But he also thought about life off of it. Was he mature enough to handle the NBA lifestyle, where the game is a business? Was he mature enough to handle being on his own as an adult?
“I had to become a better person,” said Dunn, who is averaging 18.2 points and 7.3 assists this season. “And I mean more the maturity part and become more of a leader. Learning how to be exactly on my own.
“A lot of people say in college you’re on your own, but on the basketball team, you’re not. We have a support system and everything, so you’re not really on your own.”
The people closest to him knew how tempting the NBA was, but they also understood his decision.
“I told him, ‘If you were my kid, I would tell you to go to the NBA,’ ” Cooley said. “I said you’re a better person to do it because you want to set an example to be an educated young brother, you want to show people that fast money is not always the easy answer. I said there will be a great reward for you in the end.”
The fight continues
It was easier for Dunn to wait because his journey to get to this point had been so difficult. He lost the first nine games of his freshman season because of a shoulder injury. He spent the offseason in 2013 working his way back, only to suffer another shoulder injury four games into his sophomore year. A week after that injury, he got a text from his brother that his mother had died.
“It went from him having a monster summer 2013 to — boom — the wheels fell off the wagon to ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Cooley said.
There were dark days — days when Dunn didn’t come out of his room, days when he didn’t speak to anyone.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Dunn said. “But I had a support system. I couldn’t just sit there and have a support system that believed in me and just give up.”
Once he was healthy, he was in the gym every day.
“I’m envisioning myself out there thinking, ‘Guys can’t guard me. I’m going to make this shot,’ ” Dunn said. “Once you’re fighting that hard, you’ve got to let people have it. You can’t just fight for so much and then once you get in front of somebody, you let somebody take it.
“That’s not how I was raised. That’s not how my dad would want me to be. He’d want me to take it and that’s what I had to go out and do.”
Even though Dunn may not know what the future holds, he knows he holds his future in his hands.
“Kris isn’t normal,” Cooley said. “He wasn’t raised normal. He had to overcome so much, his hunger is what’s making him become not the player, but the man he’s become. The player, the man, the person, the mentor, the role model.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.