Kids from Kinston don't go to Duke.
OK, some might. There are certainly a few to be found in the Duke Alumni Registry, even a few officers in the alumni association. But you need to understand something about Kinston. It's what North Carolinians call "Down East," located in the vast, flat third of the state between Tobacco Road and the beach.
Around Down East, especially in Kinston, Duke Blue is hard to find. If you cruise the Dairy Bar on a Saturday night or stroll the parking lot at the Kinstonian Family Buffet on Sunday after church, you will find plenty of bumper stickers and car flags supporting the Tar Heels, Wolfpack, Demon Deacons and East Carolina Pirates. You see, to the people Down East, those are real North Carolina schools, not that faux Ivy League joint in Durham, the one packed with carpetbaggers and, even worse, Methodists.
Check out the trophy case at Kinston High School and you will see the names of former Vikings athletes who went on to play for Carolina (Jerry Stackhouse, Reggie Bullock), NC State (Charles Shackleford) and even those who went far afield to Charlotte (Cornbread Maxwell), Winthrop (Michael Jenkins) and Florida State (Tony Dawson). PGA golfer Larry Beck? Wake Forest. Dwight "The Catch" Clark? Clemson. Los Angeles Ram Quinton Coples? Carolina.
There's only one pin pushed into the Kinston, North Carolina, map of athletes that reads "Duke."
That's the pin belonging to Brandon Ingram. And by the time he's done, he might very well end up becoming the best and biggest name on Kinston's surprisingly lengthy roster of professional athletes.
Carolina thought they had him. They'd made the final in-home visit of his recruiting experience, less than one week before the four-time state champion was to announce his decision.
State though they had him too. Head coach Mark Gottfried admits a "full-court press for years" and still winces a little whenever Ingram's name is brought up.
But it turns out that the race was probably over before anyone had even taken the green flag.
"My decision to go to Duke wasn't a surprise to people who really knew me because I was always a Duke fan growing up," the soft-spoken freshman explained as this year's NCAA tournament began. "But," Ingram added with a grin, "I didn't tell Jerry that for a while."
"Jerry" is Jerry Stackhouse, current titleholder of "Best hoops star from Kinston," playing nearly two decades in the NBA after leading UNC to the Final Four in 1995, two years before Ingram was born. These days he serves as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors. For the past few years, a big part of that second job has been acting as mentor to Ingram.
Thus, the kid hid his allegiance to the Blue Devils, who open their regional round with a Sweet 16 matchup against top-seeded Oregon in Anaheim, California, on Thursday.
"From what I hear it was pretty obvious," Stackhouse said with a laugh. "They say when he was a kid a Duke jersey was pretty much all he wore. But I don't seem to remember him ever wearing it around me."
Stackhouse doesn't get back to Kinston much, but he has always been in constant contact with Ingram, including the days prior to Duke's current postseason run and most certainly in the days leading up to June's NBA draft. Ingram will be on the board after a one-and-done career at Duke.
Stackhouse's relationship with the family predates Brandon himself, in a friendship forged with Ingram's father, Donald, on the basketball court. Donald used to be a cop. Now he's a welder. But before all of that, he was a frustrated would-be hoops star, pushing and shoving his way through the blood-spattered paint of semi-pro leagues. When he moved back home to Kinston, he started playing pickup games with a local kid who was seeking older, bigger, rougher players who might help him elevate his game in a way that other teenagers could not. That kid was Stackhouse.
As Stack moved on to Chapel Hill and the NBA, he assumed the role of godfather to the Kinston hoops legacy. Donald became his consigliere, supplementing his day jobs by becoming manager of a local gym in the evenings. That court, really three-fourths of a court, became both a crucible for kids with raw basketball talent and a safe haven for those wanting to get off of Kinston's crime-ridden streets.
Brandon was both.
"It was pretty obvious to a lot of people in a very short period of time that Brandon was something special," said Perry Tyndall, his coach at Kinston High. "He's a smart kid. He's thoughtful. But he's quiet. He loves his family and he loves being with them."
That's why he had to be dragged to Atlanta to play on Stackhouse's AAU team. That's why he never even considered looking at schools outside of North Carolina. And that's why, even now, on the cusp of perhaps being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the best way to get him to crack a smile is to bring up fishing with his grandmother or mention his brother, Bo, a former junior college basketball player who now lives in Texas.
"I think Brandon's quiet demeanor has probably made it hard for people to feel like they know him," Gottfried said. "But if you've followed him this season, you've seen a kid that has grown up so much. I think about the kid we talked to a year ago [during recruiting] and the kid we see now and you can't help but be proud of a kid like that."
His freshman season at Duke got off to a notoriously awful start. After two games that, in retrospect, were perhaps too easy -- 15 and 21 points against Siena and Bryant -- he was relegated to single-digit scoring performances against top-shelf opponents Kentucky, VCU and Georgetown. But a comeback 15-point performance off the bench against Yale re-established his position in Mike Krzyzewski's six-man rotation. By January, with Grayson Allen playing the part of Duke's traditional bad guy and Marshall Plumlee in the role as the Blue Devils' big man, the kid was blossoming.
He's averaging 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and nearly two assists per game, while shooting 41 percent from behind the 3-point arc. But the numbers don't illustrate the entire story.
The lanky kid who became the first to win four straight North Carolina high school championships one year ago is still a rail by NBA standards, but has put on 20 pounds over the past year. And the grab-and-dunk prep player has become downright Tim Duncan-esque over the past few months, not merely taking down rebounds and blocking shots, but figuring out how to turn those defensive plays into transitional offensive outlets.
"That's where you've really seen the growth," an NBA scout texted after watching Ingram hang 25 points in a second matchup with Yale, last Saturday's 71-64 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament. "He needs to put on more weight, sure. But there's not much limit to what he can do in the league if he's changed this much after just one season of college basketball."
Ingram's evolution isn't just about his play. He's opening up his personality ... albeit a millimeter at a time. The long, lean arms that are bare in the photos of his high school playing days are now covered in carefully selected tattoos. He even has started sharing some of the artwork in the sketchbook that he carries with him.
But the most dramatic change hasn't taken place in Durham. It has happened back home.
Sure, it's a fad that might not last any longer than Ingram's team's ability to stay alive in this year's NCAA tournament. But the Kinstonians ... they are actually rooting for Duke.
That thought, finally, spurs the introvert into a laugh.
"Yeah, I knew eventually they'd come around," he said.