The true measure of Doug McDermott

March 6, 2014, 10:07 AM

— -- OMAHA, Neb. -- There's a long strip of wood hanging in a house in Cedar Falls, Iowa, that might soon be worth some money. Mary Weld isn't interested in selling; it's a family keepsake. When her sons were growing up, she marked their growth spurts on this strip on the wall, and then when a polite young tyke named Doug McDermott started hanging around the house all the time, she figured heck, why not measure him, too?

The task started off easy, but then McDermott shot up nearly 3 inches in eight months, then another 3 inches, and then Weld needed to stand on a chair to measure him. Two summers ago, after an All-America basketball season at Creighton, a grown-up McDermott showed up in Cedar Falls, stopped by the Welds to visit and stood against the wall to be measured again. Six feet, 8 inches. McDermott didn't think that was cheesy at all.

Before he was college basketball's boy next door, McDermott was the kid five blocks down the street. He loved "Space Jam," tacos and wrestling in the basement. When it was time to collect bugs for a science project, he was squeamish about killing them.

"It was a golden time," Weld said. "Nobody saw this coming, so we got to see Dougie as just Dougie.

"He's still Dougie to me."

In late January, the Welds came to Omaha to watch McDermott play. He scored 39 points and hit a falling 25-footer with two seconds to go to give Creighton a 63-60 win against St. John's. The game was so riveting that Mary was still shaking 10 minutes after it was over. And when McDermott emerged from the postgame ruckus and wrapped his arms around his old friends from Iowa, he talked very little about the game.

"How are you guys doing?" he said.

2,966 points

Doug McDermott's impact at this Jesuit school, in a city of about 410,000 in the middle of America, can't be measured. It seems impossible that a 22-year-old could lift a program to such prominence that he'd play a part in Creighton landing in the Big East Conference, but that's exactly what McDermott did. He's a once-in-a-generation basketball player, so famous that he can't go out for a decent meal in Omaha anymore without getting swarmed. On Saturday night, a packed house at the CenturyLink Center will say goodbye to the scrappy, cordial, baggy-shirted swingman known by nearly everyone as "Dougie."

His mother, Theresa, will sit in her usual spot, about 20 rows up from the Creighton bench. His father, Greg, will stand on the sideline, coaching him in his final home game, keeping him in check. When things got gigantic for Doug this season, Greg would send his son a text. "Me and your mom are watching 'SportsCenter' here," he'd type, then throw in a line about who would've thought he'd be all over national television? Enjoy the moment, he'd write his son.

"Don't get a big head."

This is the end of something special, and everyone can feel it. College kids don't normally get to play for their dads. Superstars just don't stick around this long anymore. The common scenario usually goes like this: A 16-year-old prodigy gets plastered all over the TV and Internet, commits to Kansas or Kentucky or somewhere on Tobacco Road, starts as a freshman, and is subsequently out the door and to the NBA the following summer.

Only McDermott was never really considered a prodigy. If there was a book to be written about him, it probably would be titled, "Nobody Expected This," because nobody, outside of a few mid-majors, even recruited McDermott. "Quite honestly," said Drake assistant coach Jeff Rutter, "he's one of the all-time greatest stories in the history of college basketball."

McDermott is on the verge of a degree in marketing, a possible first-round pick in the NBA draft, and history.

He is ninth on the all-time scorers list in NCAA men's basketball history with 2,966 points. He is closing in on becoming just the eighth player to reach 3,000, a club that includes Hersey Hawkins and the late Pete Maravich.

"It's good to see a kid like Doug do it," Hawkins said, "somebody who really respects the game and appreciates everything.

"He's the not quickest guy, and a lot of times a bigger or taller guy is guarding him. He just has the ability to find little angles to get shots off. He gets done and it's like, 'Oh, he had 31 tonight,' and there was nothing spectacular. It's just him going about his business and being methodical about how he approaches the game. Which I find even more gratifying than some of the guys that are dunking and doing this and that. It's sort of that Larry Bird aspect of it. You don't have to be flashy, you just have to know how to put it in the hole."

There is nothing out of the ordinary planned for Saturday, just the usual senior night festivities: a short ceremony after the game, and speeches, if the seniors are so inclined. Although McDermott could reach 3,000 points Saturday, Creighton's sports information director, Rob Anderson, said the school hadn't given much thought about what it will do if that happens. "I don't see us stopping the game or doing anything to disrespect Providence," the Bluejays' opponent, Anderson said.

Of course they wouldn't. McDermott would hate that. He said all the recent publicity he's received "feels weird."

"When I'm watching those things," he said, "it feels like a different guy. It doesn't feel like me when I'm watching it.

"I want our team to have more attention. I don't like having everything centered around me, which is kind of the way they do it now. We're so much more than me. So when I see the highlights and the shots, it kind of bothers me. But it's still cool ..."

1.5 seconds ahead

He has his flaws, just like the rest of us. As a sophomore in high school, McDermott finished tied for last at the Iowa state golf tournament, something his older brother, Nick, still likes to tease him about.

But even RJ Voss, his old golf coach at Ames High, marvels that Doug made the team as an underclassman. He rarely picked up a club because he was always playing basketball.

He gets nervous about public speaking. He says it's easier for him to play in front of 18,000 people than give a speech in front of his class of 20.

He's kindhearted to a fault and has a hard time saying no, which is why the McDermotts have an unplayed CD from a guy on the street selling children's lullaby music, because Doug insisted that they help the struggling artist.

McDermott's detractors used to say he was too nice, that he lacked the killer instinct to compete with college basketball's elite. Those critics have been largely silenced this season as Creighton moved from the Missouri Valley to the Big East, and McDermott has led the league -- and the nation -- in scoring (25.9 points a game). Up until this past week's two-game losing skid, McDermott had the Jays in contention for the conference title.

He is not demonstrative or celebratory. When McDermott went on a tear in Tuesday night's loss at Georgetown, draining a flurry of 3-pointers, a Fox Sports broadcaster noted with great excitement how intense McDermott looked. But his facial expression hadn't changed.

"Don't let that boyish nice-kid look deceive you," said Creighton sports psychologist Jack Stark. "Underneath, there is a raging competitor. They used to say the same thing about [Tom] Osborne. You know, nice guy. You spend 10 minutes with Osborne and you start delving deeper, you're going to go, 'Whoa, wait a minute, Nellie, that guy is really competitive.'

"Doug's nice; he's not going to punch you. But I'm telling you, he's intense. He wants to win. He's not jumping up and down and hitting his head on the locker, no, but that kid's got a drive that you just don't see with many guys."

Stark, who also works with NASCAR drivers, football players and MMA athletes, meets with McDermott 90 minutes before every game, either in person or on the phone, and they do visual relaxation exercises for at least 15 minutes. McDermott has done this since his freshman year of college.

Stark asks McDermott to map out his best performance, and they go over game scenarios. McDermott says this helps calm him down. Stark estimates that McDermott's brain is about 1 to 1.5 seconds ahead of everybody. He compares it to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who once said, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."

But then the inevitable question arises -- the one about how a barely recruited kid from Iowa could go from serviceable to the leading candidate for national player of the year -- and the answer is far more simple. 

He shoots baskets at 11 o'clock at night, trying to perfect his already-smooth 3-point shot. He added a Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway jumper to his repertoire. Much of this is done without the supervision of his father. For years, Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen often would find McDermott in the gym, after dinner working on something he wasn't satisfied with in practice.

"He's not a genetic freak in terms of his size, jumping ability or strength," Rasmussen said. "Doug is successful because he looks at practice as a minimum job description. To me, he's a great example of the way I should conduct my life. I'll have a day where I struggle. If you're Doug, you go back to the office and think, 'Well, what can I do to have it go better?'"

McDermott was roughly 40 pounds lighter when he made his recruiting visit to Creighton. Dana Altman was the Jays' coach at the time, and Greg was at Iowa State. They played a round of golf, and when Altman and Rasmussen beat the elder McDermott, Greg jokingly groused that he thought the coach was supposed to let the father of the recruit win.

Rasmussen sat down with Doug and asked him a few questions. And McDermott answered one particular question almost exactly, to the letter, as Kyle Korver did on his recruiting visit more than a decade ago. Rasmussen asked McDermott what Creighton could do for him, and McDermott got serious and intense. He said he wanted the school to help him become the best basketball player he possibly could on the best team they could have.

"And when I got done," Rasmussen said, "I went to Dana and said, 'We need to offer this kid. Now.'"

22 years

He could not get a scholarship, at least not right away, because Creighton didn't have one available for his freshman year.

"I've always had a chip on my shoulder because I wasn't rated or didn't have any scholarship offers," McDermott said. "It was more of a trying to prove people wrong early in my career. Now I feel like I've established myself and I'm just playing for the love of the game.

"I enjoy the game so much I can't go a day without touching a basketball. It's just who I am. It just annoys me if I have a day where I don't have any sort of basketball activity."

Douglas Richard McDermott was born Jan. 3, 1992, in Grand Forks, N.D., because that's where his dad was working as an assistant at North Dakota. There was a basketball game that day, but Greg was there for the birth of his son, who would turn out so much like him, so different from him. They lived the typical nomadic life of a coach's family, moving from Wayne, Neb., to Fargo, N.D., to Cedar Falls, to Ames, Iowa.

Doug learned to make new friends and adapt. In many ways, the family was lucky. Everywhere they went, they were surrounded with kind Midwesterners. They'd have backyard barbecues with Kool-Aid stands and kids playing basketball and wrestling in the basement. Nick McDermott likes to joke that he toughened his little brother up in those days. "I wouldn't want to mess with him now," Nick said. "I think he'd take me now."

The McDermott boys knew at an early age that people would always be watching them because their dad was the basketball coach in town. So they had to be on their best behavior. There is only one story that anyone in the family can think of in which Doug came close to trouble. It involved water balloons.

"We had those conversations with the boys growing up," Theresa McDermott said. "We didn't want them to be resentful that they were Greg's children, so we had to handle it in a way to tell them to just do the right thing. We don't care if you're the coach's kid or the banker's kid or whatever. If you do the right thing, you're not going to end up the paper."

One singular moment -- besides the massive growth spurts -- may have turned McDermott from a goofy-sweet dreamer wearing out the VCR tape of "Like Mike" to an uber competitor. It happened in 2006, when Greg took the Iowa State job before Doug's freshman year of high school. McDermott was placed in a group of boys so talented that he failed to make varsity until his junior year and, even then, was relegated sixth man on the team.

He was placed on an Ames High team with Harrison Barnes, a future NBA lottery pick. Barnes was the guy who got all the headlines and the visits from the college coaches; McDermott was the one who went relatively ignored. They went undefeated and won back-to-back state championships. More importantly, Barnes taught McDermott how to work for what he wanted.

Ames coach Vance Downs said those two seasons were like a traveling circus, with the team going from town to town, dominating its opponents, drawing huge crowds. Practices were almost as entertaining.

"Any competitive drill we had, those two were going at it," Downs said. "I had to separate them constantly. They would do anything to get a win, even in a simple shooting drill. That's just the way they're wired."

McDermott signed a letter of intent to go to Northern Iowa, but when his father got the job at Creighton, Panthers coach Ben Jacobson, a good friend of Greg's, let Doug out of his scholarship because what kid wouldn't want to play for his dad?

Shortly after Greg McDermott arrived at Creighton in 2010, he put his first team through some rigorous workouts, sort of a boot camp, to see what he had. In the players' first meeting with Jack Stark, the team psychologist, the upperclassmen complained about all the work the new coach was putting them through.

Perhaps then they realized that Doug, a freshman, was in the room. Ten seconds of silence followed, then Doug told the team he had something to say.

"I don't want you guys to hold back because the coach is my dad," he told them.

He paused.

"Besides, I might agree with ya."

Two men

He is more like his mother. That's what everyone who knows the McDermotts says about Doug. At a recent Creighton practice, Rasmussen, sitting in the bleachers, was asked where Doug gets his calm and easy demeanor.

"Not from there," Rasmussen said, motioning to Greg. "Maybe Mom."

Theresa McDermott is the one who took care of the boys and their daughter, Sydney, who's now 13, when Greg was on the road. Theresa is a breast cancer survivor; she's strong, calm and funny. She's the one who makes things better. On Saturday, she watched the Creighton-Xavier game at home in Omaha with the coaches' wives. She said for four years, it's been comforting to know that at least one parent is at every game.

But the setup wasn't always harmonious. In their first days together at Creighton, Greg came down hard on Doug, and father and son clashed. He'd watch Doug roll his eyes after a disagreement, which is fine when it's just father and son but a big no-no when there are 15 sets of eyes watching. Sometimes, if Greg was especially hard on his son, he'd call Theresa and warn her that she might be getting a call from Doug. If she didn't hear from him, she'd shoot him a text and ask about practice.

"I probably gave more advice to Greg than Doug," she said. "A mom takes over. I was like, 'Cut him some slack. He took summer school, and now he's in all these classes and you expect so much. Can you give him a little break?'

"But once Doug realized his role as a player and not a son, and Greg as a coach and not as a dad, it just seemed to go pretty smoothly after that. I didn't hear about it as much."

McDermott's assistants often helped smooth things over. There were some funny times, too, senior guard Grant Gibbs said.

"There was a time, I believe it was Doug's freshman year, that they were having one of their days and Coach Mac called him a son of a you-know-what," Gibbs said. "And we all kind of stood around and we're like, 'Wow, that's his wife he's talking about.'

"So nobody said anything, and practice broke and he brought it in after practice and we broke the huddle. And immediately, he walked over to Doug and said, 'Doug, we've got to get you to play better on defense, and you can't tell your mom I said that.'"

It was because of his dad, in part, that Doug came back for his senior season. When Doug put off the NBA for a year, Greg vowed to himself that he would stop and enjoy this last season with his son. On Saturday night, he will walk his son out after the Providence game, just like every other parent does on senior night.

"Young people change so much from the age of 18 to the age of 22," Greg said. "And as parents, when your kids go off to college, they just kind of show up at home one day and they're different. I've gotten to watch that change happen in front of my eyes on a daily basis, and that's really a blessing."

Theresa, for her part, will try to stay composed and remind herself of that old Dr. Seuss line about not crying because it's over.

She'll cry anyway. And then 18,000 people, plus some friends from Wayne to Cedar Falls, will wait for Doug to grab the microphone. He probably won't say much. He won't have to. They know this is a golden time at Creighton, one that was supposed to happen.