Thank you, Dan Dakich

I’m incredibly late on this, but it needs to be addressed: Dan Dakich absolutely did the right thing when he defended the players that he warred with on last year’s team.

To recap briefly: former Indiana player Joe Hillman was quoted in The Indianapolis Star calling some of last year’s players “punks” and “bad guys.”

Dakich fired back, calling Hillman’s comments “reprehensible” and pointing out that two of the former players who’d been quoted in the article had been arrested for public stupidity during their years at IU, while only one player (DeAndre Thomas) was arrested last season and that was for driving with a suspended license.

Dakich is known for great lines, and he didn’t dissapoint during his rant as he talked about the differences in Joe’s homelife as a kid and that of Jamarcus Ellis:

“While Joe Hillman was playing golf at a country club,  Jamarcus Ellis was living in a car.”

Ellis’ mother died of illness and his father was murdered when he was young. Thus the need to take up residence in a vehicle on the streets of Chicago.

Dakich, who of course replaced Rob Senderoff on the coaching staff and then became the interim coach when Kelvin Sampson left, would be in a better position than anyone to really judge the character of the players on last year’s team.

But his comments touched off the usual sentiment that always arises when anyone tries to talk of class and the disadvantages of the poor: many fans jumped on Dakich and accused him of making excuses for players who wasted an opportunity that many basketball players would have cherished.

Occasionally I like to give an issue some thought for more than five minutes before blogging about it. This was one of those times.

As I left for the Indianapolis Airport on my way to Maui last Thursday I grabbed a book called There Are No Children Here off of my bookshelf. The book, written by Alex Kotlowitz, follows the lives of two boys growing up in the Henry Horner Homes of Chicago (the projects) in the late 1980s.

Over the next couple of days, I read of almost daily shootings and dozens of murders. The boys had brothers in jail and a father addicted to drugs. They lived in an apartment with 10 other people and one bathroom. In that bathroom the water in the bathtub could not be turned off and ran all day. The smell of rotting flesh came through the toilet as there were thousands of dead animals decaying in the basement below.

When they weren’t dodging bullets (literally) the boys spoke of getting out of the projects. They dreamed of having lawns for their children and of buying their mother a bed, since she’d been sleeping on a couch for years.

They seemed to know that the way out of poverty was an education. So when it came time for them to consider where they would attend high school they expressed dread at the possibility of going to two nearby schools because of the gangs and poor learning conditions.

Those schools? Westinghouse and Crane.

Ellis and Thomas went to Westinghouse. Brandon McGee went to Crane.

I doubt those schools have changed drastically since Kotliwitz wrote about them. One scene in the book depicts a party for the boys’ older cousin, who was the first in the family to graduate from high school (and did so will caring for three young children.)

I spoke to Ellis, Thomas and McGee only intermittently when they were at IU because that’s how it works these days. College athletes are only supposed to give sound bites about basketball to the media.

But when they left the program I had a chance to talk to all three for long stretches, as well as a couple of other players who’ve been characterized as “punks” or “bad guys” by others (Armon Bassett and Eli Holman). They talked passionately about IU and about learning to do the right things and earning a degree and being successful someday.

In fact, one of the enduring memories I’ve had in this line of work is Ellis declaring after the NCAA Tournament loss to Arkansas that he was going to stay at IU because he needed a degree to support his family. He was emphatic, and the scene transcended what had just occurred out on the court involving an orange ball and some round hoops with nets hanging from them.

Commenting on whether these kids are the things some have said they are doesn’t seem very useful to me. The thoughts I’ve already seen expressed on the topic flow from long-held beliefs. We can debate — and inevitably will — in the comments section below.

What I want to thank Dan Dakich for is his service to the thing I hold most dear: the truth.

Besides pointing out what kind of background these kids have, he also mentioned this: they were invited here.

No. Invite is not a strong enough word. They were begged by the former coaches to come here.

And only when Dakich took over as coach was it made abundantly clear to those kids that they didn’t fit what Dakich often refers to as the Indiana culture.

Because, as even Dakich admitted — “There are some cultures they certainly belonged in,” he said, referring to the players — those kids did belong in the culture they thought would exist under Kelvin Sampson.

Sampson never shied from taking troubled kids as a head coach. He seemed to relish taking underdogs (on the court and in life) and pulling them together through tenants like hustle and hard work. There are dozens and dozens of former Sampson players who will tell you how much he helped them grow up and become men. I once shuffled through a stack of photos Kelvin had with former players at their weddings. It was substantial.

When Sampson came here, he fully expected to bring THAT culture to Indiana (while also recruiting a few five stars to build around, which he couldn’t do regularly at his previous stops). It struck me early on when I got to know him that he often said things like “We’ve been doing it that way for a long time,” or “We believe that’s the best way of doing it.” He wasn’t referring to Indiana as “we.” By “we” he meant some abstract idea of HIS program, which had traveled from Montana Tech to Washington State to Oklahoma to Indiana. (Incidentally I’ve heard Crean talk about his program the same way, though he certainly seems to understand the need to mesh it with the culture at Indiana better than Sampson did.)

Obviously, things spun out of control for Sampson’s program last year in so many ways. And many of the kids on the team acted badly. As Dakich and Crean began rebuilding the program, it became apparent that Sampson’s kids would not fit in the new incarnation — or had simply been too scarred by their experience here to continue growing the way they should without starting over.

As you know, Ellis and Thomas are both playing NAIA basketball now (Ellis for Oklahoma City University and Thomas for Robert Morris in Chicago). They could not have transferred to Division I schools because they each only have one more year of eligibility and would have had to sit out a year.

Whether those two transferred simply to continue to chase basketball dreams or if they actually are intent on graduating I don’t know.

But if they do leave with degrees, they’ll deserve — but won’t receive — the level of admiration they once got from Indiana fans for what they did on the court.

35 comments

  1. I’ve stopped posting on these Indiana blog sites due to the incessant negativity and the never ending Knight wars. But I thought I’d post in response to this piece and say thanks for the balance and perspective, reminding us that there are real people involved in all of this stuff. So, thank you.

    Hi to J Pat, KevinK and Kevin Mac.

  2. Great job bringing a little realism to the situation Chris. It is never as black and white as some people who respond on this site want to make it and you have shown that very well. My best wishes to a bunch of kids that were willing to give it their all for IU until things went terribly wrong here, which was not their fault.

  3. Thanks for posting this…very interesting!

    My view on both the players and Dakich has changed so much these last few months. The sports illustrated article a few weeks ago also did a great job showing an insiders view of the team.

  4. Thank you for a balanced, well thought-out piece of journalism. I listened to Dan’s show on the radio the day this all occured. He really did seem pretty hot about the comments made in the Star that morning. No doubt he should know more than almost anyone what went on behind the scenes. He said he had so many tales he could write a book. I wish he would, but I may have to wait for Greenspan’s.

  5. Whoa, Korman, where did that come from and why did you waste it on a blog instead of publishing it in a column in the herald? One of the reasons I have difficulty supporting Crean is because I knew of the background you wrote about of our Chicago players and how they were discarded and demonized by Crean and Hoosier Nation.

    Ellis, Bassett, Thomas, McGee, Crawford and Holman deserved a lot better from Hoosier Nation and Crean. Great write up, Korman.

  6. Aruss, there is a difference between understanding where those kids came from and giving them a chance to succeed, and giving them multiple chances to succeed after they have shown they are not willing to work for theirselves. I have no doubt that they have grown up in an environment I could never imagine (nor would want to imagine), but that does not excuse them from taking on responsibility. If the rumors and stories are true about rampant drug use, missed classes and threats to Dakich, then Crean had no choice to clean house. It is not his job, nor any other coaches job, to baby these kids. They had a chance to make something of themselves and they let it slip away, that’s not Crean’s fault. Again, I completely understand that they have had a terribly difficult life up until they made it to IU, but once they made it there they needed to step it up and take advantage of their situation. They didn’t. Case closed.

  7. Thank you Brad. How anybody cannot support what Crean is doing is beyond me. Same blogger that says support Lynch or root for Illinois?

    Thanks for the info Chris. Nice blog.

    I wish all the former IU players well in their current situations.

    Welcome back GFDave. You found a good blog.

  8. Good article. I feel for the players that ended up in such a bad situation created by Sampson. Then I take it a step further. Sampson and each of these players wasted their opportunity at IU.

    Had Sampson played by the rules IU fans would have continued to embrace him. Had the players taken the education part of college athletics serioulsy and stayed out of trouble off the court the IU faithful would have stayed in their corner for life.

    Both Sampson and the players have nobody to blame but themselves. If education and bettering themselves was the goal for these guys they would have made better decisions. Actions speak louder than words. Their actions suggest they did not appreciate the chances they were given.

  9. GFDave, good to have you!!! I have mixed emotions on Dak and the way it was all handled so I will continue to sit back and read the opinions of others and try to find a happy medium.

  10. Chris, Good piece. I had the opportunity to know several of the 90’s players and the general theme is that after you spend time and conversation with the kids, you realize they are just that. Regular kids who have a special talent for basketball and/or football. Recruiting is becoming more upfront with lots of publicity/media/blogs and this further sensationalizes these 18 year old athletes. When you get past the athlete hype for these guys, you find out about their families, their values, and their personalities. With rare exception, the well worn phrase is still true. They are all good kids. I can only think of one (of maybe 20) who wore his status on his sleeve. Thanks for the more human side of college athletics.

  11. Well done piece. Dan is a bit of a loud mouth, but standing up for these kids is admirable. Yes, they screwed up, and they will pay the price for their mistakes. A good life lesson for them, because the past can only be an excuse for so long. I dont act like I can understand their situation, so I commend them for making it to IU, but I also hope that they seized the opppourtunity and had a better situation than what Sampson provided.

  12. Well said- Dakich and Korman!
    (For a tragically parallel comparison, check out my latest discussion on the Scoop.)

    Anybody think it was a coincidence that Sampson, having himself used basketball to elevate himself from North Carolina’s despondent Indian community, sought underprivileged players as recruits?

    Sampson was a fighter. And just like what he saw in the mirror, he recruited kids who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps or their own bloody lips.

    As a result, his kids came with chips on their shoulders, but often holes in their hearts. While he exploited those chips to get them to muscle down rebounds, he often filled the voids in their lives with an unbending commitment to them, to help them make their lives better. His tough love nurtured them to excel in basketball and in life.

    Is it really any wonder why the team responded the way it did when it lashed out after Sampson was removed from the team mid-season?

    Sampson unquestionably sinned in his recruiting practices, both here and at OU. Same with Senderoff under Sampson. The players unquestionably failed to fulfill their non-basketball obligations.

    Despite this, I still wholeheartedly feel IU & the NCAA committed the greater sins in destroying the players’ season as they approached the home stretch. This isn’t an excuse for what happened. It’s just what it is: a tragic debacle that ruined far more student-athletes’ lives than it did adults.

  13. This should have been a column in the Herald. Yet another reason Korman should be the paper’s regular sports columnist.

  14. Chris, this story is very well written and I’m not unsympathetic to the life situations some of Sampson’s recruits arose from. But, the fact remains that once it became apparent that their coach was on his way out, they shirked all responsibility. They skipped Dakich’s first practice (some of them) and quit going to class. Crean has noted that the team in aggregate was carrying 19 ‘F’ grades when he got here. If they were so bent on getting a degree and bettering their life situation, why would they do that? I don’t think you can sugar-coat the lack of character they showed in that time period or the fact that Sampson’s ‘program’ allowed the conditions that allowed that to occur.

    To Chronic’s comment that the biggest sin was ruining the season for last year’s players: if IU had not run Sampson off, and shown that it was intolerant of his behavior once it was fully revealed, the NCAA penalties would likely have been much worse, possibly including further scholarship reductions and/or postseason bans. Would that not have ruined the seasons of player in future years? How do you justify that?

  15. Eric, Sampson’s behavior was known to IU early in the summer before last season began. It was made public the week before Midnight Madness. IU (Greenspan) made a decision to conduct a less-than-thorough investigation, which did not include interviewing any of the involved recruits. Greenspan chose to allow Sampson to coach the season and only pulled the plug on him after the NCAA disagreed with IU’s conclusions about the violations being minor. If you believe the COI’s stated position about IU’s actions, what IU did subsequent to discovering the violations had no impact on their sanctioning of IU. As I said, it’s not an excuse for what happened. It just happened, and it happened to have a tremendous, negative effect on several young men and their families.

  16. I understand the intent of your blog. It is true that we as fans do not know the backgrounds and the situations these kids went through before coming to IU.

    However I Agree with Brad and Eric. These guys were given chance after chance and they did not pass the tests. (literally)

    It is not like these players have been thrown into the streets and left to die. They have all been given an additional chance at other institutions based totally on their athletic ability. No other students would be given these additional chances with records like these. They need to consider themselves fortunate that they can play basketball, step up and make the most of it. Something they couldn’t do at IU.

    Coach Crean had no choice but to get rid of the cancer that these players would have been to the program. The easy thing was to continue pampering them and keeping them. At least we would have a better team. Can you imagine the risk of keeping any of them based on our 3-yr probation status? One slip up and we face additional penalties. No thanks.
    They got a wake up call in life. Lets hope for their sake they take it seriously and make the most of their new opportunities.

  17. Always 2 sides to any story and it is revealing that Dakich supported ‘his’ former players. Also no doubt Sampson was the architect of the whole mess- BUT that doesn’t absolve the individual players of responsibility. They were given a great opportunity and they DID waste it (at least at IU). I don’t envy the up-bringing these guys had but that doesn’t give them a pass for the rest of their lives either.

  18. Your points are valid Eric but…..the kids did not walk the slippery slope… Sampson/staff did. They (the players and their parents) signed on for the long run, as do most NCAA athletes. I feel most would agree that Sampson’s indiscretions ruined it for all (team and fans). The kids made bad decisions when the leadership role was very unclear. It appeared to me the entire “hoosier nation” was in limbo for weeks/months. Sure the kids made some bad choices, but who was mentoring them? Sampson was a flailing, lame duck. I don’t think anyone is sugar coating the actions, but understanding them is another avenue to travel. Grieving people react in different ways.

  19. So let me get this straight, we are suppose to have understanding and compassion for a guy we’re paying millions to for a team that he put together that will be beaten like a drum all year but he doesn’t have any for Ellis, Thomas, Bassett and McGee?

    The “special” Indiana culture of going to class and winning games is not special. EVERYONE strives for that in college hoops.

  20. It would seem that there is a color barrier for hardship cases in sports and in all level of schools. White population seems to want to duplicate most of the single parent mistkes of black society has gone thur for decades. It mostly blacks that get a softer treatment from the general fan base/media, and true highly critical from another portion of the same. There are a large and growing larger all the time of tough home lives for all kinds of kids. The AAU is full of last hope for college cost to be covered, and along the way that same single parent is bled dry on false hopes. Before the hearts bleed just for the inter city sort of kids, look around in your own kids class rooms, neighborhoods and see how many kids are growing up in divorced/single parent homes. It doesn’t have to be the end or too tough to over come. I just tell my kids to work harder and that there are no excuses. Maybe thats the difference between success and a life that doesn’t amount to much or in and out of jail.

  21. I wasn’t assigning blame totally to the former players, but at some point, everyone has to accept the hand they’re dealt and make the best of it. That’s how life works. Clearly Sampson was the central figure in the culture of the program. But,rebelling against the interim coach and not going to class do not qualify as making the best of things. But we’re beating a dead horse here.

    I’m not going to spend any more time debating the merits or lack of merits of former players. I wish the whole situation hadn’t happened, but it did. But how about Tom Pritchard–he’s gonna be a good one as he develops during his career!! And how about next year’s recruiting class??

  22. Eric, Good comments. Time to let it drop.

    As I commented Sunday night, It will be a joy to watch Tom P. develop into a horse. Ironically, he reminds me of the perennial Purdue giants that Keady would develop. I can see some blow outs this year, but this young team is fun to watch. I agree with Randy Wittman. It wont take long.

    Still a good article Chris. I agree it should have made the paper.

  23. Nice article.

    Still, there are rules that need to be followed as a student-athlete and I have absolutely no sympathy for those players who failed to go to class during that time, regardless of where they came from. That was on the players, not the coaches or the NCAA.

  24. OK, I have read all of this and keep in mind that I love Dak and also that I LOVE CREAN! I have 2 questions that have burned in my mind since Sampson left IU.

    1. Did Dak have the right to let Bassett and Ellis go like he did? It seems to me that the thing to do in that situation would have been an indefinite suspension and let the new coach decide, just my take. I think the way the media blew it all up and Dak being the IU bloodline guy, that Crean felt his hands were tied a little when trying to decide if they should be let back on the team.

    with that said…

    2. Did Crean show some of these guys any love at all? I do not know, it has never been said in print or any rumor mill and I see/hear it all living in Bloomington. This is just my take, but I think Dak tied his hands and IU thought the NCAA would be lighter on them if they cannned the “troubled Sampson kids”.

    Just my take on this and I know many love Dak and he did the right thing for IU culture and bball and yada yada yada, but I really feel strongly that at least one kid (Bassett) should be at Iu now.

  25. THANK YOU COACH D……. I have seen and heard stories of all these kids making poor decisions but nothing more than some of the other students walking this campus…..I for one love following these former Hoosiers and hoping they all find success in some walk of life.

  26. Chris, what a fantastic article that I wish had made the paper rather than just on this blog.

    Kudos to Dakich for standing up to Hillman and defending the Chicago players who just didn’t mesh well with the IU B-ball culture and the sometimes brash, demanding Hoosier Nation.

    While I wish the best in the future for these now-gone players, I am glad these players are gone as Crean needed a fresh start with his own players, not Sampson’s projects. Hey, at least we got Taber and Fink back! 😉

    That being said, I am still a little bitter at IU and the NCAA for their whole timing of last year’s as it destroyed the coach, the players, the fans, the program and the Hoosier Nation’s real chance at another NCAA final four appearance.

    It’s all “water under the bridge” now though as we are bearing witness to the rebirth of a broken program that will rise to the upper echelon of NCAA Basketball once again.

    Thanks again Chris for an article well done!

  27. I have a hard time feeling sorry for those guys. Did some (or all) have a rough childhood? I’m guessing the answer to that question is yes. That said, that doesn’t give them the right to come to IU and behave badly. It seems like they were given chances upon chances and refused to take any life preservers.

    For the few posters who have criticized Crean for getting rid of them…ARE YOU SERIOUS? Crean sped up the recovery process by a few years by cleaning house. If he allowed them to stay, he would have been selling his soul for a few extra wins and possibly allowed the bad seeds to poison the new players.

    Kudos to CTC on that front.

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