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Final Four Experience Bonds, Lingers on Duke Players

J.J. Redick, Luol Deng, Shavlik Randolph are only members of 2004 Duke Final Four team still in the NBA.

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Time can’t erase the lingering feelings of unfulfilled potential.

What if they had made one or two small adjustments? What if the bigs hadn’t fouled out? Maybe, just maybe, the Duke Blue Devils would have beat the Connecticut Huskies in the Final Four of 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“We outplayed UConn with no question for 37-and-a-half minutes,” Shavlik Randolph said of the one-point loss. “One of my biggest regrets is not having won that NCAA Championship.”

The Blue Devils will return to the Final Four on Saturday against the Michigan State Spartans. It is the second Duke team to reach that semifinals since 2004. Eleven years later, that run still holds strong meaning for those who experienced it.

“To this day, it’s probably the biggest game I’ve played in,” Randolph said. “It is such a grand stage. There are 65,000 people, you’ve got cameras on zip lines hanging from the rafters, you feel like you’re in a movie. I’ve never played in the NBA Finals, but from people I’ve spoken to, it’s the only comparable thing. It’s the ultimate stage you can play on.”

Randolph (Boston Celtics), Luol Deng (Miami HEAT) and J.J. Redick (Los Angeles Clippers) are the only members of the 2004 team still in the NBA this season. They have gone on to establish professional careers, but their experiences from college tie them together.

Redick and Randolph met years before Duke as teenagers. Randolph vividly remembers defeating Redick’s basketball team on their home court. Redick, coincidentally, didn’t offer that anecdote.

“Shav was like my guy,” Redick said. “We’ve had a great relationship since we were 15 years old.”

Echoed Randolph, “J.J. has been one of my best friends since I’ve been in high school and that will never change.”

The friends began college together in 2002. One year later, Deng arrived on campus for what would be his first and only season at Duke before entering the NBA. Both Randolph and Redick quickly took to him.

“Luol’s great,” Redick said. “He was my recruit on his official visit and I wish I could have played with him a little more.”

Randolph’s immediate connection with Deng has proven to be long-lasting. They still get together when they play in each other’s city and have similar groups of friends.

“He was one of those guys who as soon as he stepped on campus, we just bonded,” said Randolph. “We’re kind of the same soul coming from different backgrounds.”

While going to the Final Four is one of Deng’s favorite moments with Randolph, he also enjoyed daily activities with him – things as simple as going to study hall together.

“He’s just a fun guy,” said Deng. “I even laugh just talking about him. He’s always positive, making people laugh. He has no bad bones in him in terms of hurting anyone or making anyone sad.”

The former Blue Devils understand the opinion they hold for one another isn’t the same as those from other schools. They have received plenty of hostility from opponents and non-Duke fans over the years – a popular negative opinion that only they can relate to.

“(Playing for Duke) is something that everybody takes a great deal of pride in,” said Randolph. “If you’re not in it, you get a lot of hate from the outside. Something that bonds us and brings us even closer is we know we’re not liked from the second we put that Duke jersey on by people who just don’t like Duke.”

Redick has created a large circle of Blue Devil alum, as many former players have.

“The fraternity of Duke players is strong,” Redick said. “NBA or not, we all know each other. If you go back 30 years, I’m friends with just about every Duke player that ever played there. Any time you see them on the court or in the league or during the summer, you always catch up. Different generations are all friends.”

At some point, the current Duke team will join this group. But while they are still in college, Randolph encourages them to savor the moments they will share this weekend. Even if they go on to play in the NBA, the Final Four is an experience that cannot be replicated later in their careers. NCAA champions are regarded with a level of respect in the NBA, said Randolph, since so few are able to accomplish it.

“It’s something I was so close to,” Randolph said. “Don’t take it for granted because it is tough to get to. Make the most of it, don’t try to look ahead, don’t think about what you’re doing when the season’s over. Live in that moment. … Try not to have that same regret.”

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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