It's hopeless. A lost cause. Yet for some reason they persist, like retirees buying one more worthless lottery ticket. No matter how many times J.J. Redick steps to the free throw line, no matter how many slurs his tormentors use against him--the "F--- you, J.J." chants at Maryland, the "Traitor!" cries at Virginia, the upraised limp wrists at N.C. State--they are doomed, with near certainty, to fail. Ninety-four-point-one percent, people. But they never learn. For this is what happens when the most reviled (and perhaps envied) player in the land is also the greatest free throw shooter in the history of college basketball.
"J.J., you suck!" booms a heckler at N.C. State's RBC Center.
"Hey, J.J., you're a f----t!"
Redick grips the ball and begins his routine. Spin, dribble, spin, dribble, spin. A silent reminder of Philippians 4:13. ("I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.") Then the mantra, like a golfer's swing thought: buckets.
Bend. Flick. Swish.
Oh, the merciless Duke junior guard will find other ways to drive opposing fans crazy this season. Maybe he'll bob his head while running downcourt after draining a preposterous 26-foot three-pointer. Or he'll exaggerate his follow-through a few seconds longer than normal, holding it up there like a periscope at the Masters. But nothing demonstrates Redick's inner toughness--especially in an erratic era for foul shooting (page 74)--more than those 10 seconds at the free throw line, when he faces down the heaps of abuse and embraces his role, in the words of Duke assistant Chris Collins, as "the gladiator in the pit."
Last Thursday, Duke entered an enemy arena for the first time this season and scored an 86-74 win over the Wolfpack. J.J. Redick couldn't wait. "We play in front of the best home fans in the country, but I almost like playing on the road even better," he says. "There's nothing more fun than silencing 20,000 people, especially 20,000 people who've berated you all night."
Indeed, few weapons come with more effective silencers. Through Sunday, Redick was averaging an ACC-leading 21.0 points a game and shooting a stellar 41.2% from beyond the arc for the No. 4 Blue Devils, who had flown to an unexpected 13-0 start despite losing two early NBA entries (Luol Deng and signee Shaun Livingston). While burly post man Shelden Williams and guard Daniel Ewing have shouldered much of the offensive load, no Blue Devil has done more than Redick, whose daggers inflict staggering psychological damage on Duke's foes.
"There's no ceiling on his range. I swear, he can shoot a legitimate jump shot from damn near half-court," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose No. 19 Spartans got lit up by Redick for 29 points (including five treys) in an 81-74 Duke victory on Nov. 30. "But what I love about J.J. almost more than his shooting is how hard he prepares to shoot. He sprints off screens. We actually took some film of it to try [to teach] it to our guys."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn't hesitate in calling Redick the best pure shooter he's had in his 30-year head-coaching career. "But he's still evolving," Coach K says, noting the 25 pounds that the 6'4", 190-pound Redick shed last summer to help prevent the late-season fatigue that afflicted him in his first two college seasons. "J.J. is a better player than he was at this time last year. He's a better leader, a better defender, and he can put the ball on the floor. If J.J. were a house, he'd be a house that now has many windows. He used to have just one window, and that was shooting."
From the day that seven-year-old J.J. saw his first college basketball game--Duke's 1992 NCAA championship game win over Michigan--he resolved that he would someday play for Coach K in Durham. And he never veered from that track, committing to the Blue Devils before his junior season at Cave Spring High in Roanoke, Va. (thus ensuring those traitor taunts from Cavaliers fans). "On the court everything's pretty much been like I thought it would be," Redick says. "The thing that's probably been different, which I didn't fully realize in high school, is the dislike for Duke that's out there. Some of the stuff that's happened during road games has been pretty shocking."
The nadir came during Duke's 68-60 win at ACC rival Maryland last season. As Redick stepped to the free throw line, hundreds of students--many of them wearing f--- duke T-shirts they had bought outside the arena--chanted, "F--- you, J.J." in front of a national TV audience. "I also heard sexual references to my little sister," Redick says. "That's when you want to go up in the stands and have someone say that to your face." Redick laughs off a little vulgar PG-13 creativity (he thought the sign J.J. Drinks His Own Pee was "hilarious"), but he knows Terps fans will stop at nothing. Consider Redick's new cell number, which he guards like the nuclear football after someone in College Park got hold of his digits a year ago. "It got to the point where I was getting 50 to 75 calls a night," he says. "They were handing the number out at bars and parties. One Maryland fan left a message calling me the Antichrist."
A simple Internet search will turn up all manner of Redick-themed hate propaganda, which prompts the question, Why has Redick become, as Collins puts it, "public enemy Number 1?" The answer is more complicated than you might think. For starters, Redick is the best player on the nation's most visible team, a program whose success under Krzyzewski (10 Final Fours, three championships) draws "evil empire" comparisons to Microsoft and the New York Yankees. What's more, Redick acknowledges that he invites attention with a WWE-style court persona, one that he's convinced is a job requirement.
"How I play on the court is not how I am off the court," he says. "You've gotta be cocky when you shoot the ball, and I feel like I have to play with a swagger. Sometimes that results in me talking to other players and fans, or doing a head bob and smiling. It's not something I do consciously, but it's something I've learned to do out of necessity over the years."
Yet there's something more at work here, something Redick is well aware of. Over time several Duke players have passed along the public-enemy title like a crown of thorns: Christian Laettner, Danny Ferry, Bobby Hurley, Collins, Steve Wojciechowski. At the same time black Blue Devils stars such as Grant Hill, Jason Williams and Elton Brand have largely avoided becoming such targets. It may be un-PC to say so, but it's hard not to conclude that race is a factor. "I'll be blunt," says Redick, casting himself as an Everyman. "I'm white. I'm not a big guy who dunks on people, and that's something most fans can identify with."
"If you saw J.J. with a backpack on campus wearing khakis, you wouldn't pick him out," says Collins. "College fans view the white guard as the guy they hate because he's the 'common' guy. And not just at Duke."
For his part Coach K contends that Laettner remains "first, second and third" on Duke's alltime most-hated list. Perhaps, but Laettner never had to endure a culture of anonymous Internet message boards and 24-hour sports radio. Redick does. "Over the years arenas have become more hostile," says Coach K's wife, Mickie, who stopped attending games at Maryland six years ago after being struck with a cup of ice. "We're very desensitized to everything these days. But those people who hate J.J., if they knew him, they'd be his best friends."
If only they knew Redick, they would know that he made a surprise visit last fall to the Krzyzewskis' house, not to see Coach K but rather to console Mickie after the death of her father. That he got his first tattoo last summer at the same time his 79-year-old grandmother, Grace, got hers. And that he has a passion for writing intricate Beat-style poetry, which he hopes to have published someday.
"Poetry for me is an escape," says Redick, whose three favorite verse writers are Tupac Shakur, Bruce Springsteen and the rapper Nas. "A lot of what I write about is spiritual stuff, mental battles, internal struggle. Whenever I go home, I'll have poetry-reading sessions with my family."
In Redick's poems you can detect the influence of his parents, Ken and Jeanie, onetime Tennessee stoneware potters who became born-again Christians and chose to home-school their five children (including J.J. through fourth grade). Their household, perched on a secluded mountainside at the end of a winding gravel road outside Roanoke, is one that values religion and the arts. Jonathan Redick got his nickname from his older twin sisters, Alyssa and Catie, who repeated his first initial as toddlers. His middle name, Clay, has a more intriguing origin. Says Jeanie, "If you've ever seen a potter throw clay, he has to center the clay, put pressure on the clay, then open up the clay and form this beautiful vessel. And when it's fired, it becomes durable. It's kind of like the way God forms our life."
In eighth grade J.J. broke his left wrist twice and his right wrist once, but there was a long-term benefit: He was forced to perfect a textbook shooting release using either hand, balancing the ball and flicking it upward, over and over again. Most of that early work took place in the driveway ("a third dirt, a third gravel and a third grass"), where J.J. spent so much time that his father had to repaint the square on the backboard. "He watched good shooters on TV, then he'd go out to the gravel driveway and mimic that," says Ken. "At 10 years old he was saying, 'Dad, that guy's got really good rotation on his shot.' I didn't even know what he was talking about."
The driveway is still there, of course, and so is the backboard, and sometimes J.J. will come back and surprise the Redicks again with what comes out of his mouth. Take one of the poems he read aloud to them over Christmas, titled September 5, 2004:
My life story is read in poetic stages
I was once weak-minded, now I'm courageous
The cause and effect of a thousand actions
The mathematical breakdown of microfractions
It's difficult to fathom the coming of the rapture
What if I awoke in an empty pasture?
Suddenly every ounce of passion had been depleted
And all my determination had been defeated
The rain pours, my tears fall
The pain subsides, I stand in awe
A lightning bolt strikes, I feel a sudden energy
Thunderclouds approach, I can't run from destiny
A tornado tears me down, but I will stand again
My life is a hurricane, but I'll weather it to the end.
Redick's verse, like his game, is still evolving. But when you're dealing with tornadoes, hurricanes and the Rapture, who needs to worry about hecklers?
Free and Easy
By making 75 of 79 from the foul line through Sunday this season, J.J. Redick officially has become the best free shooter in Division I history. ¬†(Minimum 300 foul shots made and 2.5 per game made.)
FREE THROWS MADE/ ATTEMPTED
J.J. REDICK, Duke
GARY BUCHANAN, Villanova
GREG STARRICK, Kentucky/Southern Illinois
JACK MOORE, Nebraska
STEVE HENSON, Kansas State
At Maryland, says Redick, "I heard sexual references to my little sister. That's when you want to go in the stands and have someone SAY THAT TO YOUR FACE."
Photograph by Peter Gregoire
DUKING IT OUT
Redick revels in his status as a pro-wrestling-style villain--and in his ability to quiet opposing crowds.
Redick, who sagged late in games last year, improved his stamina by dropping 25 pounds over the summer.
KEEP 'EM GUESSING
Against the Spartans, Redick occasionally forsook his trademark long-range game for forays to the inside.