Duke's Zafirovski, former walk-on, relishes his first bucket

Blue Devils senior Todd Zafirovski, a former walk-on, finally gets his first bucket

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 7, 2012 

— Duke senior Todd Zafirovski had waited four years for this moment.

“Every single time I get in a game, people have been telling me, ‘you better score, you better take a shot,’ ” he said.

Against Delaware last Saturday, Josh Hairston fouled out with 5:30 to go. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team held a 44-point lead, opted to sub in former walk-on Zafirovski instead of Mason Plumlee, much to the superstar’s surprise and the crowd’s delight.

“I’ve never seen coach put a guy in with five minutes left like that,” Plumlee said, “So I got up and then coach said ‘Todd!’ So I sat back down and started cheering.”

It was Zafirovski’s first appearance this season and the 11th of his career. In 21 previous career minutes, he was 0-for-3 from the field.

With 2:13 remaining, Zafirovski rebounded Amile Jefferson’s miss and put the ball back up on the glass.

It missed badly.

“I don’t really know what happened,” he said with a laugh. “I got the ball and I just tried to flick it up there really quickly, and I lost it.”

But he assured his teammates that wouldn’t happen again.

“If you give it to me again, I promise I’ll make it,” he said.

With 1:24 left, Zafirovski received the ball in the low post again. And he kept his promise. He made his shot.

Immediately, players on Duke’s bench jumped to their feet. Quinn Cook was so excited that he leapt on Seth Curry’s back. In the stands above them, Zafirovski’s brother, Kirk raised both hands, held up two fingers, and started to get watery eyes.

“It was almost surreal in some ways,” Kirk said. “I almost couldn’t believe it had happened.”

After years of working tirelessly in practice to make sure his teammates shined, Zafirovski finally had a moment of his own.

No glamour for walk-ons

The life of a Duke walk-on isn’t glamorous. They are told they might not play – ever. If they are fortunate enough to see the floor, minutes are scare. For example, in the 2010-11 season, Duke’s two walk-ons – Zafirovski and Casey Peters – combined to play 28 of the team’s 7,400 minutes.

The walk-ons aren’t there to fight teammates for minutes. Their role is to make them better in practice and scout for them during games.

“You’re not worried about your shots falling or not, nothing like that,” said Peters, who graduated in 2011 and didn’t attempt a shot in his two years on the team. “You’re focused on trying to get Mason or Kyle Singler or Jon Scheyer or Nolan Smith to do something they’re not comfortable doing in practice.

“My mindset in practice, especially as the season went on and the games were getting more intense, was to make those practices my games.”

When 6-foot-9 Zafirovski arrived in 2009, he was invited to try out as a practice player. Zafirovski could have played elsewhere – he had been recruited heavily by Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother who was then coaching at Brown, and he had interest from a few other smaller schools. But Zafirovski, who lived in Raleigh when he was younger, applied to Duke on the final day applications were due. His oldest brother Matt had gone to Duke, and Zafirovski decided he wanted to, too.

His AAU coach contacted Duke associate head coach Chris Collins the summer before he arrived. Zafirovski was told to come to the team workouts.

At his first one, he was told to guard 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek.

“No one ever told me to leave, so I just kept coming back,” Zafirovski said.

Over the years, it has been his job to play defense during drills against Zoubek, Lance Thomas, and Miles and Mason Plumlee. Each was bigger, not to mention had more natural athletic ability.

“It takes a toll on you,” Peters said. “You’re out on the court, and there’s seven, eight, nine McDonald’s All-Americans playing with you. Not going 150 percent physically is not an option for you.”

Zafirovski attended practice every day during his first semester. He dressed in street clothes and sat next to Seth Curry, who had transferred from Liberty, during home games.

That December, freshman Olek Czyz decided to transfer. And the morning before Duke’s Dec. 31 game against Penn, Krzyzewski announced during a team meeting that Zafirovski was now a member of the squad.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Mike Zafirovski, Todd’s dad. “It was Dec. 31, and we were supposed to have a party that night at our house in Chicago. He called us at 10 o’clock that morning, and he said, ‘I made the team, and I’m dressing tonight.’ We changed our plans and flew to Durham that night.”

Zafirovski was in uniform that night (though the name on the back was ‘Zafirovsky’). He didn’t play that night or any other night that season. But he was on the team that won the national championship.

Zafirovski continued to grind. He figured eventually he would get in a game and score, but after three years, that moment hadn’t come.

“Sometimes it’s tough, but at the same time, you’re playing basketball, you’re playing for coach, you’re playing with guys like Mason Plumlee, who’s my roommate, and you can’t be any happier,” he said. “I love it to death.”

Plumlee: Bucket was ‘awesome’

Mike Zafirovski estimates that he and his wife, Robin, attend about 90 percent of Duke’s home games. He was in Durham last Saturday in his room at the Washington Duke hotel, recovering from knee surgery. Robin, too, missed the Delaware game, as she was caring for another relative who was recovering from surgery.

“Someone told us, ‘maybe you should come less often to the games, and Todd will play more,’” Mike joked.

He was watching on TV, though, when his son scored, and he saw Duke’s bench celebrate. Todd visited with his dad and other Duke parents at the Washington Duke after the game, and he and Plumlee treated themselves to a celebratory dinner. When they went home, their apartment had a big congratulatory sign on the door.

And the praise didn’t stop.

“Walking around campus this week, people have been walking up to me and saying congrats,” Zafirovski said. “For me, that’s a huge thing. For people to come up to me and say something, that means a lot to me.”

Watching him have his moment meant a lot to his teammates, too.

“When that happened, there wasn’t anyone in the program that wasn’t happy for him,” Plumlee said with a grin. “That was just awesome.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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