DURHAM — 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 superstars surprise and the crowds delight.
Ive 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 Zafirovskis 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 Jeffersons miss and put the ball back up on the glass.
It missed badly.
I dont 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 wouldnt happen again.
If you give it to me again, I promise Ill 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 Dukes bench jumped to their feet. Quinn Cook was so excited that he leapt on Seth Currys back. In the stands above them, Zafirovskis 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 couldnt 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 isnt 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, Dukes two walk-ons Zafirovski and Casey Peters combined to play 28 of the teams 7,400 minutes.
The walk-ons arent there to fight teammates for minutes. Their role is to make them better in practice and scout for them during games.
Youre not worried about your shots falling or not, nothing like that, said Peters, who graduated in 2011 and didnt attempt a shot in his two years on the team. Youre focused on trying to get Mason or Kyle Singler or Jon Scheyer or Nolan Smith to do something theyre 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 Obamas 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. Youre out on the court, and theres seven, eight, nine McDonalds 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 Dukes 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, Todds 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 oclock that morning, and he said, I made the team, and Im 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 didnt 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 hadnt come.
Sometimes its tough, but at the same time, youre playing basketball, youre playing for coach, youre playing with guys like Mason Plumlee, whos my roommate, and you cant 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 Dukes 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 Dukes 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 didnt stop.
Walking around campus this week, people have been walking up to me and saying congrats, Zafirovski said. For me, thats 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 wasnt anyone in the program that wasnt happy for him, Plumlee said with a grin. That was just awesome.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley