Rasheed Sulaimon, a rising sophomore at Duke, is a first-generation American, the son of a father from Nigeria and a mother from Jamaica. Recently, he was a member of the United States 19-and-under team that went to Prague for the FIBA World Championships.
After the final buzzer sounded, signaling the end of Team USAs 82-68 pounding of Serbia in the gold medal game July 7, Sulaimon was given an American flag by a fan. He kept it with him throughout the postgame celebrations.
I would have to say that was probably the proudest moment in my life to call myself an American, Sulaimon said. I didnt realize how important it was until we actually won. To have that flag around me, the gold medal around my neck, my hand over my heart, to hear our national anthem play while we were champions, it just really made me proud, and it meant a lot to me.
It was the second gold medal Sulaimon has won with team USA his first came last summer in the FIBA-Americas U18 Championship in Brazil. That gold medal is at home in Houston with his parents, Angela and Kenny. Angela came to the United States from Jamaica in her early teens. Kenny came later, when he was in his early 20s. The two met in New York and raised Sulaimon and his siblings in Houston.
While in high school, Sulaimon played AAU basketball for Houston Hoops, the same organization as Justise Winslow, a rising senior, Duke recruiting target and fellow U19 teammate in Prague.
Its a big difference playing with those guys, because most of those guys have been to college, Winslow said of his Team USA experience. The speed of the game, theyre just stronger and bigger.
Sulaimon felt the same way as a freshman last year, at times struggling to keep up. At the end of last season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski challenged Sulaimon, who was named to the ACC all-freshman team, to improve his conditioning.
I feel like if I get myself in the best physical shape that I can get, it will also help with my mental stability and also with my emotional stability as well, Sulaimon said. Thats a big concern of mine in the offseason, getting right physically and everything else will take care of itself.
The FIBA World Championships gave Sulaimon a chance to test his offseason fitness. Because of differences in the way the international game is officiated no hand-checking the ballhandler defenders were forced to move their feet and rely on their lateral quickness. Offensively, there was a premium on shooting, as defenses would sag on those who couldnt hit their shots, cutting off other options.
Many of the players on the European teams have been playing professionally since they were 14 or 15 years old, Sulaimon said. Most also had a palpable dislike for Team USA.
I could see every time we walk in the room, no matter which country it is, theyre looking at us almost in a distasteful sense, Sulaimon said. We saw clips in the past years where teams have beaten us, and its not even for a medal, but theyre celebrating like they won the gold medal. We had to realize that we always have a target on our backs.
Team USA dominated the competition, with an average margin of victory of 39.5 points and just two games decided by fewer than 25 points. Sulaimon started eight of Team USAs nine games, averaging 8.4 points per game. He was more pleased with some of his performances than others but said the theme of the tournament had been sacrifice, something all of Team USA did in order to maximize the teams potential.
Sulaimon started this summers Team USA experience at tryouts and training camp in Colorado Springs. From June 14-19, he roomed with Jahlil Okafor, another rising senior and Duke recruiting target. The two bonded over Pretty Little Liars, a TV show that typically plays better with young female viewers. Okafor also watched the college players exchange trash talk.
Rasheed got the most hate for going to Duke, Okafor said. When someone brought up Duke, all the college guys would gang up on him. Thats one thing I noticed.
Sulaimon took it in stride and dished out his own. For the first few days of training camp, he wasnt the only Duke-affiliated person on site Krzyzewski, the head coach of the national team, was on hand to watch the U19 players and coaches (Floridas Billy Donovan, Virginia Commonwealths Shaka Smart and Virginias Tony Bennett).
My relationship with Coach has grown tremendously since the end of the season, Sulaimon said. He was out there for the first two days, at tryouts in Colorado Springs. Every day since then, weve been in constant communication.
Krzyzewski reminded Sulaimon what it meant to compete for Team USA, a message Sulaimon appears to have taken to heart. He brought his gold medal when he met with reporters in Durham the week he returned. Soon, though, it would be headed to Houston.
My mom has my other medal, Sulaimon said, referring to his U18 medal from last year. She has already asked me to mail this one back.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley