In the middle of Duke’s 2014-15 championship basketball season, the team and its coaches were dealing with a player who wanted to leave the program.
Semi Ojeleye, then a 6-7 reserve sophomore forward, decided to transfer in December 2014, having played in just six games up to that point of the season.
Ojeleye eventually landed at SMU, where he had been recruited by coach Larry Brown, and was picked by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2017 NBA draft.
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A story in the Boston Herald this week chronicles what his family says are the ups and downs of Ojeleye's journey from Duke to SMU to the Celtics, and includes details from the family about the NBA rookie's departure from the school and its basketball program.
According to Ojeleye's father, staying at Duke would have prevented his son from making it to the NBA.
“He would have toiled away in obscurity,” Joy Ojeleye, Semi's mother, told the Boston Herald. “He would have slaved away, and the dream would have been completely dead. Dead and forgotten. Another one who played in high school, went to college. Society would have just thought he never worked hard enough.”
In the story, Ojeleye’s parents say they expressed their frustration with how Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant coach Nate James handled the family's concern about Ojeleye's little playing time and his desire to leave the program.
Duke athletics department spokesman Jon Jackson said Krzyzewski wouldn't comment on the story, but referred to the same statement the school gave the Boston Herald: “While we are not going to comment on specific conversations between parents and members of our coaching staff, we understand that transfer situations are sometimes emotional. Our entire Duke Basketball staff enjoyed Semi Ojeleye’s year-and-a-half as a member of our program, and since granting him his full release, we have followed his career as he progressed into the professional player our staff envisioned him to be. We wish him nothing but the best.”
In the Boston Herald story, Dr. Ernest Ojeleye, Semi's father, said a call from James, after Ojeleye had transferred, left him upset.
“First he said the only way Semi was going to play at Duke was if someone else got hurt,” Ernest Ojeleye told the Boston Herald. “Then he said Semi didn’t work on his game, or do what they told him to do. He didn’t ask the coaches what he had to do to get better.
“I said no, this person you are talking about is not my child.' I was really hot about this, but then I told him, ‘Thanks for the privilege.’ But it was really annoying for them to try and destroy my son’s character. Very wicked, actually.”
Joy Ojeleye, Semi's mother, described two earlier meetings with Krzyzewski. The first, she said, occurred after the 2013-14 season when Ojeleye played just 17 games, averaging 1.6 points, as a freshman.
“He said your son is an amazing person,” Joy Ojeleye said about a conversation she had with Kryzyewski concerning Semi's playing time. “On the court and off the court. He’s going to play. Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. He even texted me and said Semi is going to do great, he’s going to break out. That helps me believe what my son told me, because he said I believe him.”
But Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones arrived as freshmen the following season, one that would end with Duke going 35-4 and winning the 2015 NCAA championship.
Ojeleye remained a deep reserve early in the season, which led to Joy Ojeleye and Semi's brother, Victor, meeting with Krzyzewski in his office, according to the Boston Herald story.
In the meeting, Joy Ojeleye told the Boston Herald, Krzyzewski jumped out of his chair when asked about Semi’s chances for more playing time.
“He shouted at me,” Joy Ojeleye said in the story. “He said, ‘Am I lying, Am I lying?’ Just like that. My oldest son said, ‘Coach, she didn’t say you were lying, she was only asking a question.’
“I had tears streaming down my cheeks, and I said, ‘Coach, you’re way up there and I’m down here. That’s why I kneeled down and said forgive me. I didn’t say you were lying. I would never say that.’ Victor, for the first time, he felt so humiliated, so bad and ashamed I was treated like that. It’s OK. I just didn’t want him to feel like I was being rude to him. I just wanted to ask the question. Is there anything my son needs to do and achieve the privilege to play? Because if you never play, nobody sees your talent. And he tells me he does everything you tell him to do, so if you’re working hard behind the scenes, please, even if it’s five minutes, let him play.
“So when I sat down, he said, ‘You’re OK, you’re OK, that’s OK, that’s OK, you haven’t done anything wrong.’ And he went back and sat in his chair. I said ‘I’m sorry,’ and he said, ‘You don’t have anything to be sorry about. You’re fine.’ ”
On Dec. 14, 2014, Duke announced that Ojeleye was transferring
Ojeleye wasn’t made available for comment at the time but Duke released a statement from Krzyzewski.
“We want to thank Semi and his family for their commitment to the Duke program for the last year and a half,” Krzyzewski said in the statement. “He has been an excellent student and a great representative of our school and basketball program. He has been granted a full release and we definitely wish him the best.”
Ojeleye subsequently transferred to SMU. In 2016-17, his senior season, he averaged 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, and was named the American Athletic Conference player of the year, before being drafted by the Celtics. As a rookie, he averaged 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game during the regular season for Boston, which is in the second round of the playoffs against Philadelphia.
In the Boston Herald story, Ojeleye only talked in generalizations about his departure from Duke.
“Just needed a fresh start,” he said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was a good place. It was a great place — that’s why I went there. But for me, I got the opportunity to grow as a player and person and start over.”