Duke Now

Why Duke walk-on Mike Buckmire wants to do so much more than play basketball

Duke basketball players, left to right, Marvin Bagley III, Trevon Duval, Marques Bolden, Grayson Allen and Alex O’Connell, react as freshman walk-on Mike Buckmire scores against Saint Francis on Dec. 5.
Duke basketball players, left to right, Marvin Bagley III, Trevon Duval, Marques Bolden, Grayson Allen and Alex O’Connell, react as freshman walk-on Mike Buckmire scores against Saint Francis on Dec. 5. cliddy@newsobserver.com

As the ball fell right into his hands, Mike Buckmire looked up court and saw an opportunity. He started to dribble. When he crossed halfcourt, it was just him and Saint Francis defender, Markus Vallien – one-on-one.

Buckmire crossed over from left to right, hesitated, and drove passed Vallien. He then went up for a layup as Vallien tried to swipe at the ball.

Buckmire is a freshman guard for No. 4 Duke (11-1, 0-1 ACC). He stands 6-2 and is a slender 172 pounds. And he always wears a smile on his face. On Duke’s roster page on its website, his smile is so wide it’s infectious.

Buckmire is a walk-on this season and isn’t on a basketball scholarship. He was a talented player in high school at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, averaging 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game during his senior year. He probably could have been a scholarship player at a “lower Division-I team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

But Buckmire was set on going to Duke. He has plans other than basketball. While he loves the sport, he wants to possibly become a doctor – like his parents.

“He comes from the same league as (Cameron) Reddish, Mo Bamba, Amile (Jefferson),” Krzyzewski said about players who are known for doing well in the classroom. “The classes he is in are pretty good.”

Buckmire is taking several math and science classes during his first year at Duke in preparation for medical school. He’s so serious about his academics that he missed the Blue Devils’ road trip to Indiana because he had a chemistry lab.

He said he would have loved to go to both, but going to class was something he said he had to do.

“I was watching the game very intently and still cheering my team on, making sure I texted them before and after to make sure they knew I was watching,” he said.

Doing what he loves

Buckmire comes from a family of doctors. His mom is an internal medicine physician in Philadelphia, and his dad is a colon and rectal surgeon in Arizona.

RAL_ 51_Buckmire_Mike
Mike Buckmire

Michael Buckmire said he and Buckmire’s mother, Rhonda Haston, are proud of their son.

“Michael has always been a good student,” said the elder Michael Buckmire, who was a member of Duke’s soccer team when it won the national championship in 1986. “He has accomplished a lot with more to do, obviously.”

During the younger Buckmire’s senior year of high school, father and son talked about which colleges Buckmire could attend. Buckmire had always been a Duke fan, especially since his dad had graduated from there.

Because of Duke’s academic reputation, the younger Buckmire knew the school would be a good fit, and he wanted to try to be a walk-on basketball player there. His high school coach reached out to Duke’s coaching staff, and Buckmire eventually got a tryout.

The elder Buckmire said he knew his son was skilled at basketball. He often played against the best players in the country, including Bamba and Reddish, and performed well against them.

However, his father suspected his chances of making the team were a long shot.

“You never know exactly what the recruits are,” Michael Buckmire said.

Buckmire ended up making the team.

“It was surreal,” his father said. “But I knew he put the work in. I was surprised but not shocked.”

Playing basketball for Duke, and taking the classes he is taking is tough, the younger Buckmire said. It requires a lot of studying on planes and on road trips, and he has to manage his time efficiently.

Buckmire said he knows the day will come when he can no longer play basketball, so he wants to set himself up for the future – and make the most of his time at Duke.

“And right now, I’m doing the things I love, which are studying what I’m studying now and playing basketball,” Buckmire said. “Again, I want to set myself up for the future, and being able to do whatever it is I love to do, day in and day out.”

First college points

The game against Saint Francis on Dec. 5, was a blowout, and a chance for those coming off the bench to get some minutes they otherwise wouldn’t. It was Buckmire’s first chance to play this season.

He was ready for the opportunity.

As he was going to the basket for his layup, he was fouled. He fell to the floor, the shot went in and he got the first two points of his college basketball career.

Those on Duke’s bench – primarily the team’s starters – flexed and celebrated. The Cameron Crazies went wild, and Buckmire’s teammates on the court picked him up off the ground and celebrated his shot with him.

“We knew Mike’s good, but we didn’t expect that out of him,” senior guard Grayson Allen said with a laugh.

Buckmire went to the line and knocked down the free throw to complete the 3-point play. Duke went on to win 124-67. In Buckmire’s two minutes on the court, he had 3 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist.

“The students gave him a great ovation when he came in, but then when he hit it ... then he hit the free throw too, which that was really something,” Krzyzewski said, “because usually they’re not going to make their free throws.”

Krzyzewski said Buckmire has done a good job for the team, and his teammates love him. Buckmire’s shot was the talk of the locker room after the game.

Buckmire won’t take total credit for the basket, though. He said it was Duke sophomore guard Justin Robinson’s block right before that started it all. That block caused the ball to fall into Buckmire’s hands. That’s when he took off for the basket.

“It was clearly exciting, my first points as a freshman,” Buckmire said. “But I was just happy that it went in and tried to move on to the next play, just celebrating with my team. It was clearly not just an achievement for myself, but an achievement for my whole team.”

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @jonmalexander