Sunday, September 9, 2012

One More Time, About Michael Duncan

Doug:  Last week, upon news of the passing of movie star and larger-than-life personality Michael Clarke Duncan, I ran a quick post stating my family's relationship to the man.  I'd like to ask your indulgence in following that up with a few stories and photos.

Doug:  First, what follows is a column from our local newspaper, written by Tim Yonke, one of the assistant editors who covered our community college's basketball team when Duncan was a player:

      As a fledgling sports writer in the late 1970s my primary beat was covering the Kankakee Community College men’s basketball team. Among the players I covered was Michael Duncan, who would later become acclaimed actor Michael Clarke Duncan.
      Duncan died Monday after nearly two months of treatment following a heart attack. He was just 54 years old.
If you were lucky to know “Dunk” — as he was known by his teammates back then — you likely would have never forgotten him. His 6-foot-5, 225-pound body and imposing muscles were impressive, but it was his huge smile, deep laugh and indomitable spirit that left a mark on your heart.
      While some may think Duncan was a star player during his two years in Kankakee, that wasn’t exactly the case. He sat at the end of the bench his entire freshman season. I remember Coach Denny Lehnus constantly screaming at him for mistakes on the court during practice. I wasn’t sure he’d even be back for a second season.
      However, Duncan took Lehnus’ stern words for what they were — tough love. He worked hard over the summer and improved so much that he became the starting center on a squad that began the season 17-0 and became the No. 1-ranked junior college team in the country. You could tell back then how much success meant to him.
Later that year the Cavaliers lost the state championship game in overtime. Nearly 45 minutes after the game as his teammates came out of the locker room, there was Duncan still dressed in his uniform sitting in front of his locker sobbing.
Duncan moved on to St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., to play the next year. I went along with the KCC coaching staff to see Dunk play one winter night. It was a game that he played little and not very well. We waited afterward to speak to him, and, as usual, he was the last to leave the locker room. He came out to hug everyone with tears in his eyes, feeling he had disappointed his friends who had come to see him play.
       That’s why everyone who knew him, loved him. He cared. And, not just for himself, but for everyone around him.
Even after his hard work had gotten him an award-winning career as an actor, Duncan still kept in touch with his Kankakee friends. 
     Mike Golowski, the point guard on that KCC team, routinely exchanged phone calls and texts with his friend and even visited him in Los Angeles a few years ago. Their conversations were always filled with laughter.
      KCC teammates like Pat Halloran, Greg Montgomery, Kevin Jones and Bob Trewartha, to name a few, knew Michael not just as a fun-loving teammate, but as someone they could depend on. I’m sure they all took pride in the success Duncan had achieved and I guarantee they felt it couldn’t have happened to a better person. 
      Duncan had a wonderful relationship with former KCC administrator and game announcer Dick Frey. On away trips, the pair would have eating contests when the team stopped for meals. Their battles were both fun and legendary.
      The news of Duncan’s death was certainly upsetting to former KCC assistant coaches David Holstein, Dennis Clark and Jeff Bennett, who were first-hand witnesses to Michael’s drive to success. Bring Duncan’s name up in a conversation and watch their faces light up with a smile.
      Duncan would always keep in touch with Lehnus, whom he looked at as a father figure. And, why not? Michael was raised by a single mother in the housing projects on Chicago’s tough south side.
      While a number of his players looked at Lehnus that way, Duncan was always special. It was like he was part of Lehnus’ family. His wife, Marlew, and daughters Kelli, Kim and Kerri, adored Duncan and reveled in his achievements after KCC. Their memories of Michael are always of a hulk of a man who had a smile that could light up a room.
For myself, I also relished in Duncan’s accomplishments, often telling my wife and children about the big guy on the television or movie screen, and how I got to write about him when he was playing basketball at KCC. 
      While Dunk may be gone, we will get to see him again in DVDs and on television reruns. There’s no doubt that we’ll be smiling when we do. 

Doug:  I'll also relate a couple of stories that are told about Duncan.  On one very cold, snowy January evening in 1980 as the team was leaving practice, my father-in-law walked out of the gym with Duncan.  Coach asked him if he needed a ride.  Duncan refused the offer twice.  Persistent, Coach asked again and Duncan relented.  So the obvious question was "Where am I taking you?"  These were back in the days when the program was just growing and players largely had to find their own housing.  Duncan had found a family that lived in one of the poorest communities in the state (maybe in the entire Midwest), and it was 17 miles away from town.  Duncan had been hitch-hiking that route twice daily so he could get to class and play ball.  Unbelievable.

Doug:  I mentioned last week that my son, then a 9-year old, had the opportunity to meet Duncan while traveling with my father-in-law's team.  You can see photos of the encounter below.  On that trip the team had arranged through mutual friendships to practice at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA.  Additionally, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden was to address the team following practice.  As things were underway, Duncan arrived and watched the second half of practice.  Coach Wooden addressed the young men, and then in the moments of transition between Wooden's talk and the locker room, Coach Wooden called to my father-in-law, "Coach, is that Michael Clarke Duncan?"  Affirmed, the old Coach asked, "Do you think he would want to have his picture taken with me?"  Can you believe that?  The most successful college basketball coach in American history was worried that someone might not want to get a picture with him.  Priceless.
Doug:  Thanks for letting me share these thoughts this afternoon.


Graham said...

Nice stories. Thanks for sharing.

Edo Bosnar said...

I agree, really good stories. And I have to say, not only was Duncan's smile "huge" it's also quite infectious. I almost found myself smiling back at those pictures you posted.

Doug said...

I should add that the photos are from around 2000. My son was 9 then; he'll be 21 in a few weeks.


Anonymous said...

Hi Doug,
Thanks for sharing your personal memories of a great man with us. I guess I was never sure how great an actor he was because his presence was so overwhelming, you couldn’t really tell what was acting and what was just standing there. Having said that, I was haunted by the Green Mile and have never since re-watched it (mostly because I know my girlfriend would be utterly unable to deal with it). I guess when you get an Oscar nomination in your second proper role; it pretty much speaks for itself.

Your anecdote about how he had to hitchhike 17 miles every day to play ball put me in mind of no one so much as Michael Oher. Maybe when you want to honour MCD, the Blind Side will serve as well as the Green Mile.


Anonymous said...

Green Mile is a very depressing movie.

Though I only really remember him from the Green Mile, this guy does have a memorable presence- and it is not just from his physical size.

Commenting about his SMILE- that really is some kind of smile; THAT right there shows there was something powerful to him that came from WITHIN, regardless of his physical stature.

For some reason, I think a lot of people who have passed on in the recent years- like this man- are getting out while the getting's good. Something oppressive is blanketing this Earth, and a lot of it hides itself behind what is not obviously 'evil'-- and in fact parades around as the good and just for one cause or another.

I think with the fact that September 11th is upon us, maybe it's TIME that people wake up and wonder what is REALLY going on behind what we're told, and who/ what is really the man or masters BEHIND the curtain.

All this elaborated from the fact that a guy who seemed remarkable passed away. Really, there is so much illusion around, that I am trying to make a point that maybe it should be noticed when a sincere person dies. And NOT from a consensus that he was valuable in others eyes or 'that is a good guy'- he's ok to idolize, but from what the man as an individual emanated on his own terms.

We are already influenced so much who to call the bad guy, to judge someone on appearance and often trumped up allegation, and to go along with the herd.

I am saying, as an INDIVIDUAL (as hard as that is to actually be one), that the guy seemed to have a true spark coming out of him- and I remember this from many years past as I watched The Green Mile. It will be good if he is in a TRUE state of being for himself.

So then, here is acknowledgement to Michael Clark Duncan, who had to traverse this world.


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