Meet the guys who practice with the women's basketball team

At the end of a nice three-pass sequence started by senior Corey Pilson, the ball ends up in the hands of junior Nate Tewell streaking inside. Tewell catches the ball under the hoop and completes the play with a smooth reverse, a high-level play by high-level players.

No applause, though. The seats are empty, and the few people on the Cameron benches are coaches or resting players like redshirt freshman Mikayla Boykin, idly spinning a ball on her forefinger. It’s just practice, and most of the players are women: It’s practice for the women’s team.

“The men just help us to challenge ourselves in practice,” says special assistant Keturah Jackson ’09, herself an all-ACC player who practiced against men during her time at Duke. “They’re such an important part of our preparation. Not just strength and quickness, but having bodies for the scout team,” to run the plays of an upcoming opponent without reducing court time for the women running Duke plays.

Bigger, faster, stronger opponents and bodies for opposition: It’s easy to see what the team gets out of it. But what about the guys? Guys who get up at 6 a.m. to come practice for hours before class, bodying up against players who outplay them despite their size advantage? Guys who practice for six to ten hours a week and never get to run onto the floor in front of a cheering crowd, much less play in front of one?

“Well, they do feed us,” says Pilson, a political science major working for a certificate in documentary studies. True enough: The post-practice breakfast the men share with the team would hold its own in a hotel lobby. But Pilson laughs; that’s not why he’s here. He loves the team and the coaches, he says, but also “it’s a chance to play basketball with people who can play basketball.” He’s like most of the half-dozen or so guys who practice with the women’s team every year: A ballplayer in high school who had peaked by his senior season, he knew he wasn’t going to play for fans at Duke, but he wanted more challenge than he found in intramural or pickup games. Running plays and working to challenge the women keeps his skills sharp: “If I get crossed up, I want to go home and practice. They make me want to get better.”

Tewell, a junior neuroscience and psychology major, had a somewhat harder call. He was planning to attend—and play for—Johns Hopkins, but then he got into Duke, where he wouldn’t even make the men’s squad as a walk-on. Not willing to turn down Duke, he looked for another outlet for his first-rate skills, ending up playing a rec-center game where he was noticed by player Kyra Lambert, who was there rehabbing. “She asked if I was interested in working with the women,” and Tewell was in; he often spends twenty hours a week working with the team now.

Getting noticed on the rec floor was how it all started, says Gail Goestenkors, Duke’s head coach from 1992 to 2007. She says she went looking for men to post up against her players after the 1993- 94 season, when the University of North Carolina women won the NCAA championship and Goestenkors got tired of her team getting personhandled. “Marion Jones was there,” she recalls, “and they were so much bigger than we were, and more physical.” She and another coach “went over to the rec gym and watched guys play pickup.” Those who were best they invited out, and a new aspect of team practice was born. Goestenkors doesn’t take credit for bringing men into the women’s practice—she thinks it was beginning at other programs at the same time—but she knows it helped. “We ended up beating Carolina that year.”

And if the practice men get none of the glory, they get some of the credit. And blame, too, if something goes wrong. “I hurt when I see them lose,” Pilson says. “If there’s something we practiced and they don’t do it in the game, I’ll get mad. ‘We practiced that!’ ”

“That has to be your mentality,” Tewell says. “There’s nothing holding us here except for love of the game and love of these guys.

“And a couple of T-shirts a year.”

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