The phone rang Thursday morning at 7:36 a.m. with Jon Scheyer’s name popping up.
Basketball icon Mike Krzyzewski would be doing a retirement press conference on ESPN a few hours later that day. Scheyer would have his own press conference a day later, officially introducing the Illinois high school basketball legend as the coach-in-waiting at Duke.
When talking about a personal sports whirlwind, that’s about as whirly as you’ll ever get.
The former Glenbrook North superstar, who has as big of a reputation as any high school player who has ever laced them up in this state, will be the next Duke head coach when Coach K steps down at the end of the 2021-22 season. The 33-year-old assistant would be replacing the biggest name and winningest coach in college basketball history.
We talked briefly about the job, even commiserating on past and recent job openings and hiring processes that the two of us had discussed in recent years and even months. There were certainly some “What if?” questions on my end.
But this call was a lot more about business. Scheyer was doing what he does — his homework in recruiting, checking in and discussing players, grinding away in preparation for his life-changing day.
I hung up from that early Thursday morning phone conversation and all I could think about was the kid I interviewed 18 years ago, early in his high school career. This was just before he became a true household name in Illinois, because anyone who even followed sports at all in Chicago at that time knew the name Jon Scheyer.
That story I wrote on a very young Scheyer, titled “Believe the hype,” was my introduction to the makeup of a rare high school basketball player. I talked extensively with Jon and his dad, Jim Scheyer, for what was a lengthy feature story. That began a two-decade-long run of watching and following Scheyer and, later, getting to know him as an adult and college coach.
I remember listening to Jim Scheyer talking about his son’s start in the game, detailing the early beginnings of his son’s playing days — first on the Little Sport basketball hoop in the foyer of the house as a 2-year-old to joining a league in Evanston called FAAM (Federation of African American Men), where Jon was the only sixth-grader playing on an eighth-grade team.
Now that same kid is the next head coach at Duke? Pretty remarkable.
Scheyer is without question one of the greatest high school basketball players the state has ever produced. Some would argue the greatest. The numbers are staggering. He scored 3,034 career points which is fourth all-time in state history.
The high-profile, defining moments throughout his career were endless, some even surreal.
He averaged 33.5 points a game in the state title run in March of his junior year, including the 48-point explosion in a super-sectional win over Waukegan. He followed that with 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in a state quarterfinal win over Bobby Frasor and Brother Rice.
He would hit big shot after big shot with one monster performance after another, all while playing against gimmick defenses. At the midway point of his senior season Scheyer was averaging 37 points a game; he finished his senior year averaging 29.2 points a game and scored 996 points — in one season.
The Jon Scheyer-Derrick Rose state quarterfinal matchup in 2006, where Simeon ended GBN’s reign as state champion? You won’t find many games that were more highly anticipated than that one.
And I was lucky enough to be in the gym at Proviso West for one of those surreal basketball moments. It was also one of those, “Thankfully I picked this game to go to tonight” sighs of relief. That’s when Scheyer became a national sensation by scoring 21 points in 75 seconds in the closing moments of a holiday tournament game, finishing with 52 points.
Scheyer also did it in the most professional way. He played with energy and excitement, but with no me-first antics, trash-talking or showboating. None. He just went out and played like an assassin.
But more than all that, more than anything, really, Scheyer was and is wired differently.
Remember, while he had the 6-5 basketball height, Scheyer wasn’t exactly the most physically gifted athlete –– at least when it comes to forecasting the type of greatness he achieved in the sport.
But he was never afraid of any moment. And Scheyer was as competitive of a kid and as basketball-driven of a player as I’ve watched and followed in 25 years of doing this. It’s why his teams won — won a lot and won big — even when they clearly weren’t always the most talented teams. He individually raised the level of those around him and featured a defining quality: an unfailing dedication to and focus on winning.
It’s sometimes thrown around loosely now with athletes, but Scheyer is the consummate winner.
That Glenbrook North team that won the 2005 state championship wasn’t overwhelming. But it had Scheyer, the lone Division I player on that team.
People forget about the 2002-03 GBN team that reached Peoria and finished third in the state. That team was very underwhelming and was fueled by a skinny freshman in Scheyer who led the team with 15.8 points a game.
Even the Duke team that Scheyer led to the national championship in 2010 wasn’t all that spectacular — at least not in terms of all the great Duke teams and in talking national title teams of the past. But Scheyer was the All-American, the senior captain, the leading scorer.
That consummate winner is the thing that gives him a fighting chance to succeed in a job that so many will say is a near impossible one.
This has nothing to do with Scheyer but everything to do with what he’s walking into at Duke. Coach K the coach and brand is bigger than Duke the program. Scheyer is following a coach with five national titles, 12 Final Four appearances, over 1,000 wins and one of the figureheads of the sport.
The good news is Scheyer has the internal support in place like no other. That’s a big deal, especially at a place like Duke and under these circumstances.
The better news is that like most successful people in any field and profession, Scheyer has always shown and featured an advanced skill set when it comes to overachieving and succeeding. So while he does not have the head coaching experience, you better believe Scheyer has the ideal recipe internally to succeed.
Even while being so mild-mannered on the outside, Scheyer thrives on competition. A competitive drive and being confident, unafraid of any situation that comes your way in a job, is an asset. In this job of all jobs — the head coach at Duke, replacing one of the long-lasting legends in the sport — Scheyer’s temperament and personality type seem to fit.
I just hope Scheyer remembers and continues to truly live by a quote he gave me 18 years ago as a teenager for that story I wrote. He told me then, “I worry about myself and not what others expect of me. I am not going to be able to please everyone. … The expectations can be a little ridiculous.”
Those were, specifically, Jon Scheyer-prophetic words and will come in handy in the coming years.