Originally published March 24, 2009.
GERALD HENDERSON SR. was driving past Richmond, Va., early Sunday afternoon when his cell phone rang. The former NBA player had spent the previous evening watching his son play basketball for Duke. When Duke won, Henderson knew his son's next game in the NCAA Tournament would be against the school that was 2 minutes from where he grew up, the school that was a very close second choice when he was picking a college.
"That was his second choice, all the way to the end," the elder Henderson said. "He chose Duke. From Day 1, he wanted to win a national championship. That was his uppermost goal."
By late Thursday night or early Friday morning, Duke or Villanova is going to be just one of 12 teams with that chance. Without Henderson, Duke would have no chance. With Henderson, Villanova might be the favorite.
Young "G" might be the most explosive player in college basketball. His dunks are quickly becoming legendary. The throwdown at Maryland was actually scary.
Henderson averaged 6.8 points his first season, 12.7 points his second season. This season, after a summer spent dribbling with his left hand, following surgery on his right wrist, he was sort of muddling along until early January. Then, "G" blew up.
"He just decided, 'Hey, it's my time,' " his father said. "When ACC play started, he took off."
He was putting up high teens or 20s every game. He had 35 against Wake Forest. Over his last 22 games, he has averaged 19.6 points. He has become a force.
"To be a really good player, you have to be a student of the game, you have to know that you're good," his father said. "Let the cards fall where they were. Once you decide that, it's like getting over a big threshold.
"In the past, he wasn't the guy. Now, he is the guy. And he understands that. He feels that. He knows that he can put a team on his back. When you understand that, now you're confident."
Henderson is playing confident and unafraid. On a team with very few great athletes, he stands out. And when Duke was in trouble on Saturday against Texas, Henderson got the ball.
"Well, he's had a really good year," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "And down the stretch I just rode him. We were going to sink or swim with him, and we're swimming. Not only that, but he can make a play. He had that open three. I thought he was going to knock down that three. But he's the guy that we go to, because he can get his own shot."
And he can get shots for all those Duke shooters.
"I always taught him, if you can't make the shot, make the play," the elder Henderson said. "He does that very well. When you put the ball on a tee for these guys - that's three, baby. Gerald creates that because the defense has to pay so much attention to him. If you don't, it's trouble."
Dan Dougherty was standing outside the Villanova locker room Saturday afternoon after the Wildcats crushed UCLA. The longtime Episcopal Academy coach (winner of an amazing 668 high school games, 553 at Episcopal) is a Saint Joseph's graduate. He also coached the Villanova freshmen for 5 years. He was on the bench when Wildcats freshman Howard Porter played against La Salle freshman Kenny Durrett. Porter had 50.
"I will be at home cheering for Gerald, but hoping that Villanova wins," Dougherty said. "Gerald came very close to going to Villanova. You look at what he's doing now and you're saying he made a right decision."
Patrick Chambers was Dougherty's assistant at Episcopal (1999-2004), where Henderson and North Carolina's Wayne Ellington played. Now Jay Wright's associate head coach, Chambers became a member of the Villanova staff in 2004. He was there on his own merits, but nobody would have minded if Henderson and/or Ellington eventually came along, too.
"Obviously, we wanted Gerald here," Chambers said. "We recruited him very hard. I don't think anybody remembers second place in this business, but we were right there. Duke just got it done in the end."
Now, Chambers will be coaching against Henderson in a game with national-championship implications.
"To see him grow as a player and to remember how he was as a player in eighth grade and ninth grade and sophomore year, just to mature as an individual," Chambers said. "He's a man now. He has raised his level. He has taken over the game for them. When they need a big shot, he's taking it.
"It's going to be strange to see him out there going against him. I always coached him and now he's on the other side. I'm sure we'll have some fun with it, too.
"Wayne Ellington was the greatest thing to happen to him. He came in [to Episcopal] and he was just a basketball junkie. We saw less and less of Gerald playing golf. He wanted to raise his level as well. Those two just pushed each other to where they are now. I knew Gerald had it in him. He was so athletic. He was so talented. He just had to put the work in. I think all the work is starting to pay off."
Duke played Gerald Henderson Sr.'s alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth, in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. That was a bit strange. As this will be.
"This team is a little different now," the elder Henderson said. "They know a little about what they are doing now."
They do indeed. Duke is no longer the team with shooters and no athleticism. They have Gerald Henderson, an amazing athlete who could have been great at practically anything.
His father remembers his visit to North Carolina. "G" went to the golf course to hit some shots.
"All I could see was mouths open and eyes wide," he said.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was nearby when a voice cried out: "Coach, if you don't want him, I'll take him."
That was the golf coach.