By Brian Paglia
Two years ago, Morrow boys basketball coach Jay Livingston had a conversation with a sophomore basketball player on the intricacies of a shooter's release. In mere minutes, the discussion became a lesson, as it often does with Livingston, one in which the venerable coach introduced the verdant baller to the three groups of shooters: index-finger shooters, middle-finger shooters and two-finger shooters, each one named for which finger last touches the ball as a player releases it during his shot.
Some players never detect, or take the time to observe, which group they fall into. They became so inundated with all the other facets of the game - boxing out, setting a screen, man-to-man, 2-3 zone, full court press - that the physics go undetected. Most are inclined to the conventional wisdom that more free throws attempted in practice equal more free throws made in the game.
But one week ago, there was that same player, once a sophomore, now the cerebral force of Livingston's Mustangs team, shooting free throws at practice with his two middle fingers wrapped in athletic tape.
Livingston saw the tape on Tony Dukes' hand and feared his star guard was injured.
"I said, 'Wow, Tony, we ain't got time for injuries,'" Livingston remembers. "He said, 'No, coach. I taped them together because I want to make sure the ball is rotating as I shoot my free throws.'"
For Livingston, it was a poignant moment. "For Tony, it's, 'I've got to get to a point where I feel this ball come off my finger,'" Livingston said. "That's a mindset. Other kids are in the gym just shooting free throws because they think that's going to make them shoot better free throws. This kid is thinking about how he can feel the ball better."
"It helps my shooting altogether," Dukes explains. "My shot is off the middle two fingers, so I taped the two together so I can make sure I follow down the middle so I won't go to the side."
Dukes made himself shoot those free throws as punishment for the six he missed in Morrow's narrow 66-64 victory against Pebblebrook. The self-flagellation yielded immediate results. In Morrow's next game against Chapel Hill, Dukes scored 24. The next, a gripping 65-64 loss to undefeated and Region 4-AAAAA leader Newnan, he scored a season-high 33.
Dukes has emerged as Morrow's leader, leading scorer and central nervous system. As the Mustangs (8-5, 3-5) have fluctuated with bouts of dominance and struggle, Dukes has remained constant in production and poise. As the one called "the mind" in this Morrow group, Livingston relies on Dukes' basketball intellect to guide his team.
"I try to think in advance," Dukes said. "I'm not thinking play-by-play. I'm thinking ahead. If we're down, I'm going to do whatever it takes for us thinking-wise. Not as far as just on my own. I'm going to think, 'What can we do to pull out this victory?' Anything it takes. I'm going to help coach, I'm going to help lead my team."
Duke's father, also named Tony, led him to the game of basketball. Tony came along while his family lived in Chicago in the early 1990s, a time when one NBA team enjoyed unparalleled success because it had one player with the intellect and determination that no other team could match: Michael Jordan.
Young Tony grew up sitting amongst his father and uncles, watching Jordan dazzle, hearing the conversation about basketball even before he could speak. He absorbed it so that soon, as Tony got older, he knew what time the Bulls game came on television, knew how to talk about the sport.
Basketball was serious in the Dukes household. When Tony wanted to play recreation ball at the YMCA, his father required diligent practice. Shooting nerf basketballs into trash cans. Twenty minutes of dribbling in the kitchen, when mom, Michele, would lift her rules about not playing ball in the house so Tony wouldn't have to practice in Chicago's harsh cold.
"When I knew he had the gift for the game, it was those days when me and my brother, my brother-in-law, we'd been in there playing with him with the little nerf ball," Tony's father said. "And we'd be playing to see how many you could make out of 10. The 5-year-old used to beat us grown men."
Those were moments that portended nights like last Saturday, when Dukes scored those 33 points against Newnan, the third time he's scored more than 30 this season. Now, teams are surprised to see the undersized stoic guard nailing 3s from beyond NBA length and finishing alley-oops with invigorating dunks.
But even as Dukes' skills have evolved, it's been his understanding of basketball that has been unique.
"The one thing that has always been an incredible attribute for Tony is the fact that you can give him information," said Dorian Hall, Tony's trainer and founder of BBall 101, a basketball training company in Atlanta. "Say for instance, if you give him a drill or a skill or whatever, not only can he execute it or put it into motion, he also can understand when it needs to be utilized, which is very, very difficult for a lot of athletes."
Morrow needs that intellect perhaps now more than ever as it tries to get back to the state playoffs after a two-year absence. Though the Dukes said a dozen coaches called to recruit Tony the day Clayton County lost its school accreditation, he stayed to be a part of what Livingston calls "the remnant." Though the Mustangs stumbled through injuries to starting guards De'Andre Smith and Sean Stringfellow, tarnishing a promising 6-0 start to the season, he understood the broader vision of Morrow's season.
"We're still in the process of trying to get through it," Dukes said. "We're just trying to get right by the time state playoffs come by. We're getting back on track now, as far as these region games coming up...We should be back doing pretty well."