Jason Byassee: The last guy on the bench

A Duke walk-on inspired his famous teammates’ greatest accomplishments.

One advantage of writing about the goodness of institutional leaders is that we can attend to those not usually in the limelight. There is no transformative leader who is not nurtured in a vibrant institution before giving life to other vibrant institutions. Leadership literature often falls prey to fascination with the great woman or man, forgetting that any genuine greatness is communal and enabled by people whose faces the public rarely sees.

I saw this anew recently at the Duke basketball banquet commemorating the 2011 season. The stars of the show were justifiably graduating senior All-Americans Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. But the most surprising star was their fellow senior, former walk-on Casey Peters. Nolan and Kyle won a national championship, turned in two of the great athletic careers in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and will be drafted into the NBA soon. The event program had to scrounge for Peters’ on-court accomplishments: one rebound in a game his junior year. He had the ball in his hands as time expired against UNC once. Casey Peters never scored a point in his Duke career.

But Peters has long been a crowd favorite at Duke, partly because of antics like this (watch #53 at second 53), and partly because he only appeared at the end of blowout victories (“Casey Peters!” chants, pleading with Coach K to put him in, echo in Cameron at the end of such games).

I’d learned a little more about Peters recently when I got to tour the team’s weight room and see its posting of individual players’ athletic accomplishments. I expected some of what I saw there: the top vertical leapers on the team are the Plumlee brothers, skinny Kyrie Irving isn’t a weightlifting champ, etc. But at the top of several of the athletic lists is one Casey Peters: fastest mile, top bench press weight, most times benching 185 pounds. Peters isn’t Rudy, a fan favorite because he’s a runt. That guy’s a beast in the weight room and on the track.

Both Kyle and Nolan wept as they thanked Peters, their classmate and Kyle’s roommate. It’s touching enough to see 21-year old men weepily profess their love for one another (with no liquid courage involved). What was more impressive was Peters’ tribute back to them: equally weepy, but more revealing.

Peters spoke of how hard he worked to make the Duke team. He arrived from a good, not great, high school career in New Jersey and went to work for Duke as a manager. He was good enough in pickup games to be considered for the team, but selection was far from automatic. So he worked in that weight room and on that court. In his farewell speech, Peters thanked the weight coach for working extra time with him every day to make the team. Nolan Smith praised Peters for taking extra shots before and after practice -- this for a player who would never once shoot in a game in his Duke career. And when he made the team, Peters said through tears, Nolan Smith, Duke’s public face and national player of the year candidate, sobbed with joy over his triumph. Peters then went from walk-on to the ultimate pinnacle: a scholarship player.

“I think of myself as a hard worker,” Smith said, “but Casey works harder.” Then he turned from his speaking notes on the podium and looked at his friend: “Casey, you made me better.”

This is a remarkable statement from the team’s heartbeat and leader, the one who always takes the big shot and gets the media attention: a walk-on few outside of Durham have heard of made him, and so the whole team, better.

That’s how you lead in an institution as vibrant as Duke basketball: work hard, make others better, have fun, love your friends, inspire others, set goals so big they’re nearly impossible, achieve them, and then pay no mind to the public anonymity. Those who know know you matter.

Lead like Casey Peters.