RALEIGH, N.C. -- Rasheed Sulaimon leans back on the padded chair inside the lobby of his swanky hotel on the eve of his High School OT Holiday Invitational debut in Raleigh, N.C.
He's stylishly underdressed in a Strake Jesuit College Prep (Houston) warm-up pulled over a black Duke shirt with blue letters. Finally, it's chill mode after a long day that included a 2:30 a.m. arrival, a brief meeting with the Duke players and coaches and a practice at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium with his Strake teammates.
Just as he begins to express mild concern with the fact that he’s feeling a bit under the weather, a hotel employee, who has been staring at Sulaimon for the last 10 minutes, walks by and unnecessarily begins to fiddle around with the blinds just in front of his chair.
Minutes later, the employee, a middle-aged woman with short hair and a big, puffy coat, walks by again. This time she can’t resist.
“You the guy that’s going to Duke?” she asked matter-of-factly.
Sulaimon smiled and replied, “Yes ma'am, that’s me.”
“Oh,” she said with a grin. “Well, you’ve got really pretty eyes.”
For a split second, Sulaimon seems slightly uncomfortable. He shifts to the side in his chair and blushes, but just as he tries to get “thank you” out, she interrupted with, “But just so you know; I. Hate. Duke.”
Such is the life of a high school player who’s signed on to join college basketball’s Evil Empire.
“I get stuff like that all the time,” said Sulaimon, a senior shooting guard who committed to Duke on Feb. 10 and signed during the NCAA’s early signing period in November. “It’s crazy how much people really just hate on Duke. I’ve been dealing with the hate ever since I committed.”
That’s been a major adjustment for Sulaimon who has one of the most likable personalities of any high school player in the country, regardless of class.
“Oh yeah, everybody loves Sheed,” said Sulaimon's teammate John Gillon, who is signed to Arkansas-Little Rock. “He's just so positive all the time and he's really easygoing. He's the kind of guy that people flock to. Everybody loves him.”
Well, at least they used to.
Sulaimon and the Crusaders traveled to Taylor (Houston) the day after he gave Duke its first commitment from the class of 2012 and immediately Sulaimon noticed a drastic change in how he was received.
“The gym was packed and everyone had all of these signs made about how Duke sucked and how I sucked,” recalled Sulaimon, who is ranked No. 12 in the ESPNU 100. “They were saying Duke was gonna revoke my scholarship, UNC was better, I’d never get off the bench there, all this crazy stuff. Since that day it hasn’t cooled off at all. Whenever it happens I have to tell myself to block it out and then I’m usually fine. I still haven’t gotten used to it.”
Even in the loss to Garner in the quarterfinals, where Sulaimon was hunched over, gasping for breath and running up the court dizzy all night, he received more than six emails on Facebook telling him how terrible he played and how Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who attended the game, was going to take his scholarship back.
Duke point guard Quinn Cook said that it doesn’t get any easier as the year progresses and certainly not when you put on the Blue Devil jersey.
“I had to deal with it too. We all have,” said Cook, who also attended the quarterfinal loss along with teammates Austin Rivers and Alex Murphy. “Right when I committed I had fans just killing me with comments and players talking crazy and trying to go at me on the court. I just used it as motivation because every game someone was coming at my head. I wasn’t gonna let anyone just get the best of me. It really helped.”
Sulaimon has used the same motivation to average 28 points and five assists a game this season. And ironically, despite all of the tongue lashings and verbal assaults he gets due to his association with Duke, Sulaimon maintains that opposing fans’ jabs don’t equal true hate.
“The same people that are heckling me throughout the game are the ones dapping me up and saying they respect me after the game,” he said. “A lot of times the haters are the biggest admirers.”
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the middle-aged woman with the short hair and a big, puffy coat was back. This time she’s brought her daughter over to meet Sulaimon.
“My little girl wanted to know if you’d sign her doll,” she said while sliding it in front of him.
Without hesitation, Sulaimon smiles, grabs the doll and signs away.
The woman’s daughter smiles and skips away looking at Sulaimon’s name in purple ink on her worn doll. The woman thanks him, turns to walk away and immediately spins back around.
“Look I'm a North Carolina fan, so that’s why I said that earlier,” she explained. “But you seem really nice. I’ll tell you what; I’ll root for you individually when you get to Duke. Not the team. That’s the best I can do.”
Sulaimon laughs and nods.
Biggest admirers indeed.