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ESPN The Magazine: The Exile
ESPN The Magazine

The smell of diesel fuel hangs thick in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Teenage boys lean from the doors of red buses, pulling up passengers as the driver barely rolls to a stop. Small girls walk alone along the avenida selling roses, their silhouettes frail against the backdrop of looming, verdant Andean foothills. There, some 9,300 feet above sea level, colonial houses appear stacked like stair steps to the clouds. As if heaven were that close.

Inside the Coliseo General Ruminahui -- a building named for the Inca leader who razed Quito rather than hand it over to the Spanish -- Cocodrilos de Caracas, a Venezuelan pro hoops team, is taking on a squad from Brazil in the first round of the Liga Sudamericana championship. On the concrete terraces, kids pitch Chicklets and Popsicles to a crowd that whistles at bad calls instead of booing them and has no reservations about smoking. Amid all this, former Florida guard Teddy Dupay, or “Ted-DEE Du-PIE” as he’s called here, is having one of those nights.

If the crowd hasn’t noticed el gringo pequeño by tipoff, they soon do. Five seconds in, the 5'10" Dupay pulls from 25 feet and nails a three for Cocodrilos. A minute later -- bang -- another one drops. For a moment, the night seems like so many he has experienced before. Nights when he rubs off a pick or gives his man a stutter and steps back to find it’s just him and the hoop. Nights when he jerks the ball just above his forehead, holds his breath like a biathlete sizing his target and watches the orange come off his fingers perfectly, rotating as many as eight times before finding twine or a soft, forgiving rim. Nights when dropping 40 is easy.

The kid is still feeling it late in the first quarter when he stops by his bench during an injury timeout. Dupay, whose Spanish is very much a work in progress, gestures to the far end of the arena, where Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” is gurgling out of a small speaker. “You hear that?” he says to one of his few teammates who speaks English. “They’re playing my music. I can’t miss tonight.”

This is one of those nights, as Dupay scores 21 in a win. And yet, given the circumstances, it’s safe to say he has never had a night quite like this. In September he was declared ineligible for his senior season after a six-month investigation linking him with gamblers. Today, as the Gators wonder what went wrong in their first-round Tourney loss to Creighton, the former Florida Mr. Basketball -- the original face of Billy Donovan’s run-and-gun program -- finds himself playing baloncesto in the land of Bolivar. Driven by a deep sense of betrayal, Dupay has taken “the road less traveled,” as he puts it, bouncing from place to place in an effort to repair his reputation, while still insisting on his innocence. Now, with the NCAA and Vegas enjoying their biggest month of the year, he can only watch from afar in Venezuela, exiled to the third world in search of a path back to the first.

It's a Saturday afternoon in late February as Dupay, wearing shorts, slip-ons and his Florida Gators warmup jacket, walks out of his Quito hotel. Traversing a traffic roundabout, he passes a homeless boy, no older than 12, sitting on the sidewalk, his dirty T-shirt pulled over his bare knees. During Dupay’s two weeks in South America, he has come to realize that the road less traveled is lined with such cruelty. It’s something that tempers his own hurt and homesickness, as does the occasional familiar meal. At the McDonald’s across the street, Dupay orders a McPollo and fries, then starts in with a soliloquy on what he knows best: basketball.

Though only 22, he already sounds like a coach with an avowed reverence for the game. He’s forever taking mental notes on the court; as soon as he gets home, he transfers his newfound knowledge to a notebook crammed with plays. But it’s not just the X’s and O’s that thrill him. In fact, it’s the small things Dupay misses most. “Starting lineups, it never got old,” he says, sounding like a roundball Crash Davis. “Or to hear the place erupt when you hit a shot. I miss the practices, the managers rebounding for you, nice balls, new shoes.”

A surgeon’s son armed with a sharp stroke and a gunner’s mentality, Dupay scored a record 3,744 points at Cape Coral’s Mariner High (near Fort Myers), where he played two years under Donovan’s prep coach, Frank Morris. People liked to say Dupay had a “St. Agnes J” just like the one Billy D perfected at his Long Island high school. In Florida, Dupay’s schoolboy scoring heroics are legend. He had 55 in the first game of his senior year, leaving with five minutes left in the third quarter. With his team down 15 against Ohio’s Shaker Heights, he scored 29 in a little more than four minutes, giving Mariner the victory. He averaged 41.5 per game as a senior; his career high was 70.

As a sophomore, Dupay was the first recruit to commit to the Gators under Donovan. His decision helped pave the way for Florida to woo current center Udonis Haslem and Orlando Magic star Mike Miller. “I got the program started,” Dupay says proudly. “If I didn’t go there, no Mike, no Brett Nelson, no Matt Bonner, no Brent Wright, no Haslem. Coach is a great recruiter, but it might not have happened so quickly.”

Bright, good-looking and more than a little cocky, Dupay arrived on campus in 1998, a dollop of blond hair topping his brown brushcut like a kiss from the sun. In three years at Florida, his gritty and often spectacular clutch play as an undersized shooting guard made him one of the most popular athletes in Gainesville. He even evoked comparisons to the Providence College exploits of Billy the Kid himself. Now a senior, Haslem remembers the big jumper Dupay hit against Weber State their freshman year to help put the Gators into the Sweet 16: “We called him Iceman after that.” In Florida’s run to the NCAA title game two years ago, Dupay played through a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Last season, he had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, then returned just 20 days later -- two weeks ahead of schedule -- to help the struggling Gators beat Tennessee with 10 points off the bench.

Dupay was never more inspiring than he was that night against the Vols. He gets misty-eyed thinking about it. During a workout with Donovan two days before the game, Dupay assured his coach he felt no pain, just a little soreness. In truth, he was still taking Demorol and struggling to get out of bed. But there he was 48 hours later, emphatically ripping off his sweats and heading to the scorer’s table with 12 minutes left in the first half. “It was so loud, you couldn’t hear the announcer say my name,” he recalls. Donovan watched with tears in his eyes while Haslem nodded his approval. Under the basket, referee Tim Higgins stood holding the ball. “Welcome back, Teddy,” he said. “Don’t worry. No one’s gonna touch ya.”

The trouble for Dupay started shortly after the Gators fell to Temple in last year’s Tourney. In early April, university police announced an investigation into a possible connection between a student and a local bookmaker. A month later, several local papers revealed that Dupay was the student in question. Ironically, his heroic return against Tennessee became a flash point for skeptics who began examining Florida’s performance against the betting line last season. Almost immediately, the University Athletic Association -- known around Gainesville as The Firm for its tight-lipped crisis management in enforcing NCAA rules -- went into action.

All summer, as rumors and innuendo hung in the sticky air, Dupay kept his mouth shut, under orders from the UAA. Meanwhile, Donovan played the role of middleman. “I tried as best I could to gather information and tell Teddy what was going on,” he says, “but I was never privy to all the findings.” Finally, on Sept. 7, with Donovan by his side, Dupay told a gathering of local media that he was leaving the Gators. Reading from a prepared statement, he apologized to the school, the fans and his teammates. “I understand that I have violated NCAA rules,” he said. “And I take full responsibility for those actions.”

Six days after Dupay’s dismissal from the team, the district attorney filed a two-page criminal complaint with the state attorney’s office. According to the document, Kresten Lagerman, a former student who moved into the apartment Dupay shared with Haslem and Wright in January 2001, admitted to placing 10 to 15 bets on pro and college basketball games, including some of Florida’s. The complaint named Dupay as an uncharged co-defendant, alleging he provided Lagerman with inside information on whether the Gators could cover the spread, then shared in some of the proceeds (an unspecified amount). While there is no known evidence to suggest Dupay tried to fix games (Florida was 16-5 against the spread) or place bets himself, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley says the findings left the school no choice but to declare him ineligible. “I wish the outcome was different,” Foley says. “I like Teddy Dupay. But rules are rules.”

NCAA law mandates a one-year suspension for any student who solicits or accepts a bet involving pro or college sports -- and in Florida’s eyes, Dupay was way too close to that line. But that’s not how he sees it, particularly now. He insists he never gambled and that the only money he took from Lagerman, his friend of four years, was $200 in rent. “I wish I had said, ‘Hey, this isn’t true,’ and got my side out there,” Dupay says. “The NCAA doesn’t require fire if they see smoke. I just ask people to look at what’s there. Look at the proof. I didn’t get charged. I didn’t get convicted.”

Truth is, it’s hard to know just what Dupay did, because the 30-page campus police report that accompanied the criminal complaint is not likely to be made public anytime soon, according to District Attorney Bill Cervone, who adds that he has no plans at present to seek an indictment. Meanwhile, Dupay says he didn’t take legal action to clear his name because a lawsuit might have lasted months, if not years, damaging his NBA aspirations. Never mind that the league will likely conduct its own investigation if he makes the grade. “That’s what I’m banking on,” he says.

Dupay’s story is about loyalty as much as anything else. Though Lagerman shared his house for several months and had a full-time job in the insurance field, Dupay says he charged him only one month’s rent because his buddy was practically his personal nurse after the back surgery. And despite newspaper reports alleging that Dupay’s phone was used to make calls to a bookie, at no time has Lagerman implicated Dupay -- even when informed by authorities that, if charged and convicted, he might face up to five years in prison. “It would have been easy for Kresten to try and save his own face,” Teddy says, noting Lagerman lost his job in the wake of the scandal. “That is a friend in the true sense of the word, a loyal friend.” The two men call or e-mail each other several times a week, and Lagerman (who won’t comment on the investigation because he may still face charges) plans on visiting Dupay in South America this spring.

Dupay’s relationship with junior guard Brett Nelson hasn’t fared so well. Nelson often joined Dupay and Lagerman at off-campus watering holes such as The Swamp, where Teddy’s framed No. 5 jersey still hangs over the door. But as someone who shared playing time with Dupay, then assumed a bigger role in his absence, Nelson has heard the rumors that he leaked Dupay’s name to campus police and the media -- rumors he vehemently denies. “Teddy was one of my really good friends here,” he says. “I miss him not only as a teammate, but as a friend.” For his part, Dupay says only this: “I knew it was someone close to me. They’re not close to me anymore.”

And what of Dupay’s tight bond with Donovan? Dupay had hoped to catch on as a grad assistant with his coach if the pros didn’t pan out, but his dismissal ended any hopes of that. Even so, he says he harbors no bad feelings, and the two have stayed in contact since he left the team. “A lot of people said Billy could have done more,” Teddy says. “I don’t think so. I just think he was kept out of the loop. And if he wasn’t, he should quit coaching and be an actor. I still love him.” It’s a sentiment Donovan returns. “I’ll always be indebted to Teddy,” he says. “I’ll do whatever I can to help him -- whether he’s going overseas, getting an NBA tryout or trying to get back into coaching. He needs a second chance to prove what he’s all about.”

Back in Caracas, Dupay searches for an air conditioning switch. He spent his first week in Venezuela at a run-down hotel in a bad area of town. There was no shower nozzle in his bathroom, just a hole in the tile -- the water shot out in a stream that Teddy had to redirect with his hands. He has since moved into a furnished high-rise apartment (he calls it his “pimp pad”), but it’s a little muggy this evening and he can’t figure out how to turn on his AC, or if he even has any. He does have a TV, but it gets only five channels. No hoops tonight, at least not here. Back in Gainesville, Florida is hosting Tennessee. It’s Senior Night.

Dupay’s sense of betrayal fuels his desire to ball, even now, seven months later and 2,000 miles away. His love of movies provides added inspiration. “Gladiator is a great movie for me,” he says. “The guy gets screwed by his friends because he’s loyal to somebody, loses people close to him, hits rock bottom, then builds himself back up.”

Although Florida allowed Dupay to keep his scholarship, he left school in early September and returned to his parents’ home in Fort Myers. With his back fully healed, he started lifting weights six times a week, putting on 15 pounds. He also became quicker, faster and more flexible thanks to yoga, step aerobics and everything in between. In October, he joined a Nike Elite traveling team, playing preseason exhibition games against Big Ten squads while enduring taunts and several renditions of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” He moved on to the ABA in January, playing point guard for the Phoenix Eclipse and averaging a double-double in eight games. There was only one problem: The team stopped paying him. Dupay says things got so bad that the franchise canceled an east coast trip.

From Phoenix, Dupay moved on to Venezuela and Cocodrilos, whose logo features an open-mouthed croc similar to the Florida Gator. The facilities, however, are a far cry from the new $11 million practice digs back in Gainesville. Dupay now plays in an arena that has a roof but is not fully enclosed. “It gets windy and chilly at night,” he says. “It’s a little like playing pickup ball.” Still, the league is considered the best in South America (his team’s still alive in the round-robin championship), and Dupay believes a good showing will land him an invite to June’s NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago.

In his farewell press conference at Florida, Dupay called his three years in Gainesville the best of his life. “Now, this year is going to be,” he says. “Because it’s going to make or break me. I’m doing everything I can do. If I don’t make it, it’s because I’m not good enough.”

As Dupay continues to toil along the road less traveled, he’s constantly thinking about the future -- and the past. He says he’ll be a Florida Gator for life, and that he wants to give money to the school one day. He says he accepted his fate and admitted making a mistake because “that’s the only way I could get it over with.” But admitting he made a mistake means living with the stigma of gambling. He knows it’ll take some time to rebuild his golden-boy reputation. And thinking back to all that he had -- and all that he gave up -- stirs regret. Maybe he should have challenged the school’s ruling. Maybe things would be different now.

But such moments of self-doubt never last long. Not when he still has those nights when everything’s falling, when he just can’t miss, when his troubles fade away until they’re nothing more than just another game. “I should have called their bluff,” he says. “I had a better hand. I still have a better hand. And I’m going to win.”

This article appears in the April 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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