Vernerey makes impact on, off court
Duke junior center helps create Blue Devils vs. Cancer, interns at Duke Cancer Institute
Allison Vernerey made herself at home amidst Duke's basketball courts and lecture halls. That was no small achievement for a young woman whose 6-foot-5 frame quickly became only the second most noticeable thing about her the moment she spoke words still coated in the rich cadence of her native French when she arrived three years ago.
But it's not Vernerey's ability to fit in that led Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie to suggest the native of Alsace, France, broke the proverbial mold or that spurs the coach to gush that she'll never have another player like Vernerey.
Those sentiments have less to do with Vernerey making herself at home than with a desire to make her new home, however temporary, a better place. It's why, four days after Duke played Connecticut, the night after a game against Wake Forest and three days before a rivalry showdown against North Carolina, Vernerey was dressed to the nines as she welcomed guests to a benefit she helped organize to support the Duke Cancer Institute.
"There's nobody like her," McCallie said. "To be this mature, to utilize her role as a student-athlete to benefit other people like she has, it's very refreshing -- in the narcissistic world in which we live, it's pretty remarkable what Allison has done."
It's not quite right to say Vernerey needed a break from basketball at the end of last season, but in the wake of a campaign in which she played for an extended period of time with ligament damage in her hand, the injury eventually requiring surgery, she was by her own admission seeking something different from the routine of basketball. What she found was an internship with the Duke Cancer Institute, one of the nation's top-rated centers of treatment for and research on the disease.
A member of the full-time working world for the first time, Vernerey did her fair share of the administrative grunt work familiar to any intern in any field. But she also had an opportunity to get involved in the community, most notably playing a role in organizing the Ramblin' Roses half-marathon in Durham, and saw the amount of capital, human and financial, required to fight cancer.
With the resumption of a regular academic schedule and the looming basketball season around the corner, Vernerey bid adieu to the internship after four months. Had the relationship ended there, both she and the Duke Cancer Institute would have been the better for the experience. But dabbling isn't really part of Vernerey's vocabulary, regardless of the language. The business attire she could put away, but all the numbers that surrounded her over the summer -- the sheer volume of people affected by the disease, the cost of research, etc. -- couldn't just be shelved in favor of the matchup zone or reading assignments in economics, her major.
"I didn't want to let go of what I did this summer," Vernerey said. "It really occurred to me that there was a lack of presence of student leadership on campus regarding the Duke Cancer Institute, so I thought there was space for that, and I really thought that could be something good. Students have a lot of energy, and they have a lot to bring, and I think it's silly not to involve them in something that's so important and something that affects everybody's life."
Vernerey helped create Blue Devils vs. Cancer, a student organization designed to promote fundraising and volunteer work at Duke but also to provide a general resource for students affected by disease or simply looking for information. It was Blue Devils vs. Cancer that led to Vernerey's idea of Sweet Night, the fundraiser on Feb. 3 that brought in around a dozen vendors from around Durham for a dessert tasting, with speakers from the Duke Cancer Institute, in addition to McCallie, who is also prominently involved with the organization. The event was a rousing success, bringing in more than 200 guests and raising more than $7,000.
Wedged as it was in the deepest rut of the season's toughest grind, and even with plenty of help and advance planning, Sweet Night added one more task to Vernerey's already full plate. Watching her player transform into charity organizer and event planner that evening, McCallie admitted she worried a little about the toll it all took at a tough time of year. But at the same time, a special talent is a special talent, be it for basketball or life.
"There's a lot of depth there," McCallie said. "There's no doubt she needs balance in life. She loves the academic piece, but she needs the community piece. She's so good at it, community outreach and communication and working with people. I think for a long time in Allison's life, basketball was more of a grind. She was working hard on the [French] national team, she was known in France, she was drilled hard, she was pushed to be very, very good by all the people she came across. But I think now she's realized you can have it all, you can have that balance.
"And it just energizes her on the court."
From the outside, Vernerey is not a high-profile star for the nation's fifth-ranked team. It's freshman Elizabeth Williams who claims the spotlight inside, and deservedly so, while Vernerey is essentially seventh in the rotation at 14 minutes per game (that average up slightly since Chloe Wells left the team and shortened McCallie's bench). Yet McCallie is almost as quick to praise Vernerey's contributions on the court as she is her character off it, calling the junior the team's most vocal leader, a master of intangibles who doesn't shy away from contact in the paint but has the athleticism and versatility to play anywhere in the matchup zone and spark the team's press.
Vernerey does the little things that a championship team must have, and she does them with the kind of passion and attention to detail that set her apart. Likewise, while a dessert-tasting fundraiser or a campus student group aren't going to cure cancer or change the world, they are building blocks in doing exactly that sort of thing.
Taking one charge can help win a championship. Doing one thing can help change the world.
"I think whatever we do with basketball is great," Vernerey said. "But I also think it's good if we can use it for something else, if we can try to do something else with our lives that is also meaningful in other ways."
Vernerey came to Duke knowing little of its culture or community, only that it offered an opportunity to play basketball at the highest level and study in equally lofty academic surroundings. It still isn't Alsace, the mountain town McCallie recalled in idyllic terms, the houses fronted by window boxes full of flowers. There are still things she misses: "I guess if I said the food, that's kind of stereotypical for a French person," Vernerey joked.
While barbecue is plentiful in North Carolina, a good tarte au fromage is tough to come by in the Triangle.
But three years on, the accent now only a subtle backbeat to flawless English, Vernerey is a part of the community in ways that go beyond blocked shots and aced midterms. Right down to an affection for a Southern staple.
"One thing that I really, really love that we don't have in France is sweet tea," Vernerey admitted. "That's like my favorite thing in all of America."
She'd fit right in in her adopted home, if she wasn't too busy leading the way.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.