- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

As he watched NBA games on television with friend and agent Bradley Marshall, Yinka Dare’s normally placid demeanor would change. He would become uncharacteristically animated, his usual calm turning to frustration. Exasperated, Dare would say things like, “Brad, I can do that. I can stop that guy.”

Dare believed he could play. He believed it to the end.

The National Basketball Association, however, did not believe it. Not after his four unproductive, unhappy years with the New Jersey Nets. So when Dare, the former George Washington University center, died of a heart attack at age 31 at his home in northern New Jersey on Jan. 9, the obituaries and message boards noted that even though he had helped elevate the GW program to prominence during two seasons in the early 1990s, he had failed as a professional basketball player.

It was mentioned how he had played in just one game as a rookie after the Nets took him with the 14th pick in the 1994 draft, how he undoubtedly left college too soon, how he went two seasons without a single assist, how he came to symbolize, or typify, the futility of an entire franchise. The word “bust” was mentioned a lot.

All of it was true.

Yet to those who knew Dare and loved and respected him as a person off the basketball court, this description falls terribly short.

“He was a wonderful young man,” said John Calipari, who coached Dare with the Nets. “He didn’t have a mean bone, a nasty bone in his body. No evil in his heart. And believe me, I was in that league. There were some guys with evil in their hearts.”

The Rev. Charles Smith, who officiated at Dare’s funeral, said, “The one thing you could see from him was his gentleness. Even though he was such a strong man, extremely strong, he had such a gentle side to him.”

In his last days, the 7-foot-1-inch, 270-pound Dare was undergoing a spiritual reawakening. Dare met Mr. Smith in the summer while playing for the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs of the United States Basketball League, which is pretty much the bottom rung of the professional ladder. Dare, raised in a Christian household in his native Nigeria, “needed to get back to the foundation of things he had learned as a child,” the pastor said. “He had strayed from that, and it was time for him to come back to it.”

Dare also was trying to come back to the NBA. He never returned after the Nets traded him to the Orlando Magic in 1998 as a salary-cap throw-in and he was immediately released. His career totaled 110 games and marginal statistics. Dare became a basketball nomad, wandering the minor league landscape and playing briefly for the Nigerian national team. Occasionally, an NBA tryout would materialize, but he never made it past summer.

Dare tried his hand at marriage and business, with mixed results. He married a former University of Maryland student he met while at GW, but it lasted less than four years. He attempted to sponsor the music career of a friend, a rapper. But he was excited about a new venture. Dare learned to design clothing, and he was planning to start a company that made urban wear for the big and tall man. He had been looking for a partner at the time of his death.

But mainly, Dare wanted to do what he believed he did best.

“He felt like he could still play,” said Adamah Kah, his close friend and former GW roommate. “He felt like he still had something to prove.”

Dare’s most recent basketball experience, like so many others, had not gone well. He left the ValleyDawgs after playing in just a handful of games. “We run more than any team in the world,” said their coach, Darryl Dawkins, the former NBA center. “He said, ‘Coach, my ankle and back hurt. I’m not quick. I need a little time to recuperate.’ He never came back to us.”

Now, however, Dare was ready to try again and this time do it right. His brother, Mike, said Yinka was in the best shape of his life. His weight was down and he was running four miles twice a day. It was after one such morning run that he came home and collapsed while making breakfast. Mike tried to revive him, but Yinka, who was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia while attending GW, died at the hospital.

Dare had been tested countless times in the past and suffered occasional heart palpitations, but he always had been cleared to play. He had asthma, but Mike said his brother no longer needed his inhaler. Mr. Marshall said Dare was supposed to leave two weeks later to play for a team in Israel.

Although Mr. Smith said Dare “expressed the newfound joy and peace” that his religion gave him, Dare also was looking to redeem himself as a player. He had suffered a torrent of ridicule and scorn. Sonni Holland, a former GW teammate, said he thought Dare handled his situation “as well as he possibly could have, even though he was getting so much grief from different media sources and the average basketball fan.”

But Mr. Smith saw something different.

“Even though Yinka never said it to me, I could sense, I could see basically that life’s disappointments had kind of worn on him,” the pastor said.

Mr. Marshall was more direct.

“Not only did he physically die of a heart attack, I think he suffered a broken heart because of his experiences in the league.”

To many, Yinka Dare remains one of the NBA’s unsolved mysteries. Clearly lacking in fundamentals when he left college, he nevertheless was a big, powerful, agile man in an environment that lusted for big, powerful, agile men. Yet, his time with the Nets was a disaster, and no one gave him a serious look after that.

He entered the draft after two seasons at GW, during which he led the Colonials as a freshman to the Sweet 16 for the first time and another NCAA Tournament appearance the following year. Because he played just one year of American high school ball at Milford Academy, a prep school in Connecticut, his offensive skills were crude. But Dare showed potential as a rebounder and shot-blocker.

“He had as big an impact on a program as any one individual could have,” said Mike Jarvis, his coach at GW. “He was a great rebounder. His physical presence probably defined him more than anything. You didn’t want to go near him if you were an opposing player.”

St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli described Dare as an “Adonis.”

But Calipari, who coached at the University of Massachusetts against Dare and GW in the Atlantic-10, said he remembered that the few big men who played against Dare were able to stand up to him. “He’d kill a six-seven guy,” Calipari said.

The Nets never brought Dare in for a look, but general manager Willis Reed, once a top center for the New York Knicks, saw a raw talent that could be molded and refined into a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder. But almost immediately after arriving in New Jersey, Dare started to hear the critics.

His NBA career started poorly, and he never recovered. Dare had arthroscopic surgery on both knees during his rookie year and totaled three minutes in one game for the season. He played in 58 and 41 games the next two years, playing scant minutes. In the 1997-98 season, he appeared in 10 games before the Orlando trade. And then he was finished. If one statistic seemed to define him, it was that he did not record an assist until his third season.

Butch Beard, his first coach with the Nets, tried to give Dare playing time. So did Calipari.

“We tried to work with him, and he showed signs,” said Calipari, now the head coach at the University of Memphis. “But it wasn’t a consistent thing. But people should know. This kid was talented.”

With Dare, raw ability never seemed to be the question.

“He just needed the right direction,” said former NBA great Rick Barry, who briefly coached Dare with the Jersey ShoreCats of the USBL. “I remember how quick he was. One time he got an offensive rebound and went back up and dunked the ball, and he did it so fast that it was staggering to me. I looked at Cliff and said, ‘Did he do what I just think he did?’ ”

“Cliff” was Clifford Ray, Barry’s assistant and former teammate with the Golden State Warriors. Ray is a former NBA assistant coach, and he recently started a big-man camp in Florida with Robert Parish, the ex-Warriors and Boston Celtics center. Ray first worked with Dare while he was with the Nets.

“He was a very fragile kid [emotionally],” Ray said. “Sensitive, I would say. The first thing I tell [players] is they have to be thick-skinned if they want to play in the NBA. When things didn’t go right for him, he kind of went into a shell and couldn’t push through that. Eventually it got him out of the league. But he had as much potential and as much quickness as anyone I ever worked with.”

Dare was an extremely shy and private person who would get embarrassed when asked for an autograph. He loved lifting weights, but former roommate Kah said Dare would put it off until midnight because “he didn’t want people to see him work out.” Kah added, “With people he was comfortable with, he could be the funniest guy in the world. Very much a thinking person. He was a very bright guy who didn’t want people to think he was showing off.”

Calipari thinks Dare perhaps did not want to risk trying to become great.

“So many guys fear that more than anything else. Instead of just dominating practice, they’re expected to do it in the game. And if they do it in the game one time, why not do it all the time? Some guys don’t want to do that. Not just Yinka. There are tons of guys like that. I call it the mechanism of protection: I’m not going to raise my goals so high because there’s a chance I’ll fail.”

Ray got Dare another shot at the NBA in 2001, a tryout with the Warriors. It didn’t work out.

The league consensus was that as desperate as teams are for serviceable big men, Dare simply did not measure up.

“I guess he never improved,” said Orlando Senior Vice President Pat Williams. “I just don’t think he could help you win a ballgame. He was a good athlete, he had some raw skills. I just don’t think he was a real basketball player.”

By nearly unanimous consent, Dare should have stayed at GW for another year, maybe two, to refine his talents. Jarvis pleaded with him to stay. Others joined in. Then again, if a team was willing to offer Dare a fortune, it was hard to begrudge him accepting it. This was before the rookie salary cap, and the Nets paid Dare about $13 million over six years. Asked if Dare needed the money, Jarvis said, “Everybody needs the money.”

At Dare’s funeral, several mourners spoke about their friend. Those who knew Dare best do not remember him for a basketball career gone awry.

“He was a wonderful young man,” Jarvis said. “Most people refer him as gentle. He was a very, very caring person. He never had a bad word to say to anybody.”

Dare “came to realize his goodness was a gift from God, and that’s what he was passing on,” Mr. Smith said.

The pastor said he had been planning to present Dare a Bible with his name embossed in gold on the cover. But he didn’t get the chance, so he gave it to Mike, Dare’s brother.

“His true legacy is that Yinka did find peace with himself and God, and, to me, that’s the success story,” Mr. Smith said. “That’s the success story that no one knew about.”

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