COLLEGE PARK — Rasheed Sulaimon said the tears were from joy. On campus in Durham, North Carolina, wearing a Duke basketball shirt, surrounded by face-painted rooters, Sulaimon watched the team he was on months before win the national title. His former teammates in the television screen jumped and hugged. Those around him celebrated. He cried some.
He had gone down a path no other Duke player had. Sulaimon was the first player to be kicked off the team for non-academic reasons in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 35 seasons at the school. A statement issued at the time said Sulaimon was “unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program.” He was dismissed in January. His friends won a national title in April. He starts his final college season playing for No. 3 Maryland on Friday.
“It was more or less bittersweet,” Sulaimon said. “It was bitter because I wanted to be a part of the whole process. Those are the guys that I worked with all summer. That was the goal we set all summer. I got very close to those guys. Justise Winslow, who is a childhood friend. Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, we’ve all been friends for such a long time.
“At the same time, it was sweet because I was so happy for those guys for everything they did accomplish. …E ven after I was off the team, when I was still in school, the relationship we still kept and even still have today, just so proud of those guys. It brought tears of joy, honestly, to my eyes. I was just so happy for what they accomplished, especially as young guys. And, you know, we always had a saying, ‘The world is going to know who we are.’ And, that day, the world knew who they were, so I was happy for them.”
Sulaimon has admitted to not handling a reduction in playing time well when he was at Duke. He played more than 29 minutes per game his freshman season. As a junior, he played 19. Following his dismissal from the team, the Duke student newspaper reported Sulaimon was the subject of sexual assault allegations, which were said to occur during the 2013-14 academic year. Sulaimon has denied those allegations. One was investigated by Duke, and Maryland also said it investigated during the vetting process of Sulaimon. The allegations were not substantiated by those investigations. No charges were filed.
Being kicked off the Blue Devils sent Sulaimon into a shell, he said. Instead of using social media to retaliate, he “kind of just shut down,” not wanting to talk to anyone or do anything.
“Once I got over that feeling — I’m not going to hold anything against anyone,” Sulaimon said. “And, I’m just going to keep being me. That’s all I can do. I understand that in this era right now, people are going to have their opinions, so, I can’t really worry about that. I just have to, like I said, just keep being the best me that I can be, keep improving as a basketball player, keep improving as a man in society, and just go along and roll along with the punches. I understand there’s going to be some positive and negative, so I’m ready to deal with it.”
Maryland knew it had a shot this season to be a factor in the national title race. It also had an inside route to Sulaimon, a former McDonald’s All-American guard known for perimeter defense and one that could provide the additional ball-handling the Terrapins needed. Sulaimon first met Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and assistant coach Dustin Clark when he was a seventh-grader in Houston. Turgeon and Clark were running Texas A&M’s program at the time.
Sulaimon said he kept in touch with Turgeon, even when he played for Duke. Following his dismissal, Sulaimon said Turgeon reached out to see how he was. It wasn’t a basketball talk at first.
“Out of all the coaches who recruited me, I felt that he had my best interest [in mind] and I trusted him the most,” Sulaimon said. “Everything else was kind of a bonus.”
Turgeon said he ran the idea of Sulaimon joining the team through his already existing roster. Older players, such as Jake Layman, were familiar with Sulaimon, who played Maryland four times during his three seasons at Duke. As a redshirt freshman, Sulaimon made six 3-pointers and scored 25 points in his first game against Maryland.
“[Turgeon] just kind of came to us and asked, ‘Do you guys like his game and do you think he can help us?’” Layman said. “I think I was the first one to say yes, just because I know how intense of a player he is. I think this year, Rasheed is out to prove something to people. That he can really help a team no matter what needs to be done.”
Sulaimon’s importance increased this week. On Nov. 3, Turgeon told sophomore Dion Wiley that he would be Maryland’s starting shooting guard, but two days later, Wiley tore the meniscus in his right knee in practice and had surgery on Tuesday that will likely force him to miss the season. Sulaimon works more as a point guard, but will also be on the floor at the same time as starting point guard Melo Trimble. Wiley’s injury could open up more minutes for Sulaimon.
Being on a team with legitimate Final Four hopes is not new for Sulaimon after playing at pressure-filled Duke. The Maryland campus has been a change, however. Duke had 6,471 undergraduate students last fall. Maryland had 27,056. Washington replaces Charlotte as the nearest metropolis. Social adaptation is “day-by-day,” according to Sulaimon.
He’s also trying to temper his voice when talking to his new teammates.
“I haven’t tried to be overbearing or anything like that,” Sulaimon said. “But, they are even coming to me. It was kind of a shock because I’ve never really been in a leadership role. It’s kind of new for me. But, the thing I try to instill in them is just hard work. With a lot of ability and a lot of expectations, the thing you can do to protect yourself is really not to listen to it and work hard.”
“Sulaimon is a guy that’s a natural competitor and kind of gets it,” Turgeon said. “In between the lines, he’s doing a lot of leading, a lot of talking. He’s really good at it. Off the floor, out of respect to Jake and Rob [Carter], because they’ve been here longer, he’s letting them do a little bit more.”
Sulaimon wouldn’t bite when asked if he would like to play Duke this season. He’s busy explaining that his concerns focus on day-to-day work and defense first. He also didn’t think about quitting basketball after being dismissed by the Blue Devils.
“I went through some hurt,” Sulaimon said. “I hit rock bottom.”
In Friday’s opener, even as a role player, he’ll be watched. Less than a year after becoming national news, Sulaimon will pull on a new jersey for a new team, trailed by the reputation of being jettisoned from Duke. Next March, he wants to be the one doing the celebrating, not the watching.