Rasheed Sulaimon’s removal from Duke team still a mystery

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is surrounded by his players, including Rasheed Sulaimon (14) and Tyus Jones, after the team beat St. John's 77-68 for Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win on January 25. Four days later, after the team lost at Notre Dame, Sulaimon was dismissed from the team.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is surrounded by his players, including Rasheed Sulaimon (14) and Tyus Jones, after the team beat St. John's 77-68 for Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win on January 25. Four days later, after the team lost at Notre Dame, Sulaimon was dismissed from the team.

When Mike Krzyzewski earned his 1,000th win on a Sunday afternoon in New York City in late January, few were as elated as his junior reserve guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

As the Duke men’s basketball team made its way home that day, Sulaimon called the owner of Shooters II, a popular dance club frequented by many Duke athletes, and got her to open its doors that night as part of a team celebration. Much of the team and some of its fans made up the roughly 80 people who partied that night.

Four days later, after the team lost at Notre Dame, Sulaimon was dismissed from the team for reasons that are at best vague and at worst are being interpreted as being linked to unspecific sexual assault allegations that did not emerge through a formal complaint.

Saturday evening, Duke will face Michigan State in the opening game of the NCAA Final Four, with the winner advancing to the national title game. It’s the youngest team Krzyzewski has ever taken to the Final Four, in part because he dismissed a player who showed huge potential his freshman year, but struggled as time went on.

Friends of Sulaimon, including Shooters II club owner Kim Cates, say they cannot believe he was dismissed – the first player Krzyzewski has kicked off the team in 35 years as Duke’s coach.

“I’ve never seen Rasheed being impolite to anybody,” Cates said. “He’s always been polite to me and my employees all around. He’s always been a happy person. That’s why I’m sort of shocked.”

‘Willing to help’

When Sulaimon arrived at Duke in the fall of 2012, he brought the kind of athletic and academic abilities every Division I coach covets.

He was a McDonald’s All-American and an National Honor Society member from a highly regarded Catholic preparatory high school, and had a 3.56 grade point average. His parents, Mutiu and Angela Sulaimon, kept him out of a club game for carrying a B average in his 5th grade math class. He brought it up to an A.

“I’m just thankful for everything my parents have done for me,” Sulaimon said at the end of his junior year at Strake Jesuit in Houston. “At the time, I didn’t really understand it. But now I know they really helped me get a good head on my shoulders.”

His high school coach, Wayne Jones, recently told The News & Observer that Sulaimon showed maturity on and off the court.

“Rasheed was extremely involved in his church as an acolyte,” Jones said. “He amassed over 200 hours of community service at Strake Jesuit here in Houston and he was always one of the first ones willing to help a teammate in any form or fashion on or off the court.”

Sulaimon was a Duke fan, and Krzyzewski wanted him there so badly he was the only prospect Duke invited to visit campus as the team took on arch-rival UNC that year. He had averaged more than 20 points a game in each of his three years on the high school team, and showed tremendous accuracy behind the three-point arc.

As a freshman, Sulaimon started all but three games for the Blue Devils, averaging 11.6 points per game and making the ACC all-freshman team. He also made the All-ACC academic team, though his name did not appear on the ACC’s honor roll, which requires a 3.0 GPA or better.

But in the fall of 2013, Sulaimon’s sophomore season started badly. Krzyzewski told reporters Sulaimon showed up out of shape. The coach also suggested Sulaimon’s extensive playing time as a freshman was in part the result of limited options. The team’s other starting shooting guard – Seth Curry – played through an leg injury and couldn’t push Sulaimon in practice.

Krzyzewski also had another talented crop of players coming in, including freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood.

In the midst of that subpar season, Sulaimon received troubling news from another front. He was being investigated by Duke’s Office of Student Conduct for an unspecified allegation, said his attorney, Bob Ekstrand. Nothing ever came of it, Ekstrand said, and Sulaimon assumed that was the end of it.

Angering Krzyzewski

As this season started, Sulaimon had lost his starting role. In an early season game against Elon University, Sulaimon shoved an opposing player’s head as he was falling under the basket. Sulaimon received a technical foul. It was in the closing minutes of a game Duke had in hand. He said he later apologized.

Krzyzewski told reporters afterward: “How we ended the game, a Duke team should never do that. We should never get a technical foul. Real young, we were real young tonight. That’s not acceptable, how we ended that game.”

Sulaimon sought to accept his new role as a reserve. His tweets are a mix of Christian guidance and praise for his starting teammates’s accomplishments. On Nov. 22, he retweeted a video of teammate Justise Winslow soaring to block a shot, then later followed it with this advice from another Twitter account:

“Instead of dwelling on your difficulties, focus more on the fact that God is for you and His power is at work in you.”

Like many Duke athletes, Sulaimon was a regular at Shooters II, a nightclub in Brightleaf Square that derives most of its business from students. It runs shuttles between the campus and the club, and is often packed on the three nights it is open – Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Cates opened the wild-west themed club in 1999 as a showplace for country bands, but it became a campus favorite when she vocally supported the Duke lacrosse team in 2006 as members faced rape allegations arising from a party that featured strippers. The allegations were false and cost the Durham County district attorney his job.

The team had become patrons of the club the year before. The side of the bar they belly up to now has a sign that reads “Lacrosse Alley.” As more athletes and students filled the club, Cates replaced the country bands with a DJ, who now plays bass-heavy pop music on what Cates said is the biggest dance floor in the western Triangle.

Signed team posters for lacrosse, football and men’s basketball adorn the walls of the club entrance, along with jerseys from several of the university’s sports teams.

The club, open to patrons 18 and over, is a notorious hunting ground for sex. In 2010, a Duke graduate’s PowerPoint that rated her sexual encounters with 13 athletes ended up on the Internet and went viral. Nearly all the encounters, primarily with lacrosse and baseball players, started with meet-ups at Shooters.

Inside the cavernous club, the scene is sexually charged. On Saturday night a week ago, scantily clad young women rode a mechanical bull in one corner, while a young couple in an iron-barred dance cage came as close to having sex as possible while remaining fully dressed.

The club has an experienced staff and four Durham police officers keeping things from getting out of hand. But Cates and a veteran bartender, Lynn Foushee, said many female patrons flock to the athletes.

“Athletes, all the girls want them,” Foushee said. “And all the guys want to be around them because all the girls want athletes.”

She described some of the women as “athlete hoppers.”

But she said Sulaimon never acted like he was on the prowl. Nor had she seen him drink alcoholic beverages.

“He never comes in, like, ‘Hey, hook me up.’ ” Foushee said. “He’s one of the nicest kids on the basketball team right now and he’s probably one of the nicest students in our bar.”

Unofficial allegations

After his dismissal from the team, Sulaimon didn’t return to Shooters until Cates sent him a text asking if he was OK. When he next visited the club, Cates said, many students came up to him and said they felt bad about what had happened.

Then, on March 2, The Chronicle, the independent Duke student newspaper, published a story that drove Sulaimon further out of view. The story said that Krzyzewski and others in Duke’s athletic department knew Sulaimon had been accused by two women of sexual assault more than a year ago, but had kept him on the team until a student intern, Lincoln Wensley, learned of the allegations and raised questions.

The Chronicle story cited Wensley and an unnamed basketball team “affiliate” regarding the university’s lack of action. Wensley declined to comment.

The two women did not contact the police or the university’s Office of Student Conduct to file complaints. They also would not talk to The Chronicle. Their allegations stemmed from what they told other students in a student-run retreat program called Common Ground. The retreats provide an opportunity, through frank discussion, to break down social barriers that have formed along racial, gender and economic lines.

Details about what is said at the retreats typically aren’t made public by the participants. But other unidentified students who attended the October 2013 and March 2014 retreats told The Chronicle about the accusations against Sulaimon. No specifics were reported.

National and local media – including The N&O – quickly picked up the story. In the subsequent days, Duke officials asserted that any sexual assault allegations that came to the attention of athletic or administrative officials would have been relayed to the Office of Student Conduct. Under the federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, they are prohibited from disclosing sexual assault allegations unless they determine the allegations were true.

Duke has never made clear whether the sexual assault allegations had anything to do with Sulaimon being kicked off the team. In a statement on January 29, the university quoted Krzyzewski as saying that Sulaimon “has been unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program.”

The federal law keeps private student academic records such as transcripts and disciplinary actions. But it doesn’t speak to athletic issues such as showing up out of shape or missing a curfew, as Sports Illustrated reported Sulaimon may have done.

This week, a reporter sought to question Krzyzewski about that distinction at a news conference. Krzyzewski would not take the question and said he would have no comment about Sulaimon. Other Duke officials declined to be interviewed about Sulaimon; they asked for written questions, which The N&O declined to provide.

Sulaimon, who turned 21 last month, remains a student in good standing. If Sulaimon carries the dream of making it to the NBA, he faces a major academic and athletic challenge. His best option is to earn his bachelor’s degree in three years so that he has a shot at being admitted to another school as a graduate student. That would give him a direct path to play a fourth and final year, instead of sitting out a year as an undergraduate transfer.

Neither he nor his family could be reached to talk about his plans.

Staff writers Laura Keeley, Will Doran, Chip Alexander and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4861

Twitter: @dankanenando

Opening for athletes

Persuading a nightclub to open when it’s usually closed – as Rasheed Sulaimon did with Shooters II – is a potential minor NCAA violation, but it depends on the circumstances, experts said.

If the club were to open only because of an athlete’s request, while non-athletes who made similar requests were turned down, that raises the possibility of violating NCAA rules regarding preferential treatment and extra benefits. It could also be an issue if the club didn’t charge the athlete for opening the club, but charged others.

“They are going to look at whether the athlete received an extra benefit or preferential treatment solely because of that athlete’s athletic ability or reputation, and would (the club) do that for someone else who doesn’t have that athletic ability or reputation,” said Michael Buckner, a sports law attorney whose firm specializes in NCAA compliance matters.

Shooters II owner Kim Cates said she has opened the club for other athletic celebrations, though this was the first for the men’s basketball team. She said the club was open to any who entered, and that it charged its customary fees. It lost money when only 80 people showed up to celebrate coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th win.

She said Sulaimon had expected a couple hundred people to attend.

“He was so sorry, apologizing to me. I mean overly apologetic,” Cates said. “And I said ‘Rasheed, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re celebrating this with you all.’ ”

It’s also unlikely that such a benefit carries much value, experts said, which also would push it down to a minor violation that might not involve an athlete having to sit out a single game.

But they all said that if an athletic program didn’t know about such an arrangement, it would need to get the details. It’s unclear whether Duke athletic officials knew about the party. Krzyzewski and his assistant coaches were not in attendance, Cates said.

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