Chris Duarte’s road to the NBA was so rocky that a man of a lesser character would have been floored and quit.
But not Duarte, who traveled thousands of miles and took a detour just to reach his destiny.
There was homesickness he had to fight. There was a language barrier he had to breach. Then fatherhood — a life-altering responsibility — fell on his lap just as when he was about to make his jump from JUCO to a mid-major program in Oregon.
But through all of it, his family and his extended family stuck with him.
“They’ve been there since day one. Their support has been very, very important in my career,” Duarte said on Tuesday during his NBA Draft media availability. I was 16, 17 years old without money, without anything.”
Duarte scrapped and clawed his way from the bottom to get this far, just a few days away from reaching the top basketball league in the world. He remembered when he was at Redemption Christian Academy in rural Massachusets, and he had to borrow phones just to be able to talk to his family back in the Dominican Republic.
“My family’s support was really important. The phone calls never stopped. Every day, I got a phone call from somebody in the family. I’m coming from a very, very tight family. My mom talks to me, giving me advice, telling me life is not easy. You’re gonna go through a lot. You’re gonna go through life’s ups and downs and you got to keep your head up and fight through it,” Duarte said.
“My brother from Canada sends me money sometimes. Not a lot. A hundred bucks but it were already good for me to take care of myself over there at my high school,” he added.
Duarte had to learn the English language. All alone in a foreign land, he had to work hard for every opportunity. He spent two years in Northwest Florida State College. He led them to two straight Elite Eighth appearances and was a JUCO Player of the Year in his sophomore year that became his ticket to transfer to University Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference.
That’s when he got his Puerto Rican girlfriend pregnant.
“My girlfriend’s parents — when they found out we were having a baby — they told me to ‘go back to school and do what you gonna do. Finish school and then you take care of your family. We got you.’ That was big for me in my career. I couldn’t be here without them,” said Duarte.
With new motivation, Duarte was determined not to waste his golden opportunity. He showed out big time at Oregon and became one of the country’s top sharpshooters. Over his two years with the Ducks, he shot 38 percent from the three-point range peaking at 42.4 percent during his senior season.
Duarte is one of the most-ready made prospects in this draft class.
“I’m 24 years old,” Duarte told teams who worked him out. “If you want to win right now, go ahead and take me. If you want to win six or eight years later, go ahead and draft an 18-year-old kid and develop him.”
It was a confident pitch that he backed up with his solid play on the court as a two-way player. His stock has dramatically risen even after deliberately missing the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last month. The mystery he created had intrigued lottery teams such as Oklahoma City Thunder (6th, 16th, and 18th), Golden State Warriors (7th and 14th), Charlotte Hornets (11th), San Antonio Spurs (12th). The Washington Wizards (15th) and the New York Knicks (19th, 21st) are on the outside looking in.
The Warriors loom to be his favorite landing spot after bringing him into a second workout last week. But the Knicks are reportedly looking to trade up, possibly to snag him.
The Knicks brought him for a solo workout last week that went great, according to Duarte himself.
“I met with the front office, Wes [William Wesley], Leon [Rose], those guys. The workout went great,” Duarte said. “I got better in the workout. I really enjoyed my time there. They want to know me off the court to see the person I am. They know what I [did] on the court in my two years at Oregon.’’
Duarte’s successful navigation of the challenging route he took to the NBA greatly appealed to the Knicks. He fits the Knicks’ culture and timeline.
“We’ll see what happens,” Duarte said. “My goal is to play in the NBA and stay there for a long time. So we’ll what happens. I like the Knicks. I like Golden State. So we’ll see what happens.”
He had a great talk with the Knicks brass, especially with Thibodeau, who gravitates to tough, high-character players like Duarte. It seems they have mutual interests.
“They’re a good team. They had a great season last year. Again, I can’t control where I’m going. It’s up to them. The Knicks are a great team. And we saw it last year,” he said. “Me and coach (Thibodeau) had a great talk. I know the way he wants his team to play. That’s the way I like to play, too.”
“He likes pushing the ball, playing hard offensively and defensively. That’s the way I play. That’s the way we play in Oregon. He’s a great coach and he’s the kind of coach I want to play for. But at the end of the day, I cannot control that. It’s up to the teams.”
Duarte’s unlikely and challenging path to the NBA is what he hopes becomes an inspiration to the younger generations in the Dominican Republic.
“I’m very proud to represent DR. Not a lot of kids make it out. Just me, being one of them, being on the biggest stage of basketball, it means a lot to me and my people and my country,” Duarte said.
And it will be more memorable if he ends up in New York, where it has a slice of life back home. Manhattan’s ‘Little Dominican Republic’ will be proud to have one of their own play for the home team.
“It will be great. New York has a big Dominican Republic population. I know I will have their support here. I know that it’s going to go crazy if I end up in New York,” Duarte said. “We’ll see what happens.”
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