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Dallas Lauderdale: Behind the uniform

Andy Gottesman / Multimedia editor

Dallas called it “poppin’.”

I’d look over to one side of the room, meeting eyes with a classmate, Oba, who offered a nod.

We shifted our attention to Dallas, perched atop the air conditioner along the far wall, lined with windows.

The three of us exchanged signals, like operatives initiating a covert mission.

As the teacher inserted “Dances With Wolves” into the VCR, the three of us seventh-graders reached into our pockets and opened up our arsenals.

Mr. Parsons prohibited eating in his class — and we had come straight from lunch — but rebellious teenagers will bend the rules where they see fit.

We termed it “poppin’,” consuming candy during class when the teacher wasn’t looking. Each day at lunch, we would coordinate, making sure all three of us were participating in the daily ritual of sneaking sugar instead of taking notes.

The obligatory nods signaled the start of our sweet sedition.

It wasn’t difficult for Oba or me to transfer the Sour Patch Kids or Reese’s Pieces from our pockets to our mouths.

The same couldn’t be said for Dallas. All eyes were always on him.

A ‘new Dallas’

Dallas Lauderdale sat alone, in front of a microphone, at one of four tables set up for upperclassmen to speak to reporters at Ohio State men’s basketball Media Day on Oct. 14, 2010.

A horde of journalists flocked to hear coach Thad Matta discuss the challenges of replacing Player of the Year Evan Turner and assimilating a crop of freshmen into the rotation.

William Buford attracted a few writers curious to learn the junior’s thoughts on making the preliminary watch list for the Wooden Award, given to the nation’s top player.

A handful of people asked Jon Diebler if he ever planned to take his game inside the 3-point arc.

Fifth-year senior David Lighty, the team’s elder statesman, entertained a peanut gallery of sorts by chuckling at reporters’ suggestions that his nickname should be “Team Grandpa.”

But there sat the 6-foot-8 Lauderdale, by his lonesome, staring straight ahead, as if he were focused intently on some critical thought.

I ventured over to his table, and after covering the nuts and bolts of the basketball season ahead, the conversation switched to his new appearance.

“I was losing my hair, so I’d rather just choose to cut it off than have to cut it off,” he said. “It’s a new Dallas.”

If it is, I should know.

Was this “new Dallas” really a drastic change from the gentle giant I had known since elementary school? Were the days of him launching Sweet Tarts into his mouth behind the teacher’s back long forgotten? Or was it the same Dallas, just fixated on achieving a dream he’d had since he first started sprouting high above all of his classmates?

‘You’d think that, at 6-foot-8, someone would have noticed’

Dallas always stood out.

It wasn’t just because of his height, either.

He had this slow, casual pace when he strolled through the hallways, like he was sauntering down the red carpet. It was as if he were trying to extend the time it took to get from point A to point B so he could maximize his interactions with others along the way.

“If there had been a senior superlative for ‘Most likely to wander the halls,’ Dallas would have gotten it, hands down,” said Tracy Levine, who graduated with Dallas from Solon High School and graduated from OSU in March with a degree in operations management. “Every day, Dallas would collect money from our classroom and sneak downstairs to the café to buy us all bagels. You’d think that, at 6-foot-8, someone would have noticed.”

Dallas, playing the part of class clown, said or did things to push teachers to the brink. He teased the line, without crossing it.

“Dallas always enjoyed making people laugh and seeing the lighter side of things, even when it was a bit loud at times,” said Amy Gerber, who Dallas and I both had for Spanish in junior high. “He had a great sense of humor and wanted those around him to enjoy the same. I actually remember that Dallas created a rap to help memorize the numbers 0-100 by 10s in Spanish. Once he would shout it out, the whole class chimed in. I will never forget that.”

Basketball made his behavior acceptable. For all of his goofy antics, Dallas had something special on the court.

Solon, Ohio, is known more for its stellar educational track record than its limited history of renowned athletes.

“I first played basketball with him in elementary school gym class,” said David Kretch, who played with Lauderdale on various teams through middle and high school. “They lowered the hoops so we could get the ball up to the hoop, but Dallas was already dunking, even on those hoops.”

At such a young age, Dallas and his talent were relegated to youth recreation teams.

“He was awkward and clumsy but dominated because he was a foot taller than everyone,” said Kretch, now a fourth-year in psychology at OSU.

Still, Dallas remained this larger-than-life-sized comedian, always ruffling the feathers of a classmate or teacher.

He would stick out his foot to trip his friends and mimic teachers behind their backs.

Rarely would anyone put up a fight. In fact, the victims of his shenanigans laughed along with him instead of seeking revenge or demanding consequences.

“All the stuff I did was just petty,” Dallas said, “but I never really did anything too serious.”

I was intrigued by the potential of such a talented yet down-to-earth kid. I even took part in his foolish charades.

In seventh grade, I was an avid fan of the Sacramento Kings, an NBA team stocked with character and ability, featuring talents such as Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Vlade Divac. The Kings choked away a heartbreaking seven-game series in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers (a series that has since been scrutinized following the fallout of the Tim Donaghy-NBA-referee-gambling scandal). Every day following a Sacramento defeat, Dallas teased me, telling me the “Sacramento Queens” were terrible. Anytime I passed him in the hallway, or he caught my attention in class, I’d get a “Kings suck.”

But Dallas didn’t spawn our playful rivalry because he idolized Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Instead, he classified himself as “anti-Kings.”

It was just Dallas being silly, old Dallas.

“Yes, he’s tall, and everybody just assumes that because he’s tall and big that he’s going to be mean or scary,” said Tahja Lauderdale, Dallas’ older sister. “But Dallas has always been a humble, nice, fun, goofy, fun-loving guy.”

That personality never left him, even as he continued to grow taller and the hype started to build.

‘Why he plays, is for my mother’

When he arrived at high school, the stakes got higher.

Coach Todd Van Reeth etched Dallas’ name into the starting lineup his freshman year.

“To be honest, he didn’t act very different in school as he did with the team,” Kretch said. “Don’t get me wrong, we worked our butts off in practice, but we had fun and goofed around a bit in the process.”

Still, with the spotlight shining brighter and the pressure dialed up, Dallas had to restrain his goofy demeanor.

“He knew when it was time to joke around and when it was time to be serious,” Kretch said. “He was very competitive, and if he saw you slacking off, he would get on your ass. It didn’t matter if you were his good friend; he knew what it took to be a leader.”

Dallas was the king of Solon High School. The city earned local and national recognition for its basketball success, and he was at the epicenter of all the attention.

The publicity was new to Solon, whose most recognized athlete, former OSU wide receiver Drew Carter, bounced around NFL practice squads earlier in the decade.

It made Dallas’ playful antics permissible in what was a pretty strict school envi
ronment.

It even allowed him extra privileges.

Dallas’ mother, Carol Lauderdale, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996.

She spends much of her time restricted to a wheelchair.

By the time Dallas reached high school, with Tahja away at college and their father busy working for NASA, the family relied on Dallas to help his mother with daily activities that had become too demanding for her on her own.

Despite attending a closed campus in which students were not allowed to leave and return, Dallas was granted permission to tend to his mother during the day.

“The Lauderdale family is a very close-knit group which has their priorities in order,” Van Reeth said. “Most days, Dallas would go home at lunch to make lunch and take care of his mom. I never once heard Dallas even imply that this was a difficult chore for him.”

That’s because it wasn’t a task to Dallas. It was just an extra opportunity to spend time with the person he cares about most.

“Dallas and my mom have a relationship that nobody can ever explain,” Tahja said. “He’s very close to my mother. There was excitement on his face when he would come home and they won, even though she wasn’t there. In my mind, I think Dallas’ whole heart with basketball, why he plays, is for my mother.”

After the Buckeyes knocked off Penn State to capture the Big Ten Tournament title on March 13, as the team celebrated, hoisted the trophy and cut down the nets, there was Dallas, clenching his cell phone, his mother on the receiving end of his call.

“His bond with my mom is what keeps him going with basketball. She’s the biggest encourager with him,” Tahja said. “She’s the one calling him every day. Whether she can be at a game or not, her presence is still there. And when she’s able to come to the games, it’s him seeing her up in the stands; those were his best games, when she’s there.”

Dallas said he makes the two-hour drive up I-71 North to Cleveland as often as possible.

“(During the offseason, I go) home almost every weekend,” he said. “I know when the season starts. I won’t be able to go home at all except for maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas, so while I have time, I try to go home and take advantage of that as much as I can.”

Leaguebound88

The Lauderdale family sitting front and center was about the only thing that remained constant during Dallas’ tenure on the high school team.

As the hype built, local celebrities such as Damon Jones and Brad Sellers started attending games. Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino and other famed coaches visited the athletic office during school hours, sending students into a teenage-girl-eyes-Justin-Bieber frenzy.

“I tried harder when Rick Pitino came to a practice,” Kretch said, “even though I knew he wasn’t there to watch me.”

Dallas shrugged it off.

“Dallas handled the recruiting process extremely well,” Van Reeth said. “He never felt ‘big-time’ because of the coaches who came to visit him.”

Was the hype justified?

As each year passed without a trip to the state finals, criticism of the gentle giant grew.

Was Van Reeth maximizing the potential of his star player? Was Dallas improving enough?

“I was always skeptical because of his lack of offensive skill set,” Kretch said.

Solon won the Western Reserve Conference in each of Dallas’ four years, never losing a conference game. The Comets reached the regional finals during his sophomore and junior seasons.

But they never got over that hump.

They never reached that peak, that pinnacle of success that grants even more exposure to the team’s heart and soul. That probably held Dallas back a little.

Rivals.com ranked him as the 11th-best center in the 2007 class. Dallas averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks per game during his high school career.

Regardless of team performance, the question that buzzed around lunch tables and gymnasium bleachers was always: “Does he have what it takes to play in the NBA?”

It’s a matter Dallas has focused on since a young age, when he created the AIM screen name “leaguebound88.” For him, it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but rather “when.”

“He was the kid that always had the jerseys and had the starter jackets and everything. The NBA has always been Dallas’ dream,” Tahja said. “I’ve never heard anything different. I’ve never heard him doubt that goal or doubt that he’d ever make it there. That’s always been his No. 1 priority and dream.”

Staying close to home

Like Kretch, I was a bit skeptical but more so intrigued. I had known the guy since fifth grade, and wasn’t sure if someone with his talent could carry such a grounded, nonchalant attitude to the pros.

That’s why we all followed his recruitment so closely. It was going to take a productive college career for him to take the ultimate leap, and it was something most classmates wanted the opportunity to keep an eye on.

His choice didn’t matter so much to me; though I would be pursuing a journalism degree, I’d be doing so hundreds of miles away in East Lansing, Mich., as a Spartan. Still, for weeks on end, the talk of the school centered on where Dallas would continue his career.

About an hour after school on June 1, 2006, Dallas sat his lanky frame into a folding chair on the gym floor.

TV reporters and camera crews filed into the gym on the sunny Thursday afternoon, and 100 or so students looked on from the bleachers, everyone voicing their prediction on whether Dallas would opt for the orange Syracuse cap or the scarlet hat with the gray “O.”

After a brief introduction, Dallas stretched his 7-foot-5 wingspan across the table to scoop up the scarlet hat. Students, faculty and family erupted in cheers and tears, knowing that the next four years of his basketball career would take place just two hours from home at the alma mater of both of his parents.

“I believe Dallas always wanted to play close enough to home so his parents could watch him play,” Van Reeth said. “I don’t think that Dallas felt any parental pressure to attend Ohio State. The program, the academics, the proximity to home all played a part in his decision.”

From afar, I watched Dallas see playing time as a freshman, even defending All-American Tyler Hansbrough in a loss to North Carolina.

“I remember what I was doing the night before my first practice,” Dallas said. “I was on the phone with my dad, like, ‘I don’t know what to expect.'”

I toted my reporting skills to OSU, transferring midway through my freshman year. A year later, I was covering Buckeye basketball, getting the close-up of Dallas’ progress that I was fortunate to have had throughout grade school.

For more than three years now, I’ve observed Dallas on and off the court at OSU.

No longer can I have the same interaction with him in the hallways or in class. The friendship has become secondary to a more formal reporter-athlete bond.

Nonetheless, I’ve caught glimpses of the childlike personality he boasted growing up.

But the pranks and gimmicks have taken a backseat to Dallas’ primary focus of trying to seize the opportunity at his disposal.

“It seems to me that Dallas has grown and matured a great deal from high school to college,” Kretch said. “I think this is a product of being held to a higher standard. In college, you have better coaching, better competition and more-meaningful games. College basketball is like an interview for a job and a potential career. I think that Dallas has started to realize this and takes it more seriously now than in high school.”

‘Without a doubt’

Dallas knew basketball would be there through the end of high school. Once Hall of Fame coaches showed interest in his brand, he could fall back on up to four more years of stability.

But the next chapter of his life has yet to be written.

“This is it. I can’t believe it’s it. I can’t believe I’m a senior,” Dallas said b
efore the season. “But if I want to do something, the time is now. The time is now for me to do what has to get done.”

The joking around has its time and place, like when Dallas performed his eardrum-shattering, high-pitched rendition of “ABC,” by the Jackson Five, before a Feb. 3 win against Michigan.

But for the most part, the silly antics have taken a backseat. There’s no more “poppin’.”

It’s been all about basketball for the man who completed his degree in communication Winter Quarter.

“There is nothing else on Dallas’ mind. Dallas is more focused than I think I’ve ever seen him,” Tahja said. “He’s always been very focused, but coming in as a freshman, you’re getting used to the atmosphere, getting used to college life. You’re just trying to be part of a team, trying to fit in.

“He is looking into the future now. He’s more focused when it comes to basketball, spending extra hours in the gym. His diet has changed; he’s made a lot of sacrifices because of how focused he is now. There’s weekends he can’t go home. He’s missed birthdays, family events. But in the long run, his quote that he always says is, ‘You have to do some things that you don’t want to do to get where you want to be.'”

We’ve come full circle, and soon it’ll be on to the next path in our journeys. My road isn’t laid out so clearly. Some would say his isn’t, either.

It wasn’t the senior season he envisioned.

He averaged 16.1 minutes per game, the least floor time he saw since his freshman campaign. His 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per contest were also beneath the marks he set the past two years.

Matta kept Dallas in the starting lineup, but freshman point guard Aaron Craft typically replaced him at the first media timeout, about four minutes into the game.

Still, Dallas isn’t yet entertaining thoughts of a career overseas or in another field.

In his eyes, there remains only one option, the same one that he’s focused on since he stood high above his elementary school classmates.

“NBA,” he said, emphatically. “Without a doubt.”

A few reporters looked up from their notepads, almost as if they were startled that he would maintain such an ambitious goal.

“Really?” one reporter asked.

Dallas stared the reporter in the eye and nodded.

The days of wandering the halls and tripping teenage classmates are a thing of the past. Instead, local and national media, bright lights and plenty of pressure surrounded us.

But Dallas’ nod was so familiar. If only I had some Reese’s Pieces in my pocket.

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