College Basketball: Parents making sacrifices at Duke

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2006

By Luciana Chavez

Raleigh News & Observer

DURHAM — Ron Nelson’s motto might as well be “Have Blue Devil, will travel.”

Nelson, father of Duke junior guard DeMarcus Nelson, spends six months of the year traveling from California to North Carolina and back to watch Duke basketball games. Making the 5,574-mile round trip from his home in Elk Grove, Calif., to Durham requires a significant amount of time and a financial commitment.

Nelson declined to say how much his travel costs, but Ken Redick, father of 2006 Wooden Award winner J.J. Redick, said last season his family spent more than $12,000 each year to drive from their Roanoke, Va., home to Durham for home games and other area ACC contests and to fly to away games and tournaments.

More often than not, Denise Nelson, who doesn’t like to fly, stays home while her husband goes to Duke home and road games. But Ron Nelson says the sacrifices are worth it.

“I watched all my kids play T-ball, football, basketball, baseball, and I never missed any games,” Nelson said. “When DeMarcus decided to go to Duke, I asked myself a simple question, ‘Do you still want to see him play or don’t you?’ It was an easy answer. Traveling is what I have to do, not what I want or even like to do.”

Nelson works under the Rev. Ricky Nutt as an associate pastor for a large church in Vallejo, Calif. Nutt is a former Division I basketball player and a father, so he understands the desire Nelson has to follow his son’s career.

“Without his support, there’s no way I could do it,” Nelson said.

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Nelson travels the farthest but isn’t alone as a Duke basketball vagabond. Jon Scheyer’s parents, Jim and Laury, regularly come out from the Chicago suburbs. Josh McRoberts’ mother, Jennifer, travels from Carmel, Ind.

David McClure’s mother, Betty, and McRoberts’ grandmother Carolyn Pennington, take it one step further: They rent apartments in the same Durham complex, five minutes from Duke during the season.

Pennington, a semi-retired preschool teacher, travels from Zionsville, Ind., for several weeks at a time and keeps the apartment year-round. Her place also serves as the family outpost when her daughter, Jennifer McRoberts — who flies in on the morning of games and flies out the morning after to return to her work directing a kindergarten enrichment program — comes to town.

“It’s so nice to have an apartment where you don’t have to pack and unpack so many things,” Pennington said.

Betty McClure’s rental agreement begins in late October and ends in early March. It is just as economical to stay in Durham than to go back and forth, said McClure, a retired nurse.

McClure, who also travels to road games, has become a whiz at using travel Web sites such as Orbitz and Expedia. She recently scored a coup when she found a $98 round-trip ticket from Durham to Atlanta for Duke’s Jan. 10 game at Georgia Tech.

“I have more user IDs and passwords than I can remember,” Betty McClure said.

The one break McClure and her husband, Jim — a physical therapist who can’t attend as many games — get this season is that the ACC Tournament is in Tampa, Fla. Last season, the family moved from Connecticut to Sarasota, Fla., which is an hour’s drive to Tampa.

All of the parents express some version of the “I can’t believe we get to do this” sentiment.

“I enjoy it,” Pennington said. “‘Grateful’ is the word that always comes to mind. Just watching Josh grow has been fantastic.”

Like Ron Nelson, McClure was the family chauffeur when David (basketball) and his older sister Laura (elite gymnastics) were young. She took them everywhere and saw everything and can’t see herself stopping now.

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Inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, the payoff for the effort, time and money is easy to see. Parents and family members sit right behind the Duke bench. McClure said fans are always asking her where Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sits. She’ll point to the third seat and they’ll take pictures of themselves sitting there.

“Amazing,” McClure said. “And we hear every single word the coach says in a timeout. That’s scary sometimes, but now it’s my third year so I’m learning.”

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