I’m driving east on U.S. 264, headed home from Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Clouds cover the setting sun behind me. I feel like I need a shower. I just interviewed a kid who didn’t want to be interviewed, and we talked about things he didn’t want to talk about, all under the supervision of a man who’d be far happier if I wasn’t there, just so that I can write a story they’d both prefer that I not write —  a story that isn’t even the story I first set out to write five months ago.

* * *

In 2009, Andre Dawkins was a 6’4 high school junior at Atlantic Shores Christian School in Chesapeake, Va., ranked by ESPN as the No. 10 overall recruit and the No. 2 overall shooting guard for the class of 2010. Recruited by Duke, he graduated from high school a year early just to help the Blue Devil’s razor-thin backcourt for the 2009-10 season. He then suffered a terrible tragedy: A little more than a month into the season, his older sister, Lacey, 21, died after a car accident on Dec. 5, 2009 while traveling to Durham to watch him play in a game against St. John’s. It would have been the first college game she’d seen him play.

Andre not only overcame that to rejoin the team, and not even miss a game, but he performed beyond everyone’s expectations. Even as a freshman, he became a team leader, someone who others looked up to and who put together a series of clutch performances.

“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Raleigh News & Observer.

Senior Duke guard Jon Scheyer, now a Duke assistant coach, said at the time, “It’s amazing what he’s doing.”

His roommate, Ryan Kelly, now playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, remembers, “Every freshman has to go through their lumps, but he had that one always-reliable skill, that unbelievable skill to shoot the basketball. I was a freshman who came in who was an All-American in high school, and I didn’t even play that much my freshman year. And there’s Andre, just killing it. I mean, he was just unbelievable. He could change a game. Freshmen don’t do that unless they’re already some superstar coming in. But for Andre to come in a year younger than everybody else, and to come off the bench and to make the big plays he made and the big shots — that’s something special.”

And that’s why his older sister, Lacey, and their biological mother, Tamara, tried to drive down from Columbus, Ohio, in the middle of a snowstorm, to see him play. Although Andre had been raised by his father and stepmother, he and Lacey talked, or at least texted each other, every day. Andre described Lacey to the Durham Herald-Sun as “a fun-loving, happy person,” and said, “Whenever she came into a room, she was able to put a smile on someone’s face, no matter how bad you felt.” He kept pictures of Lacey pinned to the wall in his dorm room.

Driving a Chevy Lumina, Tamara hit a patch of ice in West Virginia. They spun into one car, and then another. Lacey died at Raleigh General Hospital.

Andre left the team to be with his family. “Take as much time as you need,” Krzyzewski told him. But how does an 18-year-old kid know how much time he needs?

As it would turn out, he had no idea. No one did.

Read the full story here.

(It’s about how Dawkins as a freshman overcame the death of his sister to help Duke win an unlikely national championship only to crumble under the unresolved grief two years later and leave the team … only to heal up and return for a final season this year. But really, it’s about a lot more—stuff like the moral and ethical place of journalism, the strange ways we treat famous people and athletes different from how we treat “normal” people, and what it means to be a kid trying to become a man in a harsh public light. Easily the one of the most challenging stories of my career so far, perhaps second only to “The Prospect.”

Really curious what the reaction will be.

(Update: There’s a nice discussion taking place over at journalism blog Gangrey, if you want to check that out.)

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