Al Durham cut in toward the basket from the corner along the baseline, adjacent to the final “A” of “INDIANA” written along the end of the court.
He found a patch of open hardwood, his defender too late to react as then-senior forward Freddie McSwain tucked a bounce pass from near the top of the three-point arc inside to Durham.
Durham didn’t dribble, instead taking a step and rising up to the basket. There was no one in his way.
He rose straight up, holding the ball with both hands and his arms like flag posts directed straight above his head. Durham didn’t have to move his arms as he flushed the ball through the net for the dunk.
Durham’s arms shot down as his feet touched the ground. He stared directly into the camera behind the basket, balled his hands into a fist and flexed as he backed down the lane, just as he saw then-junior forward Juwan Morgan do behind him out of the corner of his eye.
Just as he had always wanted to do.
“Being on TV, flexing for the camera, catching a dunk,” Durham said. “It was a reassuring moment, like ‘Dang, I’ve actually done something I’ve always dreamed of.’”
As Durham descended back to the ground and the ball bounced back on the floor, IU head coach Archie Miller pumped his fist as he stepped away from his perch next to the scorer’s table.
It wasn’t the coach the then-freshman Durham expected to see on the sideline when he committed to the Hoosiers. It wasn’t the coach with whom Durham expected to grow into a system and become a team captain.
The Durham household in the Atlanta suburbs was always competitive.
Durham, his brother and two sisters all played basketball. He has an older cousin with whom Durham would play one-on-one in the driveway. They all played pickup games and 21 as kids in Georgia. Every game was lined with competition; it wasn’t just fun with family.
That extends to his father, Aljami Sr.
Aljami Sr. coached his son’s Amateur Athletic Union team, Southern Stampede. Durham’s parents were his toughest critic, and he’s glad they were. It’s what made him the player he is today.
“If you have somebody else telling you in your head how great you are, that’s not going to get you anywhere,” Durham said. “I feel like them being hard on me with basketball and in life, not everything is going to be sweet. It’s never going to be handed to you. You always have to work hard. I feel like him being my coach was just a great thing for me.”
Even with AAU far in his rearview mirror entering his junior year at IU, Aljami Sr. is still trying to coach his son just as he always has. He’s still Durham’s toughest critic, and he may always be.
With his dad watching from the sideline, Durham had quite the running mate on Southern Stampede.
Durham and Collin Sexton met as little kids. Naturally, it came through basketball.
They met when playing against each other and soon after would become teammates.
Durham and Sexton became friends on and off the court. Basketball brought and kept them together. It was, and still is, their favorite thing to talk about.
They formed a formidable guard tandem, their individual skillsets playing off each other.
“I feel like we feed off each other,” Durham said. “We actually have a good little duo thing, we did different things.”
Sexton drew all the attention. He was a five-star recruit ranked in the top 10 of his high school class, the same class as Durham. He played at the University of Alabama before entering the 2018 NBA Draft. He was selected eighth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers and averaged 16.7 points per game as a rookie.
Durham has watched and cheered on Sexton through his successes since their basketball paths separated.
But his route to college basketball wasn’t quite as clear.
It was Tom Crean that won Durham over, or at least he was the first.
Crean sold Durham on IU. Sold him on the candy-striped pants, the history, the prestige, the tradition.
Durham committed to IU in the fall of 2015, just ahead of his junior season at Berkmar High School in Georgia.
But as Durham’s senior year at Berkmar drew toward its end, suddenly Crean was gone.
After falling to Georgia Institute of Technology in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament and failing to make the NCAA tournament with a team that was once ranked third in the nation, Crean was fired.
Durham was left to reconsider. He had the option to de-commit and reopen his recruitment, beginning the process all over again.
Or he had the option to meet the new IU coach, and give a second chance to the school he had been preparing to attend.
Archie Miller came down to Georgia as soon as he could after he was hired as the new IU head coach. It would be Durham’s first chance to meet him.
“I just wanted to hear what he had to say,” Durham said. “I wanted to hear his game plan and how he was going to come in to Indiana and what he was going to do and how he would help myself grow into a better basketball player and a better man. I wanted to hear what he had to say before I decided to go through the whole thing again.”
Miller noticed Durham’s smile. A smile that has endeared itself to the Hoosiers’ head coach.
As Durham went through his own adversity, his smile exuded confidence. Miller didn’t know just how important that would be in the years to come.
Durham came away knowing he could still fit in with what Miller would bring to IU. He found similarities between himself and Miller during their meeting. Durham thought back to the excitement he had about IU following his visit and to the type of atmosphere in Assembly Hall Hall where he wanted to play.
He maintained his commitment to the Hoosiers, reaffirming himself to Miller.
Durham stuck with IU through it all. He’s glad he did. Three years later, that decision has paid off.
Take a look at Al Durham away from Assembly Hall, not in uniform, and his style is quite clear.
His outfits often include baseball caps, bling, jean jackets, ripped jeans, designer brands and shoe collections.
He’s had a love of fashion for years.
“Growing up, you wanted to look the best, you wanted to make sure you stand out,” Durham said.
Durham has put that into action in his own way by starting his own clothing line.
His line, titled Real is Rare, debuted over the summer. His goal is to help people create a good first impression. He wants people wearing his clothes to look their best, to leave people remembering them for what they’re wearing, giving off confidence.
For Durham, the name Real is Rare comes from his own life experiences. He thought back and saw things that are real in life are rare.
The clothes are one of a kind for Durham -- he's expressing himself in his own way.
“When I put it on and wear it, it’s like, ‘Man, that’s crazy. I have my own clothing line brand,’” Durham said. “I just want to make people feel like they can stand out in a room when everybody else has this on. They’re looking at you and see what you have on. It’s one thing that I want to stand out really.”
Durham makes clothes to make those wearing them look good and feel special. It resembles his own basketball career rather closely.
Durham sat in a team meeting on the first official practice of the 2019-20 season. It was his 21st birthday.
He wasn’t expecting the gift he was about to receive.
The team had voted the day prior to decide the team’s captains. Durham voted for his upperclassman, the leaders he looked to.
He didn’t realize how much of the team was already looking to him.
At the team meeting, Durham heard his name called. He would be a captain.
Miller said the players' vote makes it more special, that the players earned the allegiance of their teammates, not just the coaches. He thinks Durham is ready for the role even as a junior.
“As he enters his junior year,he’s prepared,” Miller said. “He’s ready to go and I feel like Al is set up to lead our group by example, but also Al’s not afraid to speak his mind because I think he has the respect of his teammates.”
Durham wasn’t shocked, or at least not much. Instead, he saw it as his work paying off. He’s always been vocal, making sure his teammates were in the right spot, doing the right things on the court.
His teammates proved they noticed.
“It gave me more reassurance that I’m doing the right thing,” Durham said. “That my teammates trust me, that they believe in me that much to put me as their team captain.”
Durham saw himself become a leader in the midst of last season’s 1-12 stretch, a stretch he referred to simply as “adversity.” He saw a team that needed a spark.
His approach each day during the difficult stretch is what sold himself to his teammates. They saw the same smile Miller did. Durham helped keep his teammates focused while surrounded by their own personal frustration on the court, and the social media storm building around them.
“We need a guy that has some smiling to him,” Miller said. “The doom and gloom of a bad game or missed shot doesn’t impact him. That’s what we need.”
It makes sense that Durham then would have played the second-most minutes in the win over Michigan State, the one victory in the disastrous 13-game stretch. His 46 minutes were the most on the team in the streak-breaking win over Wisconsin. Durham scored in double figures on both occasions, including going 3-5 from three both nights.
His individual numbers sparked his own season. It’s why Durham enters his junior year with his confidence high.
It was both the on-court play and leadership that helped spark the team on a late run toward sneaking into the NCAA tournament.
Durham averaged 8.3 points per game in his sophomore season, up from his 4.8 as a freshman. He started 30 games after starting only nine as a freshman. He played 583 minutes as a freshman, whichbecame 978 as a sophomore.
His 34.8% mark from three was second best on the team among those who attempted double-digit threes. Without a defender in his face, Durham shot above 50% at the 2019 Hoosier Hysteria three-point competition.
Durham talked about his experience seeing the team at its highs and the lows. He’s been there for all of them through the first years of Miller’s tenure. Sweeping Michigan State last season went to prove to Durham the team can always bounce back from adversity.
“I wanted to be that glue guy to bring everybody closer and bring everybody up and make sure they remember that adversity hits, but we just going to get through it,” Durham said.
Despite starting 30 games last season, Durham has never had to stand out. Whether it be Romeo Langford, Juwan Morgan or Robert Johnson, there’s always been a star where the spotlight is shining, players Durham would be working behind as a role player.
And that’s where his clothing line begins to parallel what he does wearing an IU uniform.
Durham wants Real is Rare to allow people to be one of a kind, to stand out. He wants people to notice when people wear his clothes, to look their best. He feels he can give that to people with his clothes.
He’s playing his own role to give people confidence, to help them succeed. Just as he has on the court.
“I want to say it’s one of a kind because it’s mine and, I want to make sure everybody feels special when they wear it,” Durham said. “They want to feel like they are one of a kind.”
He may not be the leading scorer or the focal point of the offense. He’ll still be working to support and give confidence to his teammates, to help them look their best on the court.
Though it will no longer be Durham only in a supporting role, not only building everyone else up. He’s a captain now, the person everyone is looking to, the person everyone is expecting to lead.
Durham will be both a leader and a player with a flair all his own, the same flair that earned him the respect of his teammates as a junior and the flair that runs through his clothes. A smile that shines through the looming expectations and doubt of a fanbase searching for a return to relevance.
He doesn’t know any other way.