A decade ago, he was a very special person on the University of Delaware campus.
Seven feet tall, with a great smile and a British accent, Spencer Dunkley, HNS '95, and his teammates went to a place no UD basketball team had been before--the NCAA Tournament.
Ten years ago, Sports Illustrated came to Newark and wrote about Dunkley. Several thousand miles, more than a half-dozen teams and more time zones than he can remember later, the big guy still looks back on his days at UD with fondness.
And, he's not done playing yet. The 32-year-old is still going strong, having carved out a professional career for himself overseas. This past season, Dunkley has been in Italy, playing for Reggio Calabria, in the southern part of the country.
"It's been a lot of fun, almost everywhere I've been," Dunkley says, his English accent all but gone. "I've gotten to see a lot of great places and meet some exceptional people, and I've been blessed to keep getting opportunities to play."
For those not familiar with Dunkley's saga, it began 15 years ago in Wolverhampton, England, where he grew up. By the time he was 16, he was 6 feet 9 inches, which made him stand out awkwardly on both soccer and cricket fields--his two favorite pastimes.
Because of his height, he was encouraged to take up basketball, and he fell in love with the game after moving to Newark, Del., as an exchange student at Newark High School.
Then-UD head coach Steve Steinwedel gave Dunkley a scholarship.
He soon began fitting in. After barely playing as a freshman, Dunkley became a solid contributor his sophomore year, averaging 7.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
His game really took off in 1991-92, his junior year. The Blue Hens had their best team ever that year, and Dunkley was a huge part of it, scoring 10.7 points per game and grabbing 8.8 rebounds.
Former Blue Hens assistant coach Sean Kearney thinks Dunkley could've done more that year if he'd needed to.
"We had so many athletes on that team, guys like Alex Coles and Anthony Wright, that Spencer was unselfish," Kearney, now an assistant at Notre Dame, says. "Spencer ran the floor so well that he'd just get the rebound, give the ball off to the guards and be back at the other end when the shot went up. He was amazing."
Delaware made the first of two straight NCAA Tournament appearances that year, an experience that Dunkley thinks about to this day.
"The second time was nice, but the first one was so special because we'd never done it before and were expecting it all year," Dunkley recalls. "When we won, the whole campus went crazy and celebrated. It was wonderful."
Dunkley made himself into a pro prospect his senior season, when, with many of the veterans having graduated, he scored 19 points per game while grabbing 12.2 rebounds.
Dunkley was selected in the second round of the NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers, but he didn't make Indiana's roster. Undaunted, he began an overseas odyssey that has taken him from Israel to Russia to France and, for the past three years, to Italy. He's had some very good seasons: In 1998-99, when he scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds per game while playing for Avellino in the Italian League.
"That was a great place to play. The fans are so intense and they treat you very well," Dunkley says. "The fans over here have a whole different mentality. It's hard to explain, but the Italians take their sports very, very seriously. They sing; they dance; they throw things at the visiting players.
"People generalize about the European game, but it's really different depending on what country you're in," he says. "Italy is a more physical league than some other places, whereas France...well," he laughs. "It's more of a pretty-boy league, kind of for finesse players."
Dunkley says he has witnessed a remarkable transformation in Americans' attitudes toward foreign players. In the past, European players were considered not tough enough or skilled enough to play in the NBA.
But now, more than a dozen Europeans have become stars in the NBA, and Dunkley isn't at all surprised.
"The biggest thing now is the players over here are learning fundamentals at an early age, and they play a lot more than they used to," he says. "They're a little tougher and, once they go play with the big boys (in the NBA), they get even tougher. It's been great seeing so many of them do well."
One thing that helps keep Dunkley motivated to play is his wife and children--his daughter, Ashton, and son, Slam (yes, as in Slam Dunkley).
"They've been great in keeping my spirits up when things aren't going great," he says. "They love basketball because they know that's Daddy's job."
Physically, Dunkley says he's in pretty good shape. He had knee surgery two years ago, but other than that, he's healthy.
"I can't get up in the air as fast as I used to," he says. "The only get-up I do now is getting up and getting out of bed. I lead the world in pump-fakes, because I'm not quick enough to get my shots off all the time now."
This season has been frustrating for Dunkley. A major change in international rules has allowed teams to sign more foreign (out-of-country) players than was previously allowed, and many more U.S. college stars are playing overseas.
Several of them are on Dunkley's Reggio Calabria team, resulting in reduced playing time for him.
"I'm more of a coach this season than a player. I try to help the young guys out," he says.
Dunkley hasn't forgotten his roots. He still spends three months a year after the season in Delaware, living with his family in Odessa. He works out with the current Blue Hen players at the Bob Carpenter Center as well.
"I point up to our NCAA Tournament banners and remind them of what's possible, that Delaware can be a great program," he says. "They're all very respectful of our history, and it makes me feel good to know they remember what we accomplished."
Dunkley also is a businessman, teaming up with friend and former teammate Andre Buck, BE '93, to create Another Level Sports, an apparel company that sells T-shirts and basketball equipment. Dunkley says he'd like to play three more years, and then retire and become a coach.
"I really love the game and want to be a part of it for as long as I can, since it's given me so much. And, if not for Delaware, none of it would have happened, so I'm very grateful."
--Michael Lewis AS '97