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April 6, 2013

DODD: A true student athlete

“I’ll be honest with you, basketball was probably my worst sport.” — Former U of L basketball player Derwin Webb

Derwin Webb’s father was tired of his 9-year-old son waking him up from his badly needed sleep. He worked a third-shift job.

The younger Webb was bouncing a ball and shooting it into a flower pot in his room. Finally his parents put up a basketball goal in the backyard. It was not a paved court.

There were rules.

“I couldn’t play on the court everyday. It would kill the grass in the yard.”

Finally, they felt he was old enough and the yard was getting patchy enough to let him go elsewhere in the neighborhood to play.

He was good. In fact, in high school he became very good. It didn’t hurt his game any when he grew 6 inches during the summer of his freshman year when went from 5’10” to 6’4”. Suddenly, dunking was coming easy.

Basketball wasn’t his only recreation. Derwin was a star player in football and was a state champion long-jumper on the track team. He could have played football at Notre Dame even though he skipped his senior year of football to concentrate on basketball.

He was candid in explaining why he chose college basketball over football. He went on some recruiting trips.

“I saw that football was a sport where grown men were hitting other grown men. It was outdoors in hot weather.”

Meanwhile, basketball was played indoors in an air-conditioned gymnasium. And he was stubborn.

“I was told I would never be a Division I athlete in basketball.”

He would prove the doubters wrong.

What followed was a five-year stint at the University of Louisville (he was redshirted his freshman year). Except for one year as a starter, he was the sixth or seventh man in Denny Crum’s rotation.

“I didn’t care if I started or not. I just wanted to be in at the end of the game,” he said.

He remembers the thrill of the NCAA tournament in which he played in multiple Sweet 16 games. When his career ended, he came close to signing to playing professional basketball overseas. There was also interest from the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL. Those options are more open to an athlete who is 6’5” tall, sports a muscular 185-pound frame, runs a 4.4 second 40-yard dash, and perhaps most impressive has a 42-inch vertical leap.

Derwin had been accepted to the University of Louisville law school when he was mulling over the European offer. There were financial problems with the team that had wanted to sign him. Webb decided instead to attend law school. In 1999, he received his law degree. Today, he has his own practice in New Albany.  

He told me that while in college, U of L assistant coach Jerry Jones was a go-to guy for problems with school and life. He said on a regular basis Jones ran the routine practice but all of the game strategies and preparation belonged to Crum.

The legendary coach had an open-door policy and was always available when Webb felt a need to talk. Today, he and Crum are still close and they usually talk on the phone at least once a month to catch up.

“I thank Denny Crum for everything he taught me on and off the court. I respected Coach Crum as a coach and I respect him a lot more now as a person.”

Webb took advantage of everything that his athletic gifts allowed to come his way. He also always understood the obligation that came with the opportunity.

“It doesn’t matter what I do but the moment I do something wrong, I will be Derwin Webb, ex U of L basketball player.”

Webb was what all college athletes once were expected to be. He was a truly gifted student athlete. He had every reason to believe he might make a living in professional sports. He also got an education to have a plan B.

Long before college basketball became a multimillion dollar minor league NBA system, the student athlete was what most people supported. The current one-an-done recruiting philosophy I think will eventually backfire against major programs that exclusively buy into it.

For someone whose worst sport was basketball the kid did OK. On March 20, Webb was inducted into the Indiana High School Hall of Fame and was named a member of the Silver Anniversary team. He credited his high school coach at Indianapolis Lawrence North for having had perhaps the single most important influence on his life at a most crucial time.

One is only left to imagine what might have been his fate if his parents’ had installed artificial turf in their backyard.

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