This Junior College Basketball Star Was Discovered at a Pickup Game

Arthur Dukes Jr. played in pickup basketball games whenever he could, which is why he showed up for an open-gym session at Public School 92 in Harlem one evening last year. At 21, he was living at home in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents and seven siblings while working as a security guard at a shoe store.

His college ball aspirations had fizzled, and he was taking a break from school altogether after failing to make a go of it at three different institutions.

That night, however, he was approached by Paris Underwood, a local teacher who saw that he had raw talent. “Give that number a call,” Mr. Underwood told him, as he handed him a business card.

On it was the name of Jarrett Lockhart, head coach of the men’s basketball team at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens.

One year later, Mr. Dukes is captain of LaGuardia’s team and the leading scorer among all players in Division III of the National Junior College Athletic Association. He’s averaging 31.2 points per game for the regular season, which ends this weekend.

“I have always known that basketball was going to be my only ticket out,” said Mr. Dukes, now 22.

In his first game for LaGuardia, against Borough of Manhattan Community College, Mr. Dukes scored 27 points. He had 50 points when his team lost in a 97-93 heartbreaker to Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. That was one of two games in which Mr. Dukes, a point guard, has scored 50 points. “Pretty quickly I realized, OK, this is your go-to guy,” Mr. Lockhart said. “He’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever coached.”

The season has not been perfect for the Red Hawks of LaGuardia Community College, a part of the City University of New York system.

Despite Mr. Dukes’s efforts, LaGuardia’s record is four wins and 17 losses, a reflection of the challenges faced by Division III “JUCO” programs — essentially the lowest level of competitive college sports. They are not allowed to provide athletic scholarships and comprise players juggling classes, jobs, housing costs and family responsibilities.

But the season has nonetheless been a triumph for a school that for years did not have a basketball team and for a player who thought his college dreams had been dashed by the coronavirus pandemic, an addiction to over-the-counter pills and the grind of financial stress. For a brief period in the middle of the season, Mr. Dukes and his girlfriend found themselves evicted from a room she was renting and ended up in rent-by-the night rooms that lacked heat and basic amenities.

Now Mr. Dukes, who after this season will have two more years of college-playing eligibility, is being recruited by Division II universities that could provide him with scholarships and a path to a four-year college degree, his coach said.

Andy Walker, LaGuardia’s director of athletics and recreation, a former N.B.A. player and Division I head coach, said Mr. Dukes’s success points to the opportunities that athletics can provide. “Here is a young man who is rising from the ashes and having his unrecognized talent come to the surface,” he said.

“This is the promise of community college,” Mr. Walker continued. “It gives you a fresh start to reimagine your future and create your new narrative.”

Mr. Dukes showed a talent for basketball from a young age, said his father, Arthur Dukes Sr., who took young Arthur and his siblings jogging in Riverbank State Park and to community courts and gyms. “I just wanted him to be able to take a banging and get back up, because he’s small,” he said. (The younger Mr. Dukes is about 5-foot-9. “Plays much bigger than his height,” Mr. Lockhart said.)

For four years, before he found LaGuardia, the younger Mr. Dukes did whatever he could to be connected to basketball, but it was a series of false starts. In 2019, he graduated from Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, a high school in Harlem, and was recruited to play basketball at Mohawk Valley Community College, in Utica. He did not get much playing time, and the school year was interrupted by the pandemic. Mr. Dukes returned home.

He transferred to the University of Kansas, intending to try out as a walk-on for the school’s basketball team, which is highly ranked in the N.C.A.A.’s Division I — a long shot for Mr. Dukes even under the best conditions. With financial aid, he enrolled and traveled the farthest he had ever from New York. On the taxi ride from the airport to the dorm, the driver accused him of trying to steal money and called the police, Mr. Dukes said. “The cops were gentlemen, and actually helped me,” he said, but it was an inauspicious introduction to his new community. When he learned that because of the pandemic the basketball team would not be holding walk-on tryouts after all, Mr. Dukes left after a semester.

As he struggled with anxiety over his future, he began taking Benadryl to help him sleep. Living back at home, he got a job working security at Foot Locker. His dependence on the drug deepened — he was taking about a dozen pills a night, he said — and then a friend gave him Percocet to try.

“Arthur came to us and he sat at the foot of the bed and said, ‘I have a problem,’” said his mother, Shawnise Dukes. They found a treatment facility to help him get clean.

He enrolled at Monroe College in the Bronx and tried out for the basketball team. He did not make it but became a team manager, washing uniforms and loading buses with equipment. “Anything I could do to be around basketball,” he said.

That feeling drove Mr. Dukes to play pickup ball whenever he could, including the night when he was handed a business card for the LaGuardia team coach. “It has been a while since I had an opportunity knock on my door,” he said. “I had gotten used to people just kind of running over me.”

Mr. Dukes needed someone to give him a chance at the very same time that Mr. Lockhart was focused on recreating a basketball program.

In 2016, LaGuardia had closed down its athletic program after a fight among students became a disruption, a school spokesman said.

But at a community college like LaGuardia — where 88 percent of the student body is Hispanic, Black or Asian and 99 percent receives financial aid — keeping students engaged with campus life increases the likelihood that they will graduate with an associate degree, said LaGuardia’s president, Kenneth Adams.

When administrators decided to bring back a handful of teams, they hired Mr. Lockhart. He quickly tried to find at least five men who met the league requirements that athletes be full-time students with a 2.0 grade point average. In 2022-23, the coach’s first season, the team won one game.

When Mr. Lockhart connected with Mr. Dukes, things began to look up for both men. They worked on dribbling drills and mental tools to help Mr. Dukes “embrace the contact,” he said, while moving the ball and shooting. They discussed strategy, statistics and other players’ techniques. “We have spent hours in the gym, just the two of us,” Mr. Dukes said.

His exuberant play, Mr. Dukes said, is mostly a testament to Mr. Lockhart, who helped him unlock and supercharge his skills.

“It was the love and care from the right coach,” he said.

Last fall, when Mr. Dukes and his girlfriend were evicted from her place and spent about a dozen nights in S.R.O. hotels, Mr. Dukes finally turned to his coach.

“I put my dad hat on and said: ‘We have to get you situated. Basketball is secondary,’” Mr. Lockhart said. He reached out to LaGuardia Cares, the school’s office that helps meet students’ basic needs, including housing and food insecurity. Its director found the young couple an apartment in the Bronx.

This week, the Red Hawks played Dutchess Community College, ranked 11th in the nation in Division III. When LaGuardia faced Dutchess in November, they lost 95-43, with Mr. Dukes scoring 15 points. (“I am human,” he said, explaining his lower-scoring games.)

On Thursday afternoon, the team piled into a minibus to make the two-hour trip to Poughkeepsie for the game. Mr. Dukes listened to his favorite hype song, “He Has His Hands on You,” by the gospel singer Marvin Sapp.

Shortly after 8 p.m., about 50 Dutchess boosters filed into the stands. On the bench, the home team’s players hooted and chanted “DE-FENSE!” whenever Mr. Dukes and his teammates tried to drive to the basket.

Dutchess worked hard to guard and block Mr. Dukes, who used his height to his advantage, crouching as he dribbled and pivoted, weaving between defensive players as he made his way toward the hoop.

Though LaGuardia was ahead early in the first half, and cut a 9-point deficit to tie the game in the second, the team lost, 63-42. Mr. Dukes, who was on court the entire 40 minutes of playing time, scored 20 points.

Back in the locker room, the mood was only momentarily glum. It was, after all, a much closer game than when they played Dutchess earlier in the season. And they were playing college basketball — working as a unit, passing, hustling and leaving behind life’s worries, if only for a short while.

“I can’t really be upset,” Mr. Dukes said as Mr. Lockhart put his arm around him. “I’m just blessed to be here.”

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