Born into a basketball bloodline, Mason Plumlee — the second of three nearly 7-foot Plumlee brothers to play at Duke — might have seemed destined for great things on the court.
His parents, Leslie and Perky Plumlee, both played college basketball, Leslie at Purdue, Perky at Tennessee Tech. They met as counselors at a Purdue basketball camp.
They reacquainted in their 20s at a summer tournament in Indianapolis, after Leslie, a 6-foot-1 forward who once grabbed 25 rebounds in a Purdue game, still a record, fouled out of a game. She sat on the bench right in front of Perky, a 6-foot-7 forward known for his leaping ability, who was awaiting the start of his game.
Theirs was a genetic match meant to bear future post players. That was all but confirmed shortly after their first son, Miles, was born at 11 pounds and 23 inches long. The nurse taking hand and footprints found his feet were too long for the ink pad. She had to dab them twice.
Same thing happened with Mason Plumlee, who came along 18 months later. He was born two weeks early, blessedly by Caesarean section, and still weighed 10 pounds, 14 ounces.
“I think the first time you’re completely naive,” said Leslie, laughing. “The second time you’re thinking, ‘What have I done?’”
But pedigree is only one facet of what made Mason Plumlee a dominant force in college basketball this season and a key for the Blue Devils heading into the NCAA tournament.
The fact that he was in a position to go to Duke, thrived while playing there with his brothers, Miles, a recent graduate, and Marshall, a redshirt freshman, and returned for a trip back to the NCAA tournament is evidence of something else his parents passed down — some wisdom to use along the way.
“Decisions are what you make them,” is one of his father’s favorite philosophies.
“There’s a scripture that we used to share with the boys, we still talk about it, because there are times we don’t know, ‘Where is this going?’” said Perky Plumlee, who goes by a play on his middle name Percy by three older sisters. “And it’s that ‘The steps of a good and righteous man are ordered of the Lord.’ We would always remind the boys, ‘God is directing your steps. You do the right thing and move forward, and he’ll direct your steps.’”
A year ago, the right thing to Plumlee felt like forgoing the NBA draft as a junior.
Duke, a No. 2 seed, had just been knocked out in the round of 64 by 15th-seeded Lehigh. Plumlee had 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, while going 9-for-9 from the floor with an array of acrobatic dunks. But Duke was overmatched on the perimeter, where C.J. McCollum rolled up 30 points, and in leadership.
The chance to fill that void is the case that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made to Plumlee a week after the Lehigh loss. The goals he laid out in that conversation won out over draft projections which had Plumlee going late in the first round, near where his brother, Miles, was taken by Indiana (26th overall).
“How last season ended had a lot to do with it,” Plumlee said of returning. “If there would have been a better ending, I think it would have been a different result. But I’m glad I’m back for sure.”
What has Plumlee made of that decision? A first-team All-ACC season. He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds, both of which ranked second in the ACC. He’s a leader Duke was missing, along with fellow senior captains Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly.
This time around, he gives the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils reason to expect much more against No. 15-seed Albany, in their opening-round matchup Friday in Philadelphia.
Duke last won a national championship in 2010, Plumlee’s freshman season, as a perimeter-oriented team with Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Now the ball goes through Plumlee.
“He’s followed through with everything that he wanted to do as far as making a huge commitment to not just improving himself, but to be a leader for our team,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, he’s been one of the truly best players in the country.”
In some ways, Duke’s early exit last year made the decision for Plumlee. But his response mattered more. The same can be said for a decision that helped get Plumlee to Duke in the first place.
After ninth grade at Warsaw (Ind.) High School, his parents decided to send Miles and him to boarding school at Christ School in Arden, N.C., 600 miles from home.
Both were receiving Division I attention, but had played only about 13 minutes per game at Warsaw.
“If you’re beating me every day in practice, you know it and I know it,” Perky explained. “And on Friday night, I go out and play and you have to watch me — you can tolerate that for a while but …”
In Indiana, players have to sit out a year if they transfer for athletic reasons. The Plumlees didn’t try to hide that fact, but to the dismay of many in their hometown, pop. 13,500, went outside the state to a school Perky first saw on a billboard in the Asheville, N.C., airport while traveling on business.
“There were all sorts of letters to the editor, ‘What kind of parents are these?’ and a lot of the criticism was levied at me, just because I’m the dad,” Perky said. “It hurt at first. I remember when we dropped them off at Christ School, we were wiping away tears all the way back across the mountains. I look back now, and I almost chuckle. I can’t believe that we were so torn up about that.”
Mason was reluctant at first, but following his brother’s lead, he adjusted. He played on three state championship teams, going 99-8, became a McDonald’s All-American and a top Duke recruit.
“There’re only 200 students and it’s all boys, so I wasn’t ecstatic about it,” Plumlee said. “But once I got down there on campus, I couldn’t have been happier with the decision.”
Mason was the first Plumlee recruited at Duke. Miles had signed with Stanford, but when Stanford coach Trent Johnson left for LSU, Miles opted out. Krzyzewski went to Mason to ask if he was OK with Duke signing Miles.
Growing up, driveway 1-on-1 basketball between Plumlee brothers ended in many a kicked ball. A tussle for the remote could end in blows. Miles has staple scars on his head because some stairs got in the way of a wrestling match.
These are two brothers who were about the same height, playing the same position, and had to beat each other out for playing time at times at Christ School. But Mason’s answer for Coach K was “of course.”
“At the end of the day we’d rather be with each other than apart,” Mason said. “We are family, but we’re friends also.”
Mason and Miles came off the bench on Duke’s 2010 national championship team. Three years later, Mason has a chance at one with Marshall coming off the bench. That would really make his decision.
“I had an idea of how I wanted to leave Duke,” Plumlee said. Which was? “Winning.”