Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY Sports
DURHAM, N.C. – I am not alone because I found love.
Duke freshman Justise Winslow wrote that on his skin with a dry-erase marker, words that he’d later explain represented someone close to him dying. “I always feel him around me,” Winslow told USA TODAY Sports.
The body art exercise was part of Dear World, a portrait project and social experiment created by Robert Fogarty in 2009. He’s written on everyone from Drew Brees to Boston Marathon victims and taken their photographs afterward.
The concept is simple: People write words and phrases on their bodies that mean something to them. Then, they share the stories behind the words.
Fogarty came to Duke to work with the men’s basketball team the weekend of August 23 to facilitate a rather unique team-bonding activity during orientation week. Over the course of two days, Fogarty presented some past portraits and explained the incredible stories behind them, such as that of former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS. It’s the first time Fogarty and Co. have worked with a college sports team; assistant coach Jon Scheyer reached out to him to bring the project here.
“Everyone goes through the same process of sharing something about themselves or about someone they care about,” Fogarty said. “I asked the players to think about their own experiences and what message they may send to people they care about, about things that matter to them. … I asked them to really be specific about – whatever their message happens to be – the story, a personal story about it. That’s what really matters.”
Each Duke player then chose a word or phrase to write on himself. One by one, players walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium’s press room and were photographed. A day later, Fogarty unveiled each portrait to the team in their film room. Each player stood in front of his own portrait and opened up about the story behind it.
With any team, there’s always an emphasis on building relationships off the court that will translate to chemistry on it. That’s especially critical for this Duke team, which features four freshmen trying to integrate themselves seamlessly into a team hoping to compete for a national championship.
The players pointed to Dear World as pivotal step toward that goal.
Jahlil Okafor – the center and crown jewel of Duke’s star-studded freshman class – opened up to his new teammates about the death of his mother, who died of a collapsed lung when he was nine years old.
“Jahlil was talking about his mom,” freshman point guard Tyus Jones said. “It’s not something you just go around talking about and telling everyone.”
Okafor also told his teammates he feels his mother helps him through each day, the “wings” that carry him.
“We’re all brothers,” Okafor said. “Sharing that with them, it wasn’t tough for me.”
Former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS, participated in Dear World project in 2012.
Other players discussed things like cancer or relationships with mothers and sisters, or growing up in a dangerous place where you saw people get killed. Some became emotional.
“People told people things they’ve never told anybody before,” senior guard Quinn Cook said.
Said Fogarty: “Some were more vulnerable than others, but at the same time you could tell they really thought about what they wanted to share with the others. It was cool to be almost a fly on the wall, to be a part of hearing these guys tell stories about their lives.”
The quick forming bonds among Duke’s players jumped out to head coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant Jeff Capel when they returned from USA Basketball’s trip to Spain.
“You’re trying to create a closeness, a brotherhood,” Capel said. “It seems like it’s working right now. This group seems very, very close, very together.”