On a Friday night two Octobers ago, fans flocked to Cameron Indoor Stadium for the fourth annual Countdown to Craziness. In the locker room, the players suited up for the opening-season bluewhite scrimmage. Meanwhile, Ryan Kelly traveled through a hallway in the stadium’s recesses, towing an ice chest heavy with Gatorade and water. But as he moved to switch hands, he lost hold of the handle. In one swift motion, the chest slipped to the floor, spilling ice and liquid everywhere. Kelly froze, mortified at the mess he had made.
Just then, who should waltz into the hall but head coach Mike Krzyzewski. I’m going to get fired, Kelly thought. He had fouled out of his new job before even taking a fair shot.
To his surprise, Coach K just shook his head and said with a forgiving laugh, “Must have been a freshman.”
That forgiven fumble was Kelly’s first trial as a student manager for the men’s basketball team. Now a junior, he vividly remembers it, as though Coach K’s grace motivated him to be even more meticulous. “Managers are not supposed to make mistakes in any aspect,” he says resolutely.
At a recent practice in the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center, Kelly keeps a white towel slung over his shoulder and a Nike basketball crooked in his elbow. Everywhere at once, yet somehow inconspicuous, he sweeps the court’s periphery with a quiet pride and professionalism, even when mopping up sweat. One moment he’s holding vigil at half court, hazel eyes trained on the coaches; the next he’s in the corner of the gym, fetching a piece of gear; then he’s beneath the basket, rebounding a misfire.
This practice, like most other team activities, is covered in Kelly’s invisible fingerprints. Between motions, the players slake their thirst with water and Gatorade that he poured into paper cups; their motions are captured by video and statistics software that he calibrated. Closer to the game than a fan but not as central as a player, Kelly occupies a critical intermediary position. He watches the players with admiration, yet he also has card access to all the same doors as the players and coaches.
“The managers set the tone for our program with their work ethic and attention to detail,” says Dave Bradley, director of operations for men’s basketball. “When they are doing their job really well, you won’t notice them, because the stats will be perfect, the courts will be set up before practice, our bus and plane will be packed efficiently, and our equipment will be organized.”
Women’s basketball, football, and some of Duke’s Olympic sports have crews of student managers like Kelly. While the other teams pay their managers, men’s basketball managers are unpaid because so many students want to do it. Each year, as many as 100 students apply to be a manager in Coach K’s “classroom,” according to Bradley. Of these, only two or three are hired—tougher odds than getting into Duke itself.
Kelly claims his blood turned blue when he was three years old. He grew up in Westfield, Massachusetts—coincidentally, only twelve miles from the birthplace of basketball—and watched Duke on television with his dad, dreaming he might one day play guard for Krzyzewski. He spent much of high school on courts and fields, playing basketball, football, volleyball, and lacrosse. By the time he applied early decision to Duke, he understood he wasn’t cut out for Division I hoops. But if he couldn’t be a guard, at least he could be among them.
The day of his interview, he was led to the sixth floor of the basketball offices. About a dozen current team managers and Bradley sat on one side of a long oval table in a conference room. Kelly sat on the opposite side of the table, fielding questions about why he wanted to do this job.
“It’s a job that I really, really wanted,” he recalls. When he found out he’d made the cut, he was “beyond excited.” He called his dad—his role model besides Coach K—to tell him the news.
Now in his third year as a manager, Kelly is a psychology major and premedical student. After watching physical therapists rehabilitate Duke players, he plans to pursue sports medicine and help other athletes get back on their feet.
Kelly says it can be stressful to work for such a storied team. If, at an away game, a player finds a hole in one of his shoes, Kelly must be ready with a backup pair. In order for the coaches and trainers to make efficient use of practice time, Kelly must arrange all the equipment beforehand and be ready at any moment to pass them a ball. like a great player performing under pressure, he maintains precision and composure, making self-effacing assists on behalf of the greater game. “The athlete in me always kicks in at that point,” he says.
The bench, while not traditionally glorious, is incidentally Kelly’s favorite place to be. During games, he sits beside the team, jotting down deflections on a clipboard; during timeouts, he leans into the huddle. In those moments, when he’s surrounded by greatness, all the sweat-wiping and equipment-carrying dissolves.
“Being able to be there, hear Coach, and be around the players— to just feel like I’m a part of the team,” he says, “that’s enough of a reward for me.”