Life-Changing Hoops

WilmU’s Vern Dupree Jr. finds the essence of basketball while coaching less fortunate kids in Jamaica.

“Basketball,” an anonymous wag once said, “doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”

VERN2Indeed, played the right way, basketball is a team game that calls for cooperation, selflessness and sacrifice, all positive character traits. It requires playing tough defense, setting solid screens, battling for loose balls, and eschewing your 20-foot shot to pass to the teammate who has an open 10-footer.

That’s the way Vernon Dupree Jr. learned to play the game, beginning at a very early age. And he has played it and coached it that way ever since, meanwhile learning to apply those principles to life in general.

Dupree virtually came out of the womb dribbling a basketball. He remembers sleeping with one as a small child, and by the age of 4 he had joined the first of what would be many rec leagues in and around Wilmington.

Now 29 and an assistant coach for the Wilmington University men’s team, Dupree comes by his talent and passion for the game naturally. His father, Vernon Sr., was a high school coach in the Wilmington area, first as an assistant at A. I. duPont High School and then at Wilmington Friends School before becoming head coach at Concord High School. The son joined the father at Concord and quickly became a star and leader of the team. In his sophomore year he made All-Conference, and in both his junior and senior years he was named All-State. Just as important, he was elected Concord’s captain in his final two years.

A 6-2 shooting guard, he not only played the game the right way, he also brought a fierce competitive streak to the court. A clue to that surfaces when he’s asked if he could dunk when he played high school and college ball. “Of course,” Dupree says, sounding mildly offended, then adding, “I still can.”

His skills attracted attention from several schools, and after graduating from Concord in 2005 he accepted a full scholarship to American International College in Springfield, Mass. — the birthplace of basketball. He spent three years there, the last two as a starter, before transferring to WilmU before his senior year in 2008. (“I needed to be closer to home and less distracted,” Dupree says of his decision to transfer.)

At Wilmington, he sat out a red-shirt year, then blazed through his senior season, starting all 26 games and helping the men’s program land its first playoff appearance in the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC). He earned All-Conference honors as well as the Sam Cozen award. Named after the longtime head basketball coach at Drexel University and Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, the award is presented annually to a conference senior for performance on the court and in the classroom.

Typical of his team-first attitude, Dupree adjusted his game in his final year, became more of a playmaker and finished third in the conference in assists. But he scored often enough to be dubbed “Mr. Mid-range” by Mike Gallagher, who was then the WilmU coach.

After graduating in 2010 with a degree in accounting, Dupree joined the University Relations department as a recruiter. He also asked if he could help out with the team, and Gallagher  readily agreed. That launched Dupree’s coaching education. “I immediately realized that there’s a lot more to it than practice and games,” he says. “There’s videotaping, keeping score at the game, doing the laundry, breaking down game films.”

He found that he liked all of it (well, maybe not the laundry part), and he’s been a part-time assistant ever since. Meanwhile, he also entered the master’s program at WilmU, earning his degree in business administration with a concentration in organizational leadership in 2013.

When Dan Burke replaced Gallagher in 2014, he was happy to keep Dupree on his staff. “I knew Vern from when I coached against him (as an assistant at CACC foe Chestnut Hill College),” says Burke, “and he was a really good player, but he was also like a coach on the floor, always a step or two ahead of everyone else. You could tell he was a coach’s son.”

Dupree is now Burke’s top assistant, with duties that include scouting, recruiting, in-practice coaching and in-game adjustments.

“Above all else,” says Burke, “Vern is trustworthy and loyal. He always has the welfare of the program in mind in everything he does. That’s the biggest thing you can say about an assistant. And he’s one of the most trustworthy people I’ve ever met. I would have full confidence in him if he ever had to take over the team during a game.”

While Dupree has spent thousands of hours playing or coaching basketball, it wasn’t until two years ago that he experienced the life-changing impact the sport can have. It happened in Jamaica, a vacation paradise in the Caribbean noted for its crystal clear water, white sandy beaches, music (reggae, ska, dancehall) and distinctive food. But Dupree didn’t go there to vacation. He went as a volunteer coach at the Treasure Beach Basketball Camp. Although it lasts just five days in August, the camp, sponsored by the Philadelphia Mans (sic) Basketball League, is the highlight of the year for many Jamaican youngsters. Hundreds of the underserved and underprivileged rural youths (ages 5–18) flock to the camp to participate in individual and group clinics, shooting and skills competitions, team practices and games. The coaches and camp counselors, all unpaid, include current NCAA coaches, former Division 1 NCAA basketball players and current Philadelphia high school coaches.

Vern 4

Dupree learned of the camp in 2013 through Harrison Singer, a former WilmU assistant now at Haverford College. He quickly got caught up in the spirit of the project, and became  involved in fundraising for the camp, which provides sneakers, socks, shorts, basketballs and three meals a day for campers. The coaches and counselors cover their own travel, lodging and meals. While the camp lasts only five days, the coaches and counselors are there for eight days in order to set up the courts and other facilities.

His first camp was full of surprises for Dupree — all of them pleasant. It began with  the bus ride from the airport — a two-hour trip through mountains, ending at Treasure Beach, which is among the island’s poorest sections. As the bus pulled into the parking area, Dupree gained a sense of what the camp meant to the kids.

“The second they see the bus,” he says, “they run up to it, yelling ‘yeah, coach!’ — they’re just so thankful for having us there. A lot of them walk miles to get to the camp.”

Now a veteran of two camps, Dupree says both have been “amazing.”

“Almost everything in my life has been due to basketball,” he says, “and this was a way to give back to the game. At Treasure Beach, we’re able to use the sport to change lives, teach teamwork, ways to help each other.”

Dupree says the Jamaican kids displayed “love, respect and passion” for the game unlike anything he had ever seen. “The day starts at 7:30, and when we got to camp there would already be kids on the court practicing what we had taught them the day before,” he says. “It was amazing.”

Throughout the five days, campers and coaches alike would shout “One Team, One Dream” — the camp motto.

Vern 5Dupree says he made a point of getting to know as much as possible about the Jamaican culture, and he especially enjoys the end-of-camp celebration. “It’s a huge community thing on Friday night,  under the lights. They bring out the grills and cook jerked chicken and all types of Jamaican food, and of course there’s music. Then the older guys get together and play basketball for hours.”

He notes that there were never any conflicts or arguments among coaches and counselors — except during their staff games. “That’s when the competitive gene kicks in,” he says. In fact, he was injured during one game and wasn’t able to play on the last night.

“But the second we take off our sneakers, all of that competitiveness disappears, and we get along great.”

The coaches are continuing to upgrade camp facilities. They’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars, enabling them to add bleachers and, this past year, a weight room.

All in all, says Dupree, “It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.”

Says Dan Burke: “It speaks to the kind of person Vern is, to take time out of his summer to volunteer for the camp.”

Dupree’s full-time job as a recruiter for the university is one that he also excels in, according to Robert Miller, director of recruiting. “Vern is very outgoing; he can talk to anyone — students, parents, administrators. And having been a student-athlete here, he knows the ins and outs of the university, and he can relate to those who perhaps want to participate in sports or other activities.”

Dupree says his goal is to become a full-time coach on the college level. To help guide him on that quest, he often refers to a quotation he first posted on his Facebook profile when he was a college freshman. It’s from that noted hoops expert, Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

So far, Vernon Dupree Jr. seems to be in the habit of pursuing excellence. WU