WASHINGTON — They wanted to be together. A few years ago, these four sensational freshmen had been strangers scattered across North America. Then, in fits and starts, they formed friendships. They shared meals at AAU tournaments in South Carolina or roomed together at USA Basketball camps in Colorado Springs. And then, beginning in the fall of 2017, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson committed—not only to Duke but also to each other.
Any of them would have been the prized recruit for almost any college basketball team. Jones was the Russian nesting doll of his brother Tyus, who had guided Duke to a national championship in 2015. Reddish was the do-everything wing who some thought would wind up the most talented NBA player of the four. Barrett was the consensus No. 1 player in the country. And Williamson was a human highlight reel who would soon exhaust every basketball compliment in the English language. When they played together, they were more than just the collection of their talents. They carried with them the invincibility of youth.
They had good reason to believe in themselves. When all of them were healthy in the regular season, they only lost once—to Gonzaga, by two, on a neutral court. And in the NCAA tournament, back-to-back near-death experiences against UCF and Virginia Tech had only bolstered their belief that they couldn't be beaten. That's why Jones was confident throughout the Michigan State game Sunday, even as the lead changed 16 times, and even as the Spartans' Kenny Goins hit a go-ahead three with 34 seconds left. "I thought we were still gonna win the game," he said, "no matter what."
And that's also why, when the game was over, Jones broke down. With eight seconds left, Duke got the ball with a chance to win or tie. Barrett drove and got fouled. He missed the first of a pair of potentially game-tying free throws and then accidentally made the second. After a quick foul, the Duke bench knew that with just four team fouls on the half and less than five seconds left in the game, there wouldn't be enough time to play catch up. Duke's dream season became steal or bust. And then Michigan State star Cassius Winston cleanly caught the inbound pass at full stride and streaked, untouched, up the court. Winston hurled the ball into the rafters as the victory was finalized: Michigan State 68, Duke 67. At the buzzer, Jones bent down at the waist and put his hands to his face to cover the tears.
Jones was so out of sorts that, later in the locker room, he couldn't recall which teammates had come to console him. But there was never any doubt: It was Reddish and Williamson. They walked back to the locker room and listened, for the final time, to a postgame speech from coach Mike Krzyzewski. He told them he knew it was a bitter end. He told them he was proud of them. He told them that it wouldn't hurt like this forever.
But it was hard for any of them to hear.
"You just look around the locker room and see your teammates, your brothers," Williamson said. "And you think: This group of guys will probably never play together again."
On Friday night, after the win over Virginia Tech, Williamson, Jones and Barrett had all but bounced out of the locker room and down the hall into the press conference. On the way back, they'd been shoulder to shoulder, taking up nearly the entire width of the hallway in the concrete tunnel. But on Sunday night, they were separated. Jones fought back tears from his locker. Williamson walked a few strides ahead of Barrett on the way to the press conference, and, on the way back, they both nodded half-heartedly in response to passersby who congratulated them on a great season.
A dozen reporters were waiting on Williamson's return, and he slipped through them to sit. "I don't think anyone will ever understand our bond," he said. "People were saying we wouldn't do this and we wouldn't do that. I think we exceeded all their expectations. I'm very proud of my brothers. It was a hell of a season. ...Our bond is something you build when you go to war together."
A second group stood around Barrett. "I'm gonna want that ball every time," he told them. "I came up short today, but I'm going to have other opportunities."
As the reporters left Barrett's locker, he sat by himself fiddling with his phone. Junior reserve Justin Robinson—who had already showered and changed into his sweats—sat down next to him, put his hand on his shoulder and whispered to him to pick his head up. "Fuck!" Barrett muttered. "That season was way too quick. It was way too quick."
"No regrets," Robinson responded. "As soon as you leave this locker room, no more sadness."
The locker room had almost cleared out. A reporter asked Williamson to give advice to his young fans, and he told them that they should always keep their heads up and that "every loss might take you to a bigger win." Another asked him to describe Duke's season in one word. He said it was like a movie—only with an ending he didn't like. And then, the only questions left were the ones they asked themselves, the ones that they'll no doubt ask themselves in the weeks, months and years ahead: What could we have done differently? What could have I done differently?
In a few weeks, they'll finish their semester at Duke and go their separate ways to train and prepare for the NBA draft. And then, in June, they'll be sent to separate cities, spread across North America just like they were when they found each other. Back then, they were just kids who didn't fully believe that losses like this would one day come. Now they had that youthful invincibility had left them. They were learning about the inevitability of loss, and about how pain is more bearable when it's shared.
Their lockers were right next to each other—Williamson, then Reddish, then Jones, then Barrett. As the last reporters walked out, they were all still in uniform right next to each other. It would never be like this again, and they knew it. For a few more minutes, they wanted to remain together.