Sam Dekker's legend keeps growing

MADISON, Wis. -- Sam Dekker has connections.

The Wisconsin standout shoots texts to his buddy Aaron from the dinner table in his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Aaron (Rodgers) plays for the Packers. Maybe you've heard of him.

"You'll hear Sam say, 'I'm just texting with Aaron right now,'" said John Dekker, the junior forward's older brother. "He doesn't tell us what they're texting about. It's crazy when probably the best NFL player is texting your brother. Sam plays it cool."

When he wanted to mingle on the dating scene a few months back, he called matchmaker and friend Spike Albrecht -- yeah, the one who tweeted at Kate Upton -- and the Michigan guard hooked him up with a friend.

He took selfies with Oklahoma's Buddy Hield over the summer. He bonded with Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin at an AAU event a few years ago. They clicked over their collective affinity for alternative and rap music. Now they're pals.

"Genuine, good dude," Goodwin said. "He's someone you rarely catch in a bad mood. He's an all-around positive guy. Always positive, always in the gym. I'm not just saying that just for this interview."

Everybody loves Sam.

And why not? The 6-foot-9 Wisconsin forward and NBA prospect has that easygoing, your-favorite-friend-from-elementary-school kind of vibe. He'll bob his head to country music and then tweet about the new Rick Ross album. He's diverse like that. And he's funny, even when he's not trying to be.

Carol Dekker, his mother, can't keep a straight face around him.

He punched a ball that accidentally hit teammate Nigel Hayes in the head as he celebrated a win over Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, a moment that earned a "Not Top 10" slot on SportsCenter.

"I still haven't forgiven him for that," Hayes said. "I'm gonna get him back one of these games. Hopefully the cameras are still rolling."

In Sheboygan, he's more of a hero than a celebrity.

His parents and brother still live there. He's certain he'll eventually join them, once his basketball career ends.

He had a "Leave It to Beaver" childhood in a house that rests near the oft-chilly shores of Lake Michigan. He writes the "920" area code on his game shoes to show his tie to the community of 51,000 in a state that's connected through locality, cheap beer and the Packers.

Last year's Final Four run increased Wisconsin's popularity, both locally and nationally. But Sheboygan -- and the rest of the state -- knew all about Dekker before that memorable run to Dallas. They were there in the beginning.

"I think I took it for granted a lot growing up, but now looking back, now that I don't get to go home as much, you realize how much your hometown means to you," Dekker said. "Friendships you made and people I know back home. I take a lot of pride being from Sheboygan, so I always try to put them on the map or shout them out."


That spot. The one right there in the corner of the Kohl Center floor. That's where Dekker hit the shot.

In early December, Dekker reenacts the moment that etched his name into the granite of Wisconsin prep basketball history. One incredible rally that sealed the 2012 Division 5 state title for Sheboygan Area Lutheran High School changed his life.

He chuckles as he stands on the edge of the arc in the empty Kohl Center. He pretends to dodge the two Racine Lutheran defenders who weren't aware they were trying to swat fate as they rushed toward him on that final shot. He jogs along the sideline and raises his arms. He points to the stands that held thousands of supporters who drove two-plus hours to see it live.

"People were calling it the best shot in state history, but I kind of look at it like I look at everything: not too much emphasis," Dekker said. "I expected it to happen."

The folks in Sheboygan know exactly where they were and whom they tackled and how they danced when Dekker scored 12 of his 40 points in the last 50 seconds of that title game, a barrage that included the game-winning 3-pointer in the comeback win.

As it fell, John Dekker broke through the postgame melee and grabbed his little brother. Mom pushed past the chaos for an embrace too. Todd Dekker, who coached his sons in high school, jumped on the sideline in what became known as the "Dekker Dance." Local businessman Tryg Jacobson, who made a documentary about Dekker that's been viewed on YouTube nearly 30,000 times, kept filming. Principal Al Holzheimer held a rope that was supposed to keep fans in their seats.

But a metal fence wouldn't have stopped a city from spilling onto that floor.

"I think the coolest thing was that his last shot made as a high school player is at the place he's starting his college career," his sister, Hannah Dekker, said.

It was the first time Sheboygan Area Lutheran, a yellow block of a school positioned near the end of a skinny, tongue-shaped road, had won a state title. The late-game drama made Dekker a viral hit.

But that journey began with pain. Dekker was everyone's little brother, a scrawny kid who got pushed around -- all in good fun -- by his older brother, who played for Division III Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and his friends.

There was "Tackle Sam," a game that involved Dekker running with a football through a gauntlet of older boys. There was "Punt it off to Sam," which was essentially the same thing, except John Dekker and his pals kicked the ball to him. Oh, and "Sam at the Goal Line" -- you see where this is going -- always got physical.

Carol Dekker warned her youngest son about the damage he'd incur if he played with kids so much bigger and stronger than he. He never listened.

"He would get knocked around," John Dekker said. "He'd cry, go inside for 10 minutes and come back out."

Dekker was young when those around him noticed a competitive edge he couldn't silence. Behind the lighthearted demeanor is a dude who hates anything that impedes his path to victory. He's motivated -- not daunted -- by pressure.

"I think that's kind of what's driven me to this point," Dekker said. "I want to impress not only people; I want to impress myself the most."

He's bitter when he fails to do that.

He lost a meaningless game during his junior season of high school, and he was furious about it. Todd Dekker couldn't understand his anger. When Wisconsin lost to Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten tournament, the seniors on that team took it hard. Dekker -- who was just a freshman -- felt like he'd let the veterans down. He sobbed in the corner of the locker room as the other youngsters sat near their stalls.

"His desire to improve is so big," Todd Dekker said. "Hoop was morning, noon and night for him."

That passion built Dekker into an elite small forward who'll be your best friend after the game but dunk on you and your mother -- if she gets in the way -- on the court. Collegiate coaches noticed the edgy talent's growth early in his career.

He attended a Wisconsin basketball camp as a sophomore in high school. It didn't take long for Bo Ryan to slide next to Todd Dekker and offer his son a scholarship.

"It was the feel for the game, the way he moved," Ryan said. "He liked to compete. It was a no-brainer."


Kids don't stay home anymore.

Within the 2012 recruiting class, Dekker (No. 17 per RecruitingNation) was among nine top-30 recruits who picked colleges in their home states. The other 21 left home.

Sure, Dekker committed early, but a verbal commitment doesn't mean much in today's shifty recruiting climate. His decision to play at Wisconsin magnified his star power locally. The hype, the shot, the decision all birthed the grand buzz that preceded Dekker's return to the Kohl Center.

When Wisconsin reached the Final Four last season, Sheboygan's elementary schools sent banners and cards. People called. They texted. They congratulated him via Twitter and Facebook.

When Kentucky beat Wisconsin on Aaron Harrison's miracle 3-pointer that sailed over Josh Gasser's fingertips, they mourned with him.

"We didn't go to the game the night Kentucky played in the final," Carol Dekker said. "We were all still at the hotel in Dallas. ... We couldn't go."

That loss still bugs him.

He'd been cracking jokes and laughing all afternoon. He'd been loose in a conversation with a reporter until that game came up. He looked ahead. He bit his lower lip.

"I wasn't mad he hit that shot," Dekker said. "I don't even know if I was mad we lost. I was just ... I don't know. I wanted to win the whole thing so bad that I just couldn't believe we lost."

Dekker is averaging 12.1 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game and 1.2 assists per game while shooting 51 percent from the field for the 12-1 Badgers. He's No. 43 in overall efficiency (among players used on a minimum of 24 percent of possessions) by Ken Pomeroy. He's a legit first-round prospect in next summer's NBA draft. LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- who both played Dekker one-on-one -- praised his performances throughout their offseason skills camps.

"You can learn so much from those guys watching them because they're so good," Dekker said. "It really helped my confidence."

A bad ankle has hindered his performance all season. He's missed practices and key stretches in big games, including a chunk of the second half in his team's loss to Duke.

But he doesn't make excuses. Dekker still wants to prove a point. The Final Four wasn't enough. He chose another season over the NBA because he knew the Badgers had another run in them. Frank Kaminsky could win the Wooden Award. Hayes is one of the most improved players in the country. Wisconsin's supporting cast is strong. And Dekker is a pro.

Not a bad mix.

"I think the way it ended [last year] made me want to come back 100 percent," Dekker said. "Just having a taste of it and feeling where we could get and the guys we had coming back and talking to my teammates. We wanted to do something different and special, and we were so close last year. Knowing we had the same crew coming back made me want to do it again and get another chance at that. All in all, I just wanted to get back and win a title."

Sheboygan will be proud of him, regardless of what happens in March and, perhaps, April.

"I think that's what he takes real pride in -- being a local kid and sticking around," John Dekker said. "A lot of recruits leave the state, and I think it's a big point to Sam that he stayed around and kind of helped put Wisconsin basketball back on the map the last few years."

This season, Dekker just wants to make the 920 -- and beyond -- smile.