Reporting from Berkeley — It hardly seemed fair when, on top of everything else, Jamal Boykin got sick.
So much of his life had pointed toward playing basketball for Duke, and now that he had made it, entering his sophomore season, Boykin should have been living a dream.
Except the Blue Devils had a roster full of proven veterans and blue-chip prospects on the way, barely enough room for a young forward from Los Angeles who relied mainly on ambition and grit.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski sat him down to discuss his role on the team.
"Coach K was very good at putting people into roles," Boykin recalled. "He saw me as the guy who cheers from the bench."
That's when the mononucleosis struck. The swollen glands, the lethargy. Boykin was sent home, relegated to lying on the couch and watching television.
"It was almost as if his spirit had been broken," his mother said.
Not fair. But maybe the best thing that could have happened to him.
Heart and soul
Keep an eye on Boykin when he takes the court for California against USC at Haas Pavilion tonight. Watch the way he plays defense and scraps for rebounds.
The Trojans' coach, Kevin O'Neill, has a good idea of what you will see.
"He's the heart and soul of their team," O'Neill said.
Boykin's maturation as a player -- and a person -- began during a rough year in elementary school when he devoted too much attention to basketball, and not enough to homework.
That didn't fly in a household where his father sold Internet services and his mother was a teacher, and all four kids were expected to attend college.
"I took it personally," Boykin said. "I decided that I wanted to go to the best academic and basketball school I could find."
Duke fit the description. In the years that followed, he worked harder at school, with occasional prodding from his parents, and continued to hone his basketball skills.
Though never a flashy player, Boykin averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds as a senior at Fairfax High, earning California player of the year honors. Recruiters came around from just about every major program -- except Duke.
It didn't matter. Boykin sent videotapes to Krzyzewski and told everyone the Blue Devils were his first choice. When they finally came through with a scholarship offer, he accepted over the phone, no visit required.
"I feel like I willed my way there," he said.
But making the team and getting on the court were two different matters.
Easy to rationalize
In the fall of 2005, the Blue Devils already had a star in J.J. Redick, not to mention a talented frontcourt anchored by Shelden Williams and Josh McRoberts.
After spending most of his freshman season on the bench, Boykin glanced at a new batch of recruits headed for Durham and suspected his status might not improve, which led to that meeting with Krzyzewski.
"I really respect Coach K," Boykin said. "We talked about it."
They talked about Boykin contributing as a practice player while earning his degree. Krzyzewski offered to help with a summer internship. Also, life was good at hoops-crazy Duke, where even backups get treated like celebrities.
Boykin did not have to stretch far to rationalize: "As a child, you dream and sometimes you're delusional about things, not realistic."
So he accepted his lot and was planning to stay at Duke when he fell ill a few weeks later. Back home, his parents noticed a change that reached beyond the mononucleosis.
"What I observed was a lack of joy," Mary Boykin said. "I don't like that in a child. Sometimes when it occurs in one area, it can also occur in another."
It was time for another talk.
Boyhood dreams -- even faded ones -- don't die easily. When Ruben and Mary asked their son to consider transferring, he resisted.
"Duke was all I could see," he said.
But weeks of recuperation left time for watching college basketball on television, including Pac-10 games populated by former high school rivals.
Boykin realized he was talented enough to play Division I ball -- if not at Duke, then somewhere else. He began to appreciate his parents' concern.
"Once you become realistic," he said, "life is less fun."
Cal offered a second chance in the winter of 2007 -- the Golden Bears had recruited Boykin years earlier -- and landed a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward who quickly became an integral part of the program.
"He does everything, all the dirty work," UCLA guard Michael Roll said. "Always diving for loose balls, trying to take a charge."
That's what O'Neill means by "heart and soul."
Even better, a sense of joy has returned to Boykin's life, the youthful exuberance that carried him to Duke and ultimately helped him find a way back.
"The balance and the perspective I have," he said, "it's great."
This season, as a senior, he is averaging 11 points and nearly seven rebounds, a rugged complement to scorers Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson.
"If he was getting as many touches as us," Christopher asked, "who's to say he wouldn't be the leading scorer?"
So when USC faces Cal tonight, watch No. 10 for the Golden Bears. See the way he hustles every second on the court.
"Whether I'm scoring or not, I won't go unnoticed," Boykin said. "People will know I'm there."
They will be watching how one dream died, only to be replaced by another.