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Closer to God: Providence's Kris Dunn Has a March Legend on His Side

Streetball legend God Shammgod led Providence to its best NCAA tournament run in a generation. Now he's getting Kris Dunn ready for another March surge, and the NBA.

by Tim Casey
Mar 16 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

On Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the NCAA tournament bracket was announced, Providence College guard Kris Dunn worked out with God Shammgod. If that sentence looks remarkable in any way, it's because of Shammgod, who became a basketball legend despite playing in just 20 NBA games nearly two decades ago. In every other way, though, it's normal: the greatest Providence playmakers of their respective eras do this all the time.

Shammgod, who keyed Providence's last March run as a dynamic point guard, is now a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater. He's also a driving force behind Dunn's development into an All-American and likely top-10 selection in June's NBA Draft. Both are iconic figures in the Big East program; they're also something like co-workers, and have become close friends.

Read More: Ryan Arcidiacono Wants To Make His Final Tourney Run Last All March

Sometimes, the two play one-on-one. It is then that Dunn realizes why his coach has a dribbling move named after him—it's literally called The Shammgod—and why current and former NBA stars genuflect at the mention of his name. "I don't think he lost his dribbling," Dunn told VICE Sports. "He's a phenomenal dribbler. He could be 60 and probably dribble like that."

Shammgod doesn't disagree. He spent hours every day as a kid at New York playgrounds working on his dribbling routine to the point where it became second nature. "I still can dribble better than everybody I train," Shammgod told VICE Sports. "It's just like riding a bike now."

Even Dunn, a two-time Big East defensive player of the year, has trouble guarding Shammgod, who has put on a few pounds since his rail-thin playing days. "I don't think I ever stole the ball," Dunn said. "He's kind of thick. He just nudges me off. That's a big dude."

His God is an awesome God. Photo by William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

After four years of grueling training sessions and shared off-court laughs, the two have bonded over their common interests and similar backgrounds. In 2012, Dunn became the first McDonald's high school All-American to enroll at Providence since Shammgod arrived 17 years earlier. Shammgod, who grew up in Brooklyn and Harlem and played at La Salle Academy in Manhattan, was a household name before he even set foot on Providence's campus. Dunn arrived as a heavily hyped kid from New London, Connecticut, which is around an hour from Providence.

Shammgod was there as Dunn recovered from two shoulder surgeries, which limited his game as a freshman and forced him to redshirt as a sophomore. Dunn returned to full strength last season and was even better than advertised, sharing the Big East player of the year award with Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono and emerging as a sure NBA first-round pick. He passed on the draft, came back to school for his senior season, and repeated as the conference's top player despite playing through a lingering illness in February. Draft-wise, it was a bet on himself, and a successful one—Dunn raised his stock even higher. But it was also Dunn taking advantage of the chance to spend another year working with a legendary point guard.

Shammgod has helped in other ways, too. He has asked friends from the game—including Chauncey Billups, who has been Shammgod's buddy since the two were McDonald's All-American teammates in 1995—to speak with Dunn and give him advice about basketball and its accompanying pressures. "He's been through situations—college, the NBA," Dunn said. "He's a people person. He knows how to interact with the guys. He's really cool. He just knows how to interact with us. He doesn't talk to us like he's a coach. He talks to us like a mentor, a brother. That's why the relationship is so close."

So far, Dunn has accomplished more on an individual level than Shammgod did during his two years at Providence. Dunn, a versatile 6'4'' guard who can score, pass, rebound, and defend, is also a better NBA prospect than Shammgod, who was barely six feet, never quite developed a reliable jump shot, and didn't get drafted until the second round in 1997. Shammgod still built a long international career and an enduring personal legend with his dribbling, but Dunn can do many things that Shammgod could not.

Still, Dunn has yet to duplicate Shammgod's postseason success. In fact, Providence hasn't won a game in the NCAA tournament since Shammgod helped the Friars to an Elite Eight appearance in 1997, where they lost in overtime to eventual national champion Arizona. On that day, in his final college game, Shammgod scored 23 points and had five assists, but missed a jumper from the left elbow with six seconds remaining in regulation that would have put Providence ahead by two points and possibly into the Final Four.

In Dunn's NCAA tournament debut last March, he scored 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting and committed seven turnovers before fouling out late in a 66-53 loss to Dayton in Columbus, Ohio. On Thursday night, the day before Dunn's 22nd birthday, he has a chance to exorcise those memories and break Providence's NCAA tournament losing streak as the No. 8 seed Friars face No. 9 seed USC in an East Regional first-round game. If they win, they will likely face No. 1 seed North Carolina. Dunn's legacy at Providence is secure, but an upset of the Heels would rival the 1997 team's second-round victory over No. 2 seed Duke in Friars' lore.

The 1997 and 2016 teams have some similarities in terms of their inconsistent play. This season, Providence was 17-3 and ranked 10th in the nation in late January before losing six of its next eight games. The Friars got back on track with three consecutive wins to end the regular season and another victory in the Big East tournament, but the swoon is still looming in the rearview. It was an uncomfortable echo of the team's stumbles in 1997, when a talented squad—featuring peak Shammgod as well as future international pro Jamel Thomas and 12-year NBA forward Austin Croshere—lost five of its last seven regular season games before advancing to the Big East tournament semifinals. That Friars team barely made it into the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed, but with New York natives Shammgod, Thomas, Derrick Brown, and Corey Wright on the roster, they never lacked for confidence.

"Even when we played bad, we thought we could win every night," Shammgod said. "When you come from New York, it's a little bit different. When you come from New York, you think you can win everything, every time."

Shammgod cops to some personal bias, but he believes this year's Providence team has the potential to match or exceed what his 1997 squad did. These Friars do not have much depth, but they do have two of the best players in the country in forward Ben Bentil, who's averaging 21.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, and Dunn, who is averaging 16.0 points, 6.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds per game. Shammgod doesn't mince words when discussing Dunn's NBA future.

"I think he'll be a 14-year All-Star," Shammgod said. "He's like a cross between John Wall and (Russell) Westbrook. As long as it's the right situation, I think he'll come in right away and be good. If you look at Westbrook when he was in college, he was a totally different player from college to the NBA. If you look at Steph Curry, he was a totally different player from college to the NBA. I just think the great ones, that just happens for them like that."

When you see your main dude, and he's the best point guard in your program's history. Photo by Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Shammgod isn't the only one predicting big things for Dunn, even though he's been inconsistent at times this season. After last Friday's game between Villanova and Providence—which Villanova won 76-68, thanks in part to a lackluster performance by Dunn—Wildcats coach Jay Wright said that friends from NBA teams had asked him about Providence's star. "I said if you want to get a player to run your team and build your team around at the point guard position, there's nobody better," Wright said. "And if you want to get a guy to represent your organization in terms of character and being a great teammate and great guy off the court, you can't get a better guy. We really believe that. All our players, team, we have great respect for him."

After that loss to Villanova, Providence coach Ed Cooley said Dunn was tired by the end of the night. Dunn had missed practices and been limited in games in recent weeks due to an illness and is only just now getting back to full health. "I knew there were going to be ups and downs in the season," Dunn said. "Are you going to be resilient and be able to bounce back? I think we did a good job so far with that."

Although Dunn has one season of college eligibility remaining, he is almost certainly going to declare for June's NBA Draft. He's glad that he came back this year—"Definitely, I don't regret that choice one bit"—and is on track to graduate in May. He is nearly assured of being a lottery pick. He gives a lot of credit for that to the work that Shammgod has done with him over the past four years. Shammgod lasted less than a quarter of a season in the NBA, but he played for years overseas, and says he always enjoyed helping younger guys learn from his mistakes and triumphs. His work helping Dunn adapt to the college game and prepare for the NBA stands as proof.

Shammgod, who turns 40 next month, said he recently spoke with Kobe Bryant about helping out with a skills camp Bryant may start once he retires following this season. As teenagers, Shammgod taught Bryant his dribbling moves when they attended the same summer camp. Before that, though, Shammgod will work with Dunn to get prepared for the NBA Draft.

When Shammgod was teaching Kobe his dribbling drills, Dunn was only a few months old. But despite being from different generations, the pair have forged a friendship rich in common ground—they have the same tastes in movies and a similar sense of humor. When Dunn leaves Providence, he expects to remain in touch with the legend who took him under his wing.

"Kris always says, 'If Shamm was my age, he'd be my best friend,'" Shammgod said. "We get along. That's my guy. He's like my little brother. It's way more than me training him. We'll be friends for the rest of his life."

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