Meet the high-flying freshman with style on and off the court

BJ Duling. Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

Cameron Hoover

BJ Duling always wanted to stand out.

In a way, he’s hard to miss. Duling is a 6-foot-7-inch freshman power forward for the Kent State men’s basketball team. His play style sticks out too, reckless disregard for the other team’s personal feelings shining through with each vicious dunk and accompanying guttural scream.

Duling has sported many hairdos during his short time with the Flashes. He started with short, pink braids that he tied back during games. When those were cut, he let the braids down by covering them with a headband. About halfway through the team’s conference schedule, Duling came out to warm up, showing off his new cut: short hair, what many might consider a “normal length,” but blonde. A few games later, he decided he liked that idea and doubled down on it. He bleached his hair so it was even blonder than before.

Before he even arrived at Kent, Duling was among the most visible people on campus as one of the Flashes’ most coveted recruits in recent memory, coming out of Newark, Ohio. Duling apparently stood out to Kent State coach Rob Senderoff quickly. The Flashes offered  Duling a scholarship after his freshman year of high school.

Many might feel the pressure mounting from constant attention at such a young age. Not Duling, though.

“I didn’t really feel much pressure when that first offer came in,” he said. “I knew it was always going to be there. There was more pressure on me to keep going and try to get offers somewhere higher up.”

Duling did just that, finishing his high school career a contender for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award, and he had offers to play basketball at Dayton, Iowa and Xavier, which was one of four No. 1 seeds in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

So why Kent State? Duling cites a few reasons.

“There’s a big difference between going somewhere big and barely being in and going somewhere smaller and being completely loved,” Duling said.

On one side of the coin, Duling was drawn to Portage County because he knew he would be loved. On the other, he was motivated by something he loved.

Fashion.


 

II

Duling also stands out in the classroom as a rare example of a student-athlete studying fashion design. He said 40 percent of his decision to come to Kent was thanks to the fashion program.

“My love for art has got to be something that’s up there,” Duling said. “When it comes to my life and something that I’m going to be doing in the future, I always wanted to do something that I really wanted to do instead of just sitting around and not liking my job.”

Duling is technically listed as a pre-fashion design/merchandising major in the Kent State student directory. All fashion students have to complete the earliest classes of the program before they can be accepted into the Fashion School, where they get their degree.

BJ’s only current fashion class is “Fashion Fundamentals,” and it’s exactly what he hoped it would be.

“We’re learning things you’d never think about when you look at clothes,” Duling said. “What fabric was used? How was it sewn? What type of yarn was used? It’s cool to think about. Just learning the fundamentals, it’s easier for me to go shopping.”

Whereas most college students start to feel the drag of the semester pretty early on, Duling said he hasn’t hit that wall yet, and he doesn’t plan to.

“It’s actually motivating to go to class,” Duling said. “I want to get up and go because it’s all stuff I love.”

Some of the administrators who help with the academic side of a student-athlete’s schedule have noted this desire as a driving force in what could eventually lead to success for Duling.

“I think it’s huge,” said Kerrie James, who works with the men’s and women’s basketball teams to make sure players’ academics are in line with expected graduation dates. “The fashion program in itself is very rigorous and time-consuming. You have to be passionate about it.”

Duling hasn’t completely avoided some of the classic bumps in the road that face new college students though.

“His biggest adjustment coming from high school to college was just his time management,” James said. “His class schedule is a lot different now than it was in high school, so making the most of a lot of that downtime and not just hanging out or taking a nap. You have to be proactive.”

Duling may be one of the few male student-athletes in the fashion program, but he is certainly not the only person on campus with those same interests. Kent State’s upcoming 10-year, $1.2 billion Master Plan is looking to expand on Rockwell Hall, which is where most fashion classes are held. The university also proposed building a joint architecture-fashion studio on front campus to accommodate the growing population of the schools. The fashion program has outgrown Rockwell Hall for about five years now, with some classes taking place in the Schwartz Center, the Center for Performing Arts and even the M.A.C. Center Annex.

“That’s the first thing I noticed,” Duling said. “As soon as I walked into class, there’s 300 people in there already. And everyone was ready to show up early, because that’s everyone’s love. The thing about art, if you’re really into it, that’s you. You’re going to want to go to class and be there early. And with these classes, you have to be there early because everyone wants that front seat to learn everything we can possibly get out of this.”


 

III

On the court, Duling has made the adjustment between high school and college a bit differently. During Kent State’s season opener, — Duling’s debut — the Flashes smashed Youngstown State, 111-78. Duling didn’t have as good a time as the rest of his teammates. He went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting, including a missed dunk, and picked up four fouls. All the while, the Youngstown faithful was letting him know about it.

“After the game, I was just like, ‘Yup. Got it out of the way,’” Duling said. “Got that first bad game out of the way, and it’s up from here. Got the jitters out. I didn’t know how it was going to be coming into the game. It was just like, ‘This is real.’ It hit me really quick.”

Luckily, Duling has improved since then. Just two games later, Duling dropped 13 points against Mississippi Valley State, which still stands as a career high. Throughout his freshman year, Duling averaged 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game while shooting 39.6 percent from the floor. He has made a name for himself as a high-flying dunk machine, including a momentum-swinging alley-oop from Jaylin Walker early in the second half of Kent State’s win over Akron on Feb. 17.

“He’s been good for us,” Flashes junior point guard Jalen Avery said. “Offensively, he’s one of the guys who’s going to rebound the ball. He brings a lot of highlights — dunks and things like that. He brings a lot of energy to our team. He’s a lot more confident in himself. He’s not going to do anything but get better.”

In the future, Senderoff wants to use Duling more as a taller version of a traditional small forward. During his short time at Kent State so far, Duling has used his height, length and lateral quickness to guard multiple positions. While the notoriously intense Senderoff admits he “might not be the easiest guy for a freshman to play for,” he said Duling’s “rope will get longer and longer” as he matures in the program.

“I think the biggest adjustment for BJ is just learning how hard you have to play every single minute at this level,” Senderoff said.

Duling hopes to elevate the on-court product at Kent State not only in terms of wins and losses but also with an increase in the entertainment value. He loves making those energizing highlight plays, landing from a massive dunk and hearing the roar of the crowd. He loves showboating — humbly, of course, he says with a smile.

“I’m just trying to put Kent on the map,” Duling said.


 

IV

The addition of new teammates at Kent State allows Duling to not only work on his craft as a fashion designer, but also as a fashion critic letting his teammates know where their latest outfit went wrong.

“They walk in the locker room, and I’m like, ‘Man, you’re doing this wrong and this wrong,’” Duling said with a smile. “I even offer to take them shopping, like, ‘I’ll go pick out clothes for you.’”

But Duling isn’t exempt from getting ripped on himself, noting the high standard he — and all other fashion majors — are held to with their day-to-day appearance.

“They’re always critiquing me too,” Duling said. “I walk in and they’re like, ‘You’re a fashion major. You’ve always got to look good.’ But this is my life now. I enjoy it.”

In terms of the best dressed on the team — “obviously other than myself” — Duling said senior point guard Kevin Zabo, who “just tries to look like Quavo,” is a close second. He chose his words more carefully when deciding on the team’s worst outfit offender.

“Jalen Avery’s not the worst dressed; he’s just basic,” Duling said. “He’s got that gray sweatsuit and Nike sweat(pants) every day. It’s the same thing every day. He’s not that badly dressed. It’s just basic.”

Duling noted great improvements in the fashion sense of his roommate Danny Pippen, and he said it’s all thanks to him, of course. Among his other critiques, 7-foot center Adonis De La Rosa is too big for most of his clothes, Mitch Peterson wears boots and jeans every day and he’s only seen Senderoff in a suit or sweats.

Duling predicts his teammates’ fashion senses will react just as the on-court product will during his career with the Flashes.

Better with time.


V

It’s March 14, 2018, and BJ Duling is doing what he usually does.

Standing out.

This time, it’s in the atrium of Rockwell Hall. He gets a pass this time, as this one really isn’t his fault. Duling is here for a photo shoot for Kent State showcasing his unique fashion sense and passion for what he does. It’s one of the busiest days in the building in a while, as professional critiques are going on in classrooms all around him. Everyone who passes stares. He doesn’t seem to mind. He’s used to it.

Duling notes the demeanor of everyone walking by. “They’re all just looking at themselves in the glass and not at anything around them,” he said. “That’s not what I’m trying to look like.”

Rumor had it the university wanted to put Duling’s face on a new billboard. He just laughed at the thought, but it’s not an outlandish idea. Duling would make for a perfect poster child for the university. His future on and off the court are bright, he says doesn’t drink or smoke because he “likes to have control over his brain” and he brings passion and energy to every situation he’s in.

Duling has quickly become one of the favorites in the Kent State locker room, most likely due to what James refers to as a “downright goofy personality.”

Three days later, Duling walked up the front steps to Franklin Hall lugging his massive Kent State travel bag behind him, filled to the brim with clothes. He confessed the basketball team had to pay a $100 fee when it traveled to Costa Rica during the preseason because he packed too many clothes. Lesson learned. Now, it overflowed as he entered a studio for his second photo shoot in three days. He hoped this one better captured his personality.

Duling then spent the next 30 minutes assisting the photographer in setting up his own photo shoot. Like he wants to be involved in every facet of production of his own fashion label, he doesn’t mind a little elbow grease.

As Duling dumps his mountain of clothes on the floor and prepares his first outfit — “Damn, now I have to fold all those again” — he thumbs through one of his 50 pairs of Vans sneakers, looking for just the right color combination to match his striped shirt.

Or, technically, striped shirts. He wore two different striped shirts, one long-sleeved and one short, to see if it created an optical illusion.

With each click of the camera and flicker of the lights, Duling becomes more and more personable, cracking jokes at every opportunity. Maybe he was just getting more comfortable, or maybe delirious from sitting in front of flashing lights for an hour, but that “goofy personality” started to shine through. He likes props, he says, and spends five minutes with his wrist bracelets around his ears and in his mouth. He then holds his shoe up to his ear and brings it down, meeting it with a confused gaze like it’s a telephone that just dropped a call for no reason.

Most people wouldn’t be caught dead in the outfits Duling is sporting, but that’s because most people can’t pull it off. He calls his style “soft skater”; skater because it vaguely resembles the streetwear of skate culture, but soft because he doesn’t want to get hurt. Ripped jeans that he doodled on with Sharpie in order to make them his. A short, light pink sweatshirt with no shirt on underneath. A light blue bandana. With each passing outfit and moment, he becomes more comfortable in the shoot, and his dress strayed further and further from the norm. He acknowledges how different he looks from most people — “Have you ever seen a 6-7 black kid wearing Toms?” — but then again, maybe that’s the point.

Duling takes great pride in his individuality. He said he got dress code violations every day in school, but just didn’t care. While Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and former NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook is one of Duling’s greatest fashion role models, Duling said he takes no inspiration from anyone when it comes to designing his own clothes.

“I don’t really look to anyone for that,” Duling said. “It’s me. No one is going to be able to recreate that.”

Duling stayed in the photo shoot for two hours, and by the end, he seemed like he was ready for more. At this point, he said he’s ready for anything.

The lull period in between seasons can be a time of flux for college basketball teams, as offseason workout regimens take hold while some players decide if their futures are better suited elsewhere. Kent State is no exception, and rumblings have floated about certain players looking to take their talents to another university. Two of the players on the 2017-18 roster, guard Taishaun Johnson and forward Jonathan Nwankwo, have already left the program.

“I don’t know about any of that,” Duling said. “All I know is that I’ll be here.”

With this fact in mind, much of the pressure going forward will be on Duling’s shoulders. He said he hasn’t been paying attention to this year’s iteration of March Madness except to express his displeasure with MAC rival Buffalo’s upset win over Arizona, but to lead Kent State on such a national stage is a massive goal for the freshman.

For now, Duling is just sticking to his guns and doing what he knows how to do: being himself.

“That’s something that’s always been in my mind,” he said. “Just be me, and everything else will fall into place.”

As the two-hour shoot wound down, he looked over at his pile of clothes and said what only BJ Duling would.

“Now what the hell am I gonna wear out of here?”

Cameron Hoover is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]