Henry Coleman’s lessons throughout life have made him a young leader for a Duke basketball team entering a season of unknowns.
RICHMOND, VA — Cynthia Coleman heard the familiar ping from her cell phone coming from the kitchen table.
She got up from the couch and walked into the next room to check the message. It was a notification from the Duke men’s basketball program.
They were sharing a live feed from a student-led rally on campus, an Aug. 28 protest in the shadow of Cameron Indoor Stadium against social injustice and police brutality. George Floyd had been murdered in late March by Minneapolis police officers, and Jacob Blake, a Black man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, had been shot seven times in the back by officers just days earlier.
She knew about the rally. Her son, Henry Coleman III, a freshman on Duke’s basketball team, had told her all about it. They talk often. It had only been a month since she’d dropped him off in Durham for his first semester of college.
What she didn’t expect was to see his face on her screen.
Coleman approached the podium that day, the only Duke basketball player to do so, and read a thoughtful statement he’d posted to Instagram the day before.
“This country has had its knee on the neck of African-Americans for too long,” he said “This country has put a dagger in our backs, and has yet to even acknowledge the dagger, let alone try to pull it out.”
His voice began to shake as he put his phone to his side and spoke about his mother, and father, Hank.
“Words cannot explain the pain that my mother looks at me (with) every night,” he struggled to say as teammate Jaemyn Brakefield put a hand on Coleman’s shoulder. Two more players put their arms around his shoulders as he continued to speak. “Words cannot explain the pain that my father feels when he talks to me with a tremble in his voice about death.”
Nearly 200 miles away in Richmond, Virginia, his mother and father broke down in tears as they heard their son speak.
“That was just Henry being Henry,” she said. “He’s always been outspoken. He’s been taught to say what he thinks. His leadership and his confidence to speak his mind came early on.”
Early signs of a leader
Coleman’s natural inclination towards leadership got him into some minor trouble as a young child.
His first-grade teacher, Ms. Taylor, found herself struggling to stop him from teaching other children in her class — helping with math problems and reading — even though he was a student.
She decided to channel his enthusiasm instead of dissuading it. She moved Coleman’s desk to the front of the class and made him “second in charge.”
“She had to make sure though that he understood that she was first in charge,” Cynthia said, laughing. “But she didn’t hold him back. I’m grateful to teachers who saw his leadership ability and allowed him to be who he is.”
Those qualities run deep in Coleman’s family. Cynthia works for the United Way as a director of community investment. Her husband, Hank, was a football player at Virginia Tech and was senior captain under coach Frank Beamer for the 1995 season.
He’s now a senior vice president at Bank of America.
“Leadership runs in this family,” Cynthia said.
Rick Hamlin, his high school basketball coach at Trinity Episcopal, was quick to notice the way Coleman brought people together. As a senior, he ran and won an election as the student government president.
“Henry was the kind of guy, if you were to ask every student to name their five best friends, 50% would’ve put him on their list,” Hamlin said. “He has a magnetic personality.”
Coleman was also a student in Hamlin’s 10th grade honors American history class. It’s there Hamlin noticed his ability to speak on social and racial justice issues with eloquence.
During a discussion about the founding fathers, Coleman, a young Black man, told his mostly white classmates that people who looked like him didn’t have the right to vote back then. That they weren’t even considered.
“He knew how to make a point, but he also did it in a very inclusive way,” Hamlin said. “He had an ability to reach a broad demographic of students.”
Captain on the court
Hamlin made Coleman a captain as a junior — only the second time in 20 years that a non-senior had earned the distinction.
It was obvious he had physical gifts, standing 6-foot-8, 240 pounds. But it was the commanding way he spoke to his teammates that garnered him the “C” on his jersey.
“He was always very vocal on the court, especially for a 16-year-old,” Hamlin said. “He would challenge the other guys but he would also inspire them.”
Coleman, however, was his own worst critic during his junior season. Hamlin said, for a time, that affected his leadership abilities.
Hamlin remembers when that changed for the better.
During the first month of Coleman’s senior season, Trinity Episcopal lost in the championship game of a local Christmas tournament. It was a close game in front of hundreds of fans who came to see Coleman, then a four-star prospect. The Titans fell 65-63 to rival Steward. Coleman stormed off to the locker room after accepting the runner-up trophy.
“I felt as low as a coach could feel after that game,” Hamlin said. “When we came back after the break, we had a meeting with coaches and captains. We challenged Henry to channel his leadership ability. I think we hit the reset button, and he took it to the next level from there.”
Trinity Episcopal won 18 of its next 21 games, advancing deep into the VISAA Division I playoffs.
“He learned how to show leadership even when he felt adversity,” Hamlin said. “It seems like that’s continued during his next phase of his career.”
Since Coleman arrived on campus in August, he’s continued to do what he’s always done — bring people together.
“I would probably say Henry is one of the most outgoing people I’ve ever met, and I say that in really the best way possible,” sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. told media in November. “Anytime he comes in a room, you can tell he’s there. The energy he brings to us on the court is really second to none.”
Coleman organized a team fishing trip earlier in the year, making sure freshman DJ Steward was involved because the Chicago native had never been. A few of the guys, including Coleman, even went and got their ears pierced together.
This season also reunites Coleman with one of his best friends. Freshman 7-0 center Mark Williams used to stay at the Colemans’ house in Richmond between AAU basketball tournaments with Team Loaded.
“It’s exciting to see them together,” Coleman’s father, Hank, said. “They are good friends enjoying an awesome time together.”
It’s the little things. But those add up; especially during an upcoming season that promises to be ripe with adversity.
On Nov. 10, the same day the ACC schedule was finally released, the university announced that no fans will be allowed during home games this season at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The threat of COVID-19 derailing another season remains a clear and present danger. The expectations, however, remain as high as ever.
“Henry knows how to put people together,” Hank said. “That’s what I think he’s doing with this team.
Coleman has drawn the praise of his teammates, and the eyes of his coaches.
“I think he’s doing a lot of the same things that we saw while we were recruiting him,” associate head coach Nate James said this week. “Whatever team he’s been on, he’s given them a jolt. He’s an energizer bunny.”
During last week’s first preseason scrimmage, presumptive starters senior guard Jordan Goldwire, sophomore forwards Matthew Hurt, Moore and freshmen Jalen Johnson and Jeremy Roach made up the white team. Coleman was the only other player on that team.
He finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“This kid is even a better player than I thought, but as a person, he’s been our most energetic and he’s kind of loud, really, in a good way. He’s not like your typical freshman,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Oct. 28 during his first media availability since the 2019-2020 season ended prematurely in March.
“I hope I’m around when he’s stopped playing to see who he becomes, not just as a player. I just think he’s going to be a very special guy in our country. He’s that good.”
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.
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