There’s a reason he calls himself a “trivia question.”
Which Ivy League basketball player had the longest NBA career?
The answer: Chris Dudley ’87.
Although he has never been an all-star, Dudley has played professionally for 16 seasons, six more than his most famous Ancient Eight predecessor, Princeton’s Bill Bradley. And his career, which ended in 2003, was altogether impressive, to say the least: He averaged 6.2 rebounds per game in 886 games as a center and helped a New York Knicks team reach the finals in 1999 when starting center Patrick Ewing was injured.
While Dudley always held ambitions of reaching the NBA, or at least some professional league overseas, he was hardly sure of how viable that future would be.
“I wasn’t an All-American or anything like that,” Dudley recalled in an interview in early April. “I wasn’t really a huge recruit.”
But by the time he got to Yale, teammates recall that he certainly did stand out. The kid from California was, as then-team captain Ken Wheeler ’87 remembers, a “raw” 6 feet 11 inches.
“He put a lot of work into getting stronger,” Wheeler said. “I remember him being in the weight room a lot and it paid off. He was pretty athletic for a 6-foot-11-inch guy.”
Looking back, Dudley said it was the summer after sophomore year when he floated the idea that he might be ready for the NBA draft. That summer, he traveled down to North Carolina to work out and play pick-up games in gyms at UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State.
His opponents: guys by the names of Jordan and Worthy.
“I used to play down there with [Yale teammate] Chad Ludington [’87],” Dudley said. “It was a really valuable experience — the place I realized I could hold my own against some great players.”
‘They’ll find you’
The transition from guarding Harvard and Cornell centers to battling in the paint against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not easy, but Dudley says that it was his time at Yale that made his NBA career possible and worthwhile.
Dudley — who studied both economics and political science, after considering a major in architecture — said for the student who is both interested in athletics and academically inclined, Yale’s atmosphere is tough to replicate.
“One thing I realized when I decided: If you’re good enough in sports, they’ll find you,” he said, when explaining why he could not pass up Yale for some of the other schools that offered him scholarships. “You just have to be self-motivated.”
Indeed, self-motivation played a role in Dudley’s career from the start. Diagnosed with diabetes while he was in high school, Dudley had to play while managing the disease.
On game day, he said, he would check his blood sugar up to 14 times. As difficult as it could sometimes be, it made Dudley value the game that much more.
Ludington, who is now an adjunct history professor at both UNC-Chapel HIll and Duke, said that Dudley “worked to make himself” during his time in New Haven. After all, Ludington said, Dudley was not the only 7-footer in the Ivies.
“Chris was initially supposed to be the ‘second fella’ behind Ricky Ewing ’88, another big center that came to Yale after being recruited by places like Georgetown,” Ludington said. “But Chris asserted his primacy in the center position. He was hungry from the outset.”
And Yale was filled with plenty of similarly motivated teammates and coaches that helped to move him along.
Still, speaking as a former athlete and a current fan, Dudley did not deny that the athletic situation at Yale can, at times, be frustrating. He recently began mentoring Kevin Love, UCLA’s all-American forward who will likely be playing in the NBA next season. Dudley said that seeing Love play at a school like UCLA reminded him that academic prowess need not come at the expense of an athletic program.
A ‘great, great man’
But, with policies like Yale’s new financial-aid program, he said the University seems to be moving in the right direction. More financial aid, he said, would bring in athletes who may otherwise be drawn to schools with more substantial scholarships.
“Without the financial-aid package I received, I couldn’t have gone to Yale,” Dudley said, recalling that he held several jobs during his time in college for the aid he was receiving. “The more financial aid they offer, the more opportunities open up for student-athletes that would not have otherwise considered Yale.”
And he said, as far as the new financial aid plan goes, Yale should consider other ways to ensure that the athletic department is strong.
For Dudley, college athletics is important and works to help a school in two ways. On one hand, it is great for the athletes who get to be a part of a team.
John Sheffield ’10, an Oregon tight end who spoke with Dudley before deciding to attend Yale, said this team bond came up most in their conversations.
“He said that the student-athlete here develops a different kind of bond with his teammates, not just for sports, but for other reasons,” Sheffield said.
And on the other hand, Dudley said college athletics benefit the fans — students and alumni — as well.
“In places like UCLA I’ve seen how having the support of the school in the athletic department can really transform that school,” Dudley said. “It’s great how into athletics they are.”
But Dudley said that no matter what, he will always have a meaningful connection to Yale. Current Eli men’s basketball head coach James Jones talks to Dudley often, sometimes encouraging players to reach out to him if they are considering playing professionally. Calling Dudley a “great, great man”, Jones said he is a good representation of what an Ivy League player can be.
Even as Dudley continues to move in other directions — he currently works for a wealth management group and operates the Chris Dudley Organization to provide help to diabetic children — he knows his legacy in Yale basketball will live on.
And not just in the form of a trivia question.