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Dom Amore: Kris Dunn And New London Share Everlasting Bond

Dom Amore
Contact Reporterdamore@courant.com

His No. 3 jersey hangs in the foyer, and there it stands alone.

“I took a lot of personal flak for that, from people in this town,” New London High coach Craig Parker says.

Too soon? Kris Dunn was still at Providence College when his jersey was retired in 2014. And at a school well known for producing championships, and professional athletes, why would he be the first to be so honored?

“I saw something special in Kris, and I saw no reason to wait,” Parker said. “When he was in high school, he made a comment one time that if he ever made it, he would give back to the community.”

Jerseys like Dunn’s hang, framed, in high school gyms all over the country, in towns and small cities, in communities where hard times can hit very hard. But they often become just memorabilia, a disembodied shirt, a fading memory of past glory.

A little after noon on Saturday, Kris Dunn, 24, walked without an entourage, just his family, through that foyer, past his jersey and into the air-conditioned gym — by air-conditioned, we mean all the doors were open and a couple of fans were in overdrive trying to blow around the humid air.

This was Kris Dunn Day, the third such day since Dunn was picked fifth in the 2016 NBA draft, and opened his suit jacket to reveal his high school jersey sewn into the lining. A rented van had already delivered a couple of hundred backpacks, and volunteers had handed them out to the kids, then the van returned with boxes and boxes of pizza.

“Before he even played his first game in the NBA,” Parker said, “Kris bought the entire boys and girls basketball teams here everything you could possibly need for basketball.”

Now there were hundreds in the gym to play and watch six hours of basketball. Dunn sweltered right there with them. This was no cameo; few, if any, left the building without a handshake, a chest bump, a selfie, a moment with Kris Dunn. He lifted countless young boys and girls up to his shoulder. Reporters would have to wait until the last game was played and the prize presented — no disrespect, but Dunn was there for the New London folk, not attention.

“I take care of my people,” he said. “That’s what I do. “

This thing with Kris Dunn and New London, it’s just a little bit different. The draft wasn’t the end of the story, just the end of the beginning.

The story has been told before. Dunn, born in New London, was taken away to Virginia by his biological mother as a toddler. His father, John Seldon, once a football star at New London, tracked down Kris, then 10, and his older brother, won custody and brought them out of poverty and back to New London to stay. A village embraced one of its own.

“To be honest, they’re the reason I’m in the position I’m in now,” Dunn said. “The support that I have — New London is a small area, it’s kind of hard to find on a map — but this city, they’re the ones that got my name out to other people. These are my people, and I like to be around family. …You can just tell. A New London person can tell when you’re from New London. You can tell in the blink of an eye.”

Dunn didn’t bolt for prep school. He stayed at New London High all four years. On to Providence, he overcame shoulder injuries, won Big East player of the year and got his degree before going pro.

“Sports could be the outlet. It was an outlet for me,” Dunn said. “It’s good for these kids, because it keeps them engaged with something. The biggest thing is education. I don’t think we preach that enough.”

The Timberwolves drafted him, then traded him to the Bulls last season. Set back by a concussion and a dislocated finger, Dunn played 52 games, averaging 29 minutes, 13.4 points, six assists, two steals.

The Bulls are quite serious about Dunn’s future with them. Associate head coach Jim Boylen made the trip to New London to show support, to see this phenomenon for himself.

“It’s character,” Boylen said. “And character matters. He’s one of our foundational players. This program he has here is awesome, to sustain this for three years, and it makes sense to me because he’s a great teammate, a great kid. You can see it.”

Dunn, 6 feet 4, plays the same dogged defense, the football-mentality-on-the-court defense he played for the Whalers, and it’s his calling card in the NBA.

“He can be a dominant defensive guard in our league,” Boylen said. “Now, he’s developing his perimeter shooting and decision-making. There’s a big learning curve at that position, and his goal is to be an elite player at that position.”

In June, there was a story in a Chicago newspaper suggesting the Bulls were unhappy with Dunn’s work habits this offseason, and he admitted to being offended by that, given his track record. Was it floated to motivate, or to obscure the Bulls’ plans for the draft? Boyen set things straight.

“I don’t know how that got generated,” he said. “He’s always done everything we’ve asked him to do, everything I’ve asked him to do, everything [head coach] Fred Hoiberg’s asked him to do.”

The Bulls didn’t draft a point guard. They took big man Wendell Carter. And Dunn looks ahead to a healthy, breakthrough season in 2018-19.

“Last year was a good season in terms of playing important minutes, understanding my game and what I need to work on,” he said. “I feel I have a foundation to build on.”

But for Dunn, the base will always be here, back in New London, where the interlocking N-L never left his chest, and no explanations are needed. He still feels “homesick” once in a while, he confesses; when he’s back home, he can be himself.

“He just hangs out with his regular friends,” Dunn’s father said. “His true friends. Kris is a trust person. If he can’t trust you, he’s not going to hang with you. That’s how he is.”

So for one day a year, the city is his and the spartan gym on Jefferson Street is again Dunn’s domain. His family watched over the details as he sat on the bench, through game after game, offering more than money, offering himself. The five-on-five tournament was a new wrinkle this year. “Next year is going to be even better,” Dunn said. “Each year is going to be a new level.”

Dunn was still inside, distributing smiles and making good on his promise when Craig Parker, his chest as far out as can be, went out to the foyer to tinker with the framed jersey he put on display.

“There are a few people in this town,” he said, “who owe me an apology.”

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