Penquis Valley student has special day with Duke’s Coach K
LAGRANGE — Zak Mills probably could have provided any college sports fan all he or she needed to know about the Duke University men’s basketball program long before his excellent adventure with the Blue Devils this month.
Given that Zak is just a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo, he’s more likely best versed in the team’s most recent successes — such as its run to the 2015 NCAA Division I national championship.
But while Duke was reveling in March Madness last spring, Zak was undergoing treatments after doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in the radius near his right wrist late last year.
No doubt the Blue Devils’ success helped one of their biggest young supporters cope with the chemotherapy sessions that led up to surgery, but the chance for Zak — now back at school and playing on his middle-school basketball team — to fully savor his team’s good fortunes didn’t come until just this month.
For most fans who adopt Duke or another major-college power as their favorite sports team, it’s a long-distance relationship founded in televised perspectives of the players and coaches.
And while there are some connections between the Duke athletic department and the state of Maine — Blue Devils women’s basketball coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie played high school basketball in Brunswick and coached at the University of Maine, while current Duke athletic director Kevin White once held the same post at UMaine — there was little reason to believe young Zak Mills would find himself face to face with the key personalities of one of the nation’s signature athletic programs.
But from Zak’s medical challenges came a rare opportunity as he and his parents, Andrea and Jason Mills, traveled to the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina, to watch the Blue Devils play the University of Buffalo — an early Christmas present of sorts arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Duke won 82-59, but that was merely one aspect of a memorable weekend that began with a limousine ride to Bangor International Airport and went on to include campus tours and a chance meeting with NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson — whose son is a walk-on with the Duke basketball team — even before game time.
Duke’s home court at Cameron Indoor Stadium is one of the more unique venues for a major college basketball program. The venerable facility, which opened in 1940 at a construction cost of $400,000, has a capacity of 9,314 fans — quite modest by today’s major Division I standards.
Every seat was filled that night, with the Mills family situated two rows behind the scorer’s table. Among those sitting nearby was former Duke All-American Nolan Smith, with whom Zak shared a brief chat.
Duke led by 10 at halftime and pulled away to victory behind Zak Mills’ favorite Blue Devil, sophomore guard Greyson Allen, who scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
“The game was great,” said Jason Mills. “Great crowd, like a high school gym with everyone packed on top of each other. The atmosphere and crowd were incredible.”
Zak was given an official stat sheet at intermission and with his parents was escorted to the postgame press conference by Debbie Savarino — a Duke representative who turned out to be the daughter of legendary Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski.
That connection was good not only for a front-row seat at the press conference, but a handshake and a few words with Coach K and the opportunity to pose the first question.
Zak thought quickly in front of the gathered media from around the country and asked Krzyzewski if Allen had grabbed a career high in rebounds during the game.
Krzyzewski’s response was that Zak’s query was, “a great question, and why don’t the rest of you ask questions like that?!”
And while Coach K wasn’t immediately sure of the answer, it turned out Zak knew exactly what he was talking about and that Allen indeed had established a career high on the boards that night.
Once the press conference ended, Savarino took the Mills family into the back hallway where Zak met all the players as well as Krzyzewski again, with all of them signing a Duke basketball for him. He also had his picture taken individually with all the players as well as with Coach K, then toured the team’s training room and locker room facilities to cap off a busy night.
Zak and his parents visited the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill the next day and that night went to an NHL game featuring the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, where a referee came over during the contest and presented Zak a game puck.
The Mills family returned to Bangor the next day and were greeted by Make-A-Wish staff person Lisa Fox and employees from Bangor Savings Bank who helped sponsor the trip and were armed with a few more Duke-related gifts for Zak.
A limousine then took the family back home.
Zak Mills is scheduled for his next three-month checkup in January, and while the family undoubtedly would trade the visit to Duke for uninterrupted good health, they are grateful for all the community support they have received since Zak’s initial diagnosis and appreciative for the chance to live out one of their son’s sporting dreams.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” said Jason Mills.
DUKE BLUE DEVILS — Zak Mills, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo, got to meet Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski recently.