For any professional athlete, the steps taken in life from being a high school star to college hero, to then playing against the best athletes in the world, may not be easy. For Wisconsin Badgers legend and newly acquired Cleveland Cavalier Sam Dekker, the transitions were not alway easy, nor were they as smooth as could be. In fact, there have been many ups and downs in Dekker’s three years in the league thus far, but in Cleveland, Sam really feels at home.
“We’re excited to be in Cleveland and back in the Midwest. Cleveland has welcomed me,” Dekker exclaimed about a week after he was traded to the four-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
For only being in the NBA for three full seasons, Sam has had to move around a lot, and adjust to several changes on and off the court.
Dekker, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin, native who played for his state team of the University of Wisconsin, left the Badgers a year early to chase his dream of becoming an NBA player, and it paid off, as Dekker was drafted in the first round by the Houston Rockets, a team laden with offensive talent in All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard. Unfortunately for Dekker, his rookie season only consisted of three games played, as back surgery forced him out of action for the majority of the season.
The 6-9 forward came back healthy the following season, to put up a solid campaign for the 55-win Houston Rockets. Dekker played 77 games for Houston, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game, and put up a career high 30 points in one of his two starts for the Rockets. Then, during the offseason, Dekker was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in a blockbuster deal for future Hall of Famer Chris Paul.
“My first three years, I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through injuries, surgeries, playing big minutes, playing no minutes, getting traded,” Dekker explained when asked about the transitions.
“Not every game is going to go the way you want, not every year is going to go the way you want, but you need to get up and go after it the next day.”
Then, after getting engaged to ESPN sideline reporter Olivia Harlan (Dekker), Sam had an up and down season in Los Angeles with the Clippers. Dekker’s playing time was down in minutes, and the team did not make the playoffs. In addition to the difficulties and changes on the court, Dekker said that he made things harder for himself sometimes, too.
“I’ve always been a pretty happy guy, but last year was difficult. I put a lot of pressure on myself, unwarranted pressure, and lost the joy in a lot of things, including basketball,” Dekker revealed in a candid moment.
“That had never really happened to me, as basketball has always been my happiness, and then I saw things about how ‘Sam doesn’t take basketball seriously enough,’ and truly, I was in the gym more last year than I was in my entire life, so that was tough.”
After the 2017-2018 campaign with the Clippers, Dekker got married to Olivia, marking the first of some truly positive changes in the offseason. Less then a month after the biggest night of his life, Sam found out he was traded from LA to Cleveland, which would bring him back to the Midwest.
“I was actually excited. I was out working in LA, on the Clippers’ court, and Lawrence Frank, the team president, saw me and asked me to come up to his office real quick,” Sam explained as he shared how the trade went down.
“So, he was up front with me, on a Saturday, he told that this was going to happen on Tuesday. We had a really good talk, and I got permission to talk with Cleveland’s general manager, Koby Altman, along with my agent, and we all had a really nice conversation, and left things at a good place. LA., Doc, Mr. Frank and the Clippers were always good to me, and Cleveland was excited to be able to grab me, so yeah, we were excited to get out there.”
Trades can be so tough for players, unexpectedly having to move their whole lives in a matter of days, usually without any say in the matter. But for Sam, a young, newly-married man, he is making the most of it.
“It’s been…awesome. It’s been a lot of transitioning, but that is just one way I would put it. It’s been, kind of like a breath of fresh air,” Dekker happily shared.
“Just being here in Cleveland, and enjoying myself, and going out there and not having any worries, or any doubts, and not looking over my shoulder,” he added.
These feelings of being free and happy, are even visible from Dekker in press conferences, and of course on the court. Dekker’s game invokes a lot of transition, running the court, and cutting for baseline dunks, which he has already done in the preseason with Cleveland. His new coach, Ty Lue, has even been impressed with Sam’s size, speed, and aggressive style of play early on in the season.
In addition to being back in the Midwest and recently getting married, one thing that has helped Dekker feel so happy these days: staying off social media, he noted to me.
“Part of it is just me putting it aside, and being in the gym, and just being busy, but another part is, social media is sometimes just not healthy for people. Reading people’s tweets, and then other people replying, and sharing insults behind a glass screen, and I just thought, why do I care what these people think of me?”
Dekker definitely makes a good point, especially when NBA players are constantly on their phones or Twitter, whether before games, in the locker rooms, or on flights.
Thanks to the location and his new teammates, Sam is truly eager to actually get the season started, and fight for a fifth consecutive playoff appearance for the squad.
“I’ve been here for a couple months now, and it’s crazy, but we don’t have anyone on this team, that would cause a rift or anything between teammates. Top to bottom, we have a quality group of guys, guys that work hard, and that know what it takes to win.”
Cleveland does return a ton of playoff experience, with the likes of George Hill, JR Smith, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and Kyle Korver, among others. Offseason acquisitions like Dekker and highly-touted point guard Collin Sexton make the Cavaliers even deeper, so if they can instantly contribute, the Cavaliers could surprise people, and Dekker certainly will get the opportunity for minutes at the wing and stretch-four positions.
Dekker has also easily adapted to making friends on his new team. Sam already knew Larry Nance, Jr. pretty well, and lauded vets like Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, and fellow big man Kevin Love, for making the transition easy for him, both on and off the court.
Dekker also had many thoughts on the focus on mental health in today’s NBA, and appreciates the work that players like teammate Kevin Love are doing for the league.
“Kev put it well: ‘Anxiety, depression, mental health issues, do not discriminate in any way, and they can affect anyone,'” Dekker alluded to when asked about the Kevin Love Fund, a new mental health initiative Love started over the Summer.
“I think that Kevin is a great spokesperson for this, and it just shows that NBA players deal with things, too, and I’m really proud of him for that.”
“Physically and mentally, I’m in a great spot, and I think that my game will continue to show that,” Dekker stated when asked about his overall well-being.
“I’m very excited, and I’m in a very, very, very good spot right now,” he added with a smile.
It’s been a long road for the Wisconsin native in just three seasons in the association, but with a great support system and the feeling of being home, Dekker hopes that this can be his best year yet.