Sam Dekker is chowing down a sandwich from the postgame locker room spread. Judging by how he’s devouring every morsel, the food is satisfying. But it’s not quite the meal he has been jonesing for — a ButterBurger from a Wisconsin-based fast food chain.
“I love Culver’s. I’ve eaten at Culver’s since I was a baby,” Dekker offers through bites with his Culver’s sweatshirt hanging inside his Washington Wizards' stall.
And with a passing mention of something from his home state, Dekker gets going.
“I’ve got three in my hometown. One coming in from the south, one coming in from the north and one coming in from the west,” Dekker says, still talking about the burger joint. “So, you can’t pass it up and me and wife obviously live in Wisconsin in the offseason, so I’m stopping there once in a while, even if she doesn’t want us to.”
Dekker isn’t a paid spokesperson for Culver’s, but he is an unofficial ambassador for the Badger State.
“He’s always like, ‘It’s great in the summer!’ ” teammate Tomas Satoransky says, imitating Dekker’s enthusiastic tourism plugs for Wisconsin. “You can definitely see it. He’s taking a lot of pride in that.”
Dekker endorses the beaches and golf courses off Lake Michigan. He highlights how two of the top high school recruits in the class of 2021 hail from Wisconsin. He boasts that Acuity, an insurance company based in his hometown of Sheboygan, Wis. and where his sister-in-law works, has a 65-foot indoor Ferris wheel for employees.
“We have some fun stuff,” Dekker says, and sealing the sales pitch with a smile.
If there’s one thing to understand about Dekker, who will play against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night for the first time since coming to Washington as part of a three-team trade with his home state NBA franchise, it’s that he loves all things Wisconsin.
“I take big, big pride in it,” Dekker says about being one of 57 players from Wisconsin who have made the NBA.
The Wizards’ locker room can resemble a geographic map with players representing their hometowns in colorful ways. All-star guard Bradley Beal has a red cardinal and arch permanently inked on his body to let everyone know that he’s from St. Louis. Ian Mahinmi, a native of France, pushes his clothing line named “French Deal” and has opened several Steak ’n Shake franchises in Paris.
Still, Dekker’s attachment to Sheboygan seems different. Besides, no other player on the Wizards' roster was named among the 2018 People of the Year by their hometown newspaper.
Dekker and wife Olivia Harlan Dekker earned the honor from the Sheboygan Press for using their summer wedding as a fundraiser for the Children’s Cancer Family Foundation, an organization she has been involved with for years. In lieu of wedding gifts, the Dekkers asked guests to make a charitable contribution and their wedding raised more than $65,000.
“He’s huge,” Todd Dekker says, laughing while being asked to describe his son’s popularity in Sheboygan. “The people are really good but there are stories of people just wanting a piece of him as far as a picture or an autograph. There’s not a place that we can’t go.”
And though the local minor-league baseball team hosts a Sam Dekker bobblehead night in the summer, the son disagrees with his father as to who’s the real celebrity in town. For three decades, Todd Dekker taught sixth grade and coached high school basketball in Sheboygan. He remains beloved in a city with a population just shy of 50,000, according to the most recent census figures.
“When we’re out, it’s not ‘Oh, Sam!’ It’s ‘Mr. Dekker!’ " Sam says of his father’s popularity. “Kids love Mr. Dekker.”
The family has humble beginnings in Wisconsin — after Todd’s Dutch grandmother docked at Ellis Island, she joined a farming community along the lake while the ancestors of Sam’s mother, Carol, worked in the cattle business — but the Dekker name is now synonymous with Sheboygan basketball royalty.
“We’re a basketball family,” Dekker says. “That’s all we did. We had hoops in the basement. Hoops out front. In the snow, we’d make dad shovel so we could shoot at night.”
With his father on the Sheboygan Lutheran High sidelines, Dekker nailed the game-winning three-pointer to win the 2012 Wisconsin Division 5 state championship. From hitting that big shot to staying in state to play for the University of Wisconsin — he was a key part of back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015 — Dekker’s popularity has soared. And for a fleeting moment last month, basketball fans in Wisconsin thought he was returning home.
On Dec. 7, reports circulated that Dekker, who began the season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had been traded to the Bucks, who play only an hour away from Sheboygan.
“I was actually with Olivia at the time when I got a call from [my older son]," Carol Dekker says about how she learned of the trade. “We were both jumping up and down and thinking, ‘This is awesome! This is awesome!’ But it was very short lived."
The full story came out later: Washington was the third team in the deal and had acquired Dekker. Looking back on that day, Dekker says he never mourned the fact that he wasn’t going back to Wisconsin. Instead, he felt like any other NBA player without a home.
“I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way at all. I was initially very upset because I had just got traded. I think it was my third trade in a year, so I didn’t have any time to be excited. As bad as that sounds,” Dekker says. “I was more shocked and upset and worried. I didn’t really care where I was going to be, I was just like: ‘I have to put up with this. Hopefully my wife’s okay.’ So I never got a chance to really sit and reflect on it.”
Wisconsin fans responded to the trade in a different way.
“I will tell you there was a lot of excited people and there was a lot of texts and a lot of tweets and I think it was cruel to the state of Wisconsin to dangle that in front of them when I was never going to the Bucks, you know,” he says. “That was like dangling a steak in front of my dog and then throwing it away.
“But I’m happy to be in D.C. right now,” Dekker concludes.
He’s content in his reserve role — Dekker played 19 minutes and scored 11 points off the bench in the Wizards' 123-106 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night. And he’s established in a new rental with Olivia, an ESPN sideline reporter, after she concluded a taxing schedule of NFL and college football game coverage.
After the trade to the Wizards, however, Dekker had to pack just enough to live out of a suitcase for several weeks. Among these essentials, Dekker grabbed his Culver’s gear, a hoodie that identifies him as a “Curd Nerd.” The sweatshirt had to come to Washington. For Dekker, home is never too far away.
“It’s not a state that gets a ton of recognition but we have fun when we’re back,” Dekker says. “I always say to everyone, ‘There’s no better place in the summer than Wisconsin.’ We truly love being there. We’re hopefully there for life and I’m never going to shy away saying that I’m from Wisconsin at all.”