RALEIGH, N.C. — A short while after leading Butler to another NCAA tournament victory, Kellen Dunham peeled off his basketball jersey and slipped back into his other life.
For now, Dunham is a basketball player — the Bulldogs’ best shooter and the main reason Butler, the Midwest Region’s No. 9 seed, eliminated eighth-seeded Texas Tech on Thursday — but that part of Dunham’s identity is disappearing.
In a few days, or possibly another week or two, Dunham will no longer be a college basketball player. It’s okay. He understands. And he has a plan.
“It’s really interesting to me,” the senior guard said as he walked through PNC Arena hallway after Butler’s 71-61 first-round win, “to invest in small start-ups and seeing growth.”
Dunham, whose major is entrepreneurship and innovation, has for the past year been living a double life. He is a long-range sharpshooter who made five three-pointers Thursday during a 23-point performance, but last year Dunham found his interests expanding.
He spent the summer as an intern for an Indianapolis-area real-estate management firm, allowed the freedom to research the company’s prospects and dabble in the occasional investment on the firm’s behalf.
He studied software and learned about underwriting practices and the benefits and drawbacks of investing capital or time. He developed connections and initiated conversations with executives, absorbing any information he could. He found himself dreaming less often about making three-pointers in some NBA arena and more about starting his own company, employing young and ambitious people. He took another internship as he juggled his final degree requirements and the complex task of leading a college basketball team.
“I just want to see what the business world is all about,” said Dunham, going on to describe his typical day: 9 a.m. entrepreneurial finance class before changing into dress clothes for his internship at a tech firm and, finally, sliding back into his basketball uniform for a Butler practice.
A long time ago, nothing was as important to Dunham as that perfect basketball shot. He rose early, asking his father to show him the proper technique and any way to get stronger, more accurate, more dependable. It was something like an obsession, he said Thursday, since his goal was a plastic “Little Tikes” basket.
He grew, eventually to 6 feet 6, and attempted hundreds of shots per day. He asked for coaching from anyone who could offer a tip or guidance: his high school coach or teammates, or friends he liked to work out with.
He is thin, unlikely to ever grow into a physical force on the basketball floor, and so he worked on perfecting the art of the jump shot. The good thing was that Dunham was, at his particular talent, outstanding; the bad thing was that he was so dedicated that it made him one-dimensional.
Dunham earned a scholarship to Butler after watching the Bulldogs overachieve in 2010 and 2011, reaching the national championship game in consecutive years under Coach Brad Stevens. Then Stevens left in 2013 to lead the Boston Celtics, but in part because of young leaders such as Dunham, the Bulldogs have reached the NCAA tournament the last two years.
On Thursday, Butler was the worst kind of bully: the sneaky, quiet type, seeded lower than its opponent as it often had been during those runs to the Final Four and beyond. Texas Tech Coach Tubby Smith had built the Red Raiders into a contender again, pushing the program into the NCAA field for the first time in nine years — the fifth school Smith had led to the tournament.
Texas Tech was quick and young, talented and ambitious. But its players weren’t experienced, as Butler’s are; they weren’t confident and versatile, like Dunham and teammates Tyler Wideman and Kelan Martin. The Bulldogs were used to this, unlike Texas Tech, and could make defensive adjustments that, Smith would speculate later, would concern top-seeded Virginia, which Butler will face Saturday in the round of 32 after trouncing No. 16 seed Hampton, 81-45.
“They’ve been here before,” Smith said of the Bulldogs. “They’re very physical. That’s one thing you have to have when you get to this level. . . . You can tell that [Red Raiders players] were sort of physically outmatched as far as strength and just bulk.”
Whatever happens next, Dunham has accepted that although he has been here before, he will not be here again. No matter how long the ride lasts this time, it is coming to an end. Which is why, whether Butler wins or loses in the next round, he has begun looking toward next week, when he will pull on a collared shirt and dress shoes, sliding back into that other life — when, like most people as Monday comes around, he’s due back at work.