When Dave McClure was confronted with whether to return to the Duke basketball team this season as a fifth-year senior, the deliberation process did not drag on long.
All McClure had to do was think back to his final season at Trinity Catholic High School, when the choice was whether to tackle the challenge of playing for one of the country's elite programs, or traveling the safer route.
Now, as then, there was no question.
"It was always in my heart that I wanted to come back and be here," McClure said during a telephone interview after a practice on Monday, as the Blue Devils prepared for tonight's NCAA tournament regional semifinal game against Villanova. "The only concern was whether my body would hold up."
It has, and like every road McClure has taken on and off the court, it has been paved in gold.
Despite an injury-riddled career, McClure has played in all but one of Duke's games. He is averaging just under 16 minutes a game, 1.9 points and 3.4 rebounds in his primary role as a defensive stopper and inside presence. His rebound average per minute is the second highest on the team.
It is a part those who watched McClure at Trinity, where he averaged 15.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and was the 2004 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year after leading the Crusaders to the last of the three state titles during his time there, had to grow accustomed to.
"I'm OK with it," McClure said. "I feel it is similar to what it was in high school, minus the scoring. In high school games we had such an arsenal."
McClure played on what was arguably Trinity's best team ever, which included Craig Austrie, who is playing at UConn, Chris Skrelja and Mike Trimboli, who recently finished their playing careers at Brown and Vermont, respectively.
"There were games where I would just score six points but the other guys would score 16, 18 points," McClure said. "There were never times where I would say I didn't get mine. Now I'm doing it at the highest level every day. I try to be opportunistic and if there is a chance attack when the defense doesn't expect it."
One of McClure's biggest fans is the person whose opinion matters most, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. During his 28-minute press conference Monday, Krzyzewski spoke effusively about his unsung forward.
"He's been really dependable, and when you can go a little bit deeper and have dependable people off the bench, who don't have to score to contribute, that's even better," Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski spoke with McClure at the start of the season to make sure he would be comfortable with what was expected.
"I told him from the first practice, you know you're good, I know you're good," Krzyzewski said. "If I play you four minutes in a game don't have your ego hurt because the next game you might play 30. I said are you going to be OK, and he said 'yeah,' and that's kind of the attitude I've had with this team."
McClure's importance was perhaps best evidenced by a seemingly innocent play during last Saturday's 74-69 win over Texas in the second round. With the score 72-69, the Blue Devils' Elliot Williams missed a free throw with 11.5 seconds left. McClure grabbed the rebound between two Texas players, and after it got knocked loose he was able to steer it to teammate Gerald Henderson, who got fouled and made the two clinching shots from the line.
"His keeping that ball alive was a huge play," Krzyzewski said. "He's very versatile. He's a veteran. In the ACC tournament he scored some huge buckets for us in one of the games."
McClure was eligible to play this year after redshirting as a sophomore following rare surgery to repair an osteochondral lesion on his left patella.
McClure recovered and put up his best numbers the next season, averaging 4.2 points and 4.9 rebounds, then missed the first two games last year after undergoing surgery on his right knee.
McClure later discovered that most of his problems stemmed from biomechanical issues.
If he was going to play this year, McClure was determined to put himself in the best shape possible.
He spent all of last summer working out at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., right near his family's current home.
"It was pretty intense," McClure said. "I worked out five days a week, three or four hours a day, and two hours on Saturdays. I tried to push myself harder than I would in the season. I didn't want to go into the season at half speed."
Ironically, the only game McClure has missed came last month, during what would have been a homecoming of sorts when Duke played St. John's at Madison Square Garden. McClure came down with a bad case of the stomach flu and had to leave the arena and return to his hotel room.
That has been the only setback in what has been a dream season for McClure, one that goes beyond Duke's 30-6 record and ACC tournament title.
"This has been a special team," McClure said. "You don't want it to end with these guys. With everything I have been through it makes you cherish every moment. You don't want to take a day off at this time of the season because in the blink of an eye it's gone. It happens so fast. It can come at any moment."
There were skeptics who wondered if McClure was overshooting once he decided on Duke. One of those who predicted he would succeed was his coach at Trinity, Mike Walsh, who watches or tapes every one of McClure's games.
"I felt all along Dave was probably the best defensive player that ever came across Trinity," Walsh said. "He shut down a lot of good people. And he was our best rebounder. I just didn't realize he was so good at setting screens. He had a little more offense with us, but that was not the ACC. And Dave has always been about helping the team win. He epitomizes what college sports is all about."
McClure was twice the most valuable player in Trinity's state title games and the team was 101-7 while he was there.
Winning and McClure, it would seem, have gone hand in hand.
McClure has already pondered his future. He double-majored in history and sociology, but right now he would like to continue playing basketball professionally.
"It's definitely a process and one I don't know too much about," he said. "But there are people around me who do know. I'll find an agent and the camps where people can see me. Obviously I'll take the best offer and I don't want the first to be my best or last. It is something I'll figure out. I'll go play overseas or wherever."
McClure said he could even foresee a time where he will be roaming the sidelines.
"When I'm a lot older and a little financially stable I might want to coach in high school or be a high school teacher," he said. "That's the end of the rainbow."
Right now, McClure is focused solely on tonight's game with Villanova and the chance to play in a Final Four for the first time. If that includes the chance to play in the title game against UConn and Austrie, so much the better.
"We've been good friends and played together since the 8th grade," McClure said. "We've never had to play against each other. If it happens it would be the culmination of a long journey and poetry in action."