THE EXPRESSION WAS AN UNCHANGING mask of focus and calm. The shooting stroke was a flawless, feathery work of art. As Trajan Langdon torched Clemson University for 34 points in a recent basketball game, he played like a man with ice water in his veins.
And for good reason. Raised in the frigid confines of Anchorage—where he often played his school-yard ball not in Nikes but in winter boots—Langdon, 20, has become “one of the great pure shooters in college basketball,” says ABC and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. “He’s phenomenal, the Alaskan Assassin.” The 6’4″, 190-lb. second-year guard for North Carolina’s Duke Blue Devils is leading his team in scoring and three-pointers and hopes to shoot the Top-10-ranked Blue Devils into the NCAA Championship finals in April. Langdon is also pursuing a brain-draining dual major in math and history and spends his summer breaks playing minor league baseball for the San Diego Padres, who drafted him out of high school and now pay his Duke tuition. And he does it all as if filming an antiperspirant commercial—with no visible sweat.
But that, of course, is all illusion. Langdon’s effortless grace on the court is actually the product of a furious inner drive dating back to boyhood. “A lot of kids don’t understand the hard work it takes to keep getting better and get to this level,” says the Duke star, who developed his textbook stroke through endless drills in countless 6 a.m. practices and whose grind-it-out mentality serves him equally well in the classroom. “Sometimes you don’t understand something,” he says, “and you have to work really hard to get it.”
Yet Langdon’s iron will wasn’t forged without a price. Born in Stanford, Calif., to Steve Langdon, a white anthropology professor, and his wife, Gladys, an African-American social worker, Trajan was only a few weeks old when his family packed up for Alaska, where his father was raised. By the third grade he was spending every recess playing basketball. “This was in the winter, when everything was icy outside,” says Gladys, 54. “He would be out there in his hat and coat and gloves, just playing at the hoop.”
His father, a former semiprofessional baseball player, became his personal coach, supervising hours and hours of drills to improve strength, stamina and, most of all, his shooting. “People ask, ‘How can a kid from Alaska be so. good?’ ” says Steve, 48. “It’s the repetition. He worked on it over and over again.” Adds Gladys: “There were times he felt he was being pushed too hard. He would see other kids out playing, and he wanted to play too.” During games at East Anchorage High School, Langdon would hear fans chanting “Trajan!” while his father yelled, “Play hard! Don’t quit!” On occasion he rebelled by breaking his midnight curfews. “I’d wonder, ‘Okay, I’ve done all this; now can’t I do something wrong?” he says. “But it taught me responsibility and made me mentally strong.”
When East High won a state championship in 1992, college recruiters started calling. Langdon narrowed his choice to two schools: Duke and Stan-ford, his father’s alma mater. After touring Duke’s campus in balmy Durham, N.C., Langdon went against his father’s wishes and signed with the school before even visiting Stanford. “He was pretty annoyed,” says Langdon, “but I figured it was my decision.” A knee injury sidelined him for his sophomore year, but this season Langdon has roared back to become a hot NBA prospect—he has no current plans to play pro baseball—as well as the toast of Anchorage. “When he comes home, he gets invited to visit all the small towns and native villages,” says his father. “There’s a lot of state pride in what he’s done.”
Demands on his time now leave Langdon only one or two free hours a day, which, in Durham, he spends playing video games or taking drives with his girlfriend, Mariana Muiruri, 19, a standout soccer player at Duke. “I really love it here,” says the lanky athlete, who goes home only for a few weeks in the summer to visit his parents and sister Trista, 17. “I miss my family, but not so much the weather.”
The Langdons also turn up in Durham from time to time to see their son play, though now Steve sits quietly behind the Duke bench. “I’m sure there were errors on my side,” he says of his demanding style. “But that’s in the past.” Gladys feels a special pride when people praise her son, the cold-eyed shooter who makes it all look easy. “People may not have a sense of the sacrifices he’s made to get where he is,” she says. “But we know.”
CINDY DAMPIER in Durham