Jan. 21, 2014
By Steve Irvine
Dakota Slaughter's journey from his Indiana home to the University of Alabama men's basketball roster began with the decision not to play sports in college. As it turns out, that was a fitting beginning to what is an unlikely journey.
Ask Slaughter how he chose Alabama as a college destination and the first thing you hear is "That's a good question." Actually, it began with him becoming a National Achievement finalist as a senior at Fishers High School in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers. He received a letter in the fall of his senior from the University of Alabama offering him an academic scholarship. It sounded like a good deal to Slaughter so he applied to the university, was accepted and visited Tuscaloosa in the spring to see if he truly wanted to leave his friends and family to attend college.
Slaughter said he had the same offer from Auburn, where he also visited that spring, but chose to attend Alabama "for obvious reasons."
The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Slaughter was an accomplished athlete in high school. He was a three-year starter in basketball and a key part of a Fishers High football team that knocked off nationally-ranked Lawrence Central in the 2010 Indiana Class 5A championship game. He was selected to the Class 5A all-star team as a senior and all-conference selection in both sports. Smaller colleges offered scholarships, primarily for football, but Slaughter was content on attending a bigger school without playing sports.
"I thought if I stopped playing sports, I'd have more time to focus on school and who knows how well I could do in school then," said Slaughter, a 4.0 student in high school.
It didn't take him long - about two weeks - to figure out that might not be the best decision.
"I'd played sports all of my life and not doing that, I really felt out of my element," Slaughter said. "What do I do with my free time? Everything was so different here, I needed something that I was familiar with. I thought I had to get back into sports and the sport I loved the most was basketball."
Later that fall, after the basketball season had begun, he visited the Crimson Tide basketball office inside Coleman Coliseum to ask for the chance to become a walk-on player. The first person he talked to was administrative assistant Brenda Holt, who informed him that walk-on tryouts were over but also gave him a chance to talk to assistant coach Dan Hipsher.
"He asked me where I was from, I told him and he said `Oh, Indiana, they know how to play basketball there,'" Slaughter said.
After more conversation, Slaughter said Hipsher was interested in giving him a chance but Slaughter's class schedule conflicted with Alabama's practice schedule. Slaughter said he would clear up his schedule for the spring semester and Hipsher asked him to come back when that happened. On January 9, the same day that the Crimson Tide football team beat LSU in the BCS National Championship game, Slaughter was invited to Alabama basketball practice for a tryout.
"I was pretty nervous, especially walking into a gym with a bunch of guys you don't know," Slaughter said, laughing at the memory. "They're all looking at me like `What is this guy doing here?' But I had to keep the mentality that it's just basketball and I know how to play basketball."
His tryout consisted of some drills and two-on-two games with other walk-on players following practice. He performed well enough to earn the invitation to come back the following day as a practice player. His role mainly consisted of working with the scout team to help his new teammates get ready to play, which was easier than learning what the Crimson Tide was doing midway through the season.
"It's completely different," Slaughter said. "There was a lot of new terminology that they used that I wasn't quite sure what it meant. There's a lot of principles that they taught and played and schemes already instituted that I had to learn on the fly."
He performed well enough, though, to begin dressing out for games and was on the travel roster when the Crimson Tide visited Auburn. Last season, with an off-season of work under his belt, Slaughter actually played in 11 games. He scored a career-high 10 points while playing 10 minutes against Lamar. This past summer, Alabama head coach Anthony Grant decided to reward Slaughter for his hard work.
"We had an opportunity through available scholarships this year to reward his efforts, commitment to our team, and I just felt like it was the right thing to do," Grant said. "I know it may have taken a burden off of, even though he was on an academic scholarship, maybe off of some of the financial obligations that he and his family had to endure being an out of state student. So, I think it was well deserved and hopefully it's been beneficial to him and his family."
Slaughter, who was eating dinner with a date after attending an Indiana Pacers playoff game when he got the call from Grant, said the benefit of the athletic scholarship run much deeper than the financial help.
"It was like a message that `We know that you've been working hard and I think you've earned this.'" Slaughter said. "That meaning in itself meant more to me than `Hey, books are paid for now.' It was more that I got recognition from the coaching staff to extend that to me. That's what I was most excited about."
Now if this was Hollywood then Slaughter would have immediately joined the regular rotation. In reality, though, his role has changed little at this point. He continues to help the team behind the scenes, while working on improving his skills as a perimeter player.
"In high school, I played the 4 and the 5," Slaughter said. "I've always been the big man growing up. I was one of the taller kids on the team so I always played power forward kind of position. Coming here, at the level of play we're at, I've had to kind of adapt my game to a 3-man kind of thing. It's a whole new world for me. I've come pretty far in learning how to play the perimeter but definitely I need to get better at that."
What he hasn't had to adjust, though, is an outstanding work ethic and an unselfish approach to help the team in any way possible. He also doesn't spend much time wondering if he made the right decision to come to Tuscaloosa.
"I'm here for a reason," Slaughter said. "Maybe I could have went to a smaller school and had a bigger role, maybe been a starter or something. But who knows how much I would have grown as a person or a player. Coming here, really getting out of my comfort zone, that's what I really wanted. That's how you grow as a person. I think there's a reason why I picked Alabama."