Israel Dudley is finally getting a chance to live out his dream to play organized basketball. And with an infectious smile that can cure the worst of days, the Castleton freshman is impressing professors, coaches, teammates and classmates along the way.
Dudley is a member of the men’s basketball team, as well as the track and field team, but there is much more to the soft-spoken student athlete than what meets the eye.
Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Dudley faced a harsh reality at a young age.
“I lived with my mom and sister and my dad wasn’t around. My mom didn’t work and my sister was younger than I was, so I unfortunately had to take care of the family, so I started working when I was 14,” Dudley said.
With few positive influences in his life, Dudley turned to basketball for answers.
“For me it was good because it was literally an escape from trouble. In my building, a lot of my friends were older than I was and they were out selling drugs and stuff like that,” Dudley said. “I was too young to get involved in that so I would play basketball while they were out doing that and for some reason basketball just kept me out of that trouble. Then through playing basketball, I met some new friends and just stuck with it and grew a passion for it.”
Basketball quickly grew to be his favorite hobby, but Dudley could never play for his school teams because family obligations took precedence.
While others were playing for the school team, he was working for the Department of Education as an intern in his first year of high school in order to provide for his family.
“My first tournament was when I was 12 years old and it was called ‘Shoot Hoops Not Guns.’ I’m pretty sure that was the first and last time I ever played in a tournament,” Dudley said.
At the age of 11, Dudley experienced life outside the harsh Brooklyn neighborhood for the first time.
“My mom decided to send me to this program called the Fresh Air Fund that takes inner city kids and sends them to a country area to get them away from the streets,” Dudley said. “So I came up to Vermont to live with a family for two weeks named the Dickerson’s. It was my first time seeing an actual cornfield, farms and even my first time seeing stars because it’s so bright in the city. I really liked it so I came back once every year going forward.”
Little did he know, this program would end up changing his life.
“I kept in touch with the Dickersons and a couple years ago I was working a job I didn’t enjoy as much anymore and they said ‘hey, it would be a good time to go college to get a degree on your resume, that way you’re more presentable to other jobs and they guided me through that process.”
Dudley began working at Middlebury College while living with the Dickersons, who he refers to as his “Vermont family,” and started exploring college opportunities. He sent videos of his basketball workouts to Castleton men’s basketball coach Paul Culpo, hoping to spark some interest.
“He told me to come in and play with the guys and he said that I had the athleticism. He knew from the beginning that it would be a challenge. Since I never played organized ball, I didn’t know any rules or anything,” Dudley said.
He soon decided Castleton was the best option for him, but quickly learned things wouldn’t come as easy as he had hoped.
“My first scrimmage, I traveled like seven or eight times,” Dudley said with an ear-to-ear grin and a contagious laugh.
Culpo acknowledged his trouble with transitioning to college basketball.
“He faces a lot of challenges since he hasn’t played organized basketball. It’s been a tough road for him, but I think he did make some strides,” Culpo said.
It has been eye opening for Dudley too.
“I thought I could come in and bring some of my street smarts to organized ball and it would be an easy combination, but it did not work out that way,” Dudley said with a chuckle. “You really have to be a student of the game and it was much more difficult than I imagined.”
Despite a difficult freshman season, senior basketball player Josh Horton envisions a bright future on the court for Dudley.
“He was arguably our most talented player last season having not played organized basketball in his life. When he becomes more familiar with the game, he has a chance to be a very special player,” Horton said.
Edmund Fitzgerald, another teammate of Dudley’s, said his character has benefited the team also.
“On and off the court he’s a really genuine, kind guy so he’s always there to support you in whatever you’re doing,” Fitzgerald said.
With all the challenges he faced, the 23-year-old freshman never had any fear stepping onto the court.
“Playing a basketball game against a big rival like Husson isn’t nearly as scary as coming home and having your block taped off because someone got shot in your building,” Dudley said with softness in his voice. “And those experiences have made me really appreciate what’s going on right now that much more.”
After the basketball season, Dudley decided to give track and field a shot.
“Israel is a pretty friendly guy, so he would always say hi to me and shake my hand,” track and field coach Dave Heitkamp said. “He said he had some interest in doing track and I’m thinking ‘wow, he’s a basketball player, he looks like he has some athleticism, let’s see what he can do.’”
Heitkamp jokes about Dudley’s passion for basketball, hoping he gets the same feeling for track and field.
“Every time there is something around in the gym, he’s looking for a hoop to shoot it in. One day I asked him, ‘I bet growing up when you walked the streets you always had a basketball with you.’ He replied ‘absolutely.’”
Dudley placed in fourth in his first meet by clearing 1.75 meters in the high jump.
“He’s so raw and his talent is so out there that I have every hope that this kid is going to be tremendously successful,” said Heitkamp.
While Dudley has taken extremely impressive strides in athletics, he says he is still focused on academics, studying philosophy and psychology.
“I don’t have a specific job that I want to do with those majors, but I think they will give me a better understanding of the world, myself and the people around me, which will be powerful enough to land me a job with my nine-plus years of business experience,” Dudley said.
When asked if Dudley could have pictured himself as a two-sport athlete three years ago, he took a deep breath and looked straight up in the air.
“No way, but if you had said that, he would have liked that idea,” Dudley replied while nodding his head.
“It’s been great man. I feel really lucky and definitely feel like I made a good choice by coming to Castleton,” Dudley continued. “I am grateful for the opportunity to be here.”