December 17, 2016
Kerry Kittles would rather give than receive. He began doing just that as a teenager growing up in New Orleans, working with inner-city youth and then being a life guard two summers for the city’s recreation department. He was also an altar boy.
As a junior at Villanova University, a retreat led him to becoming a Eucharistic minister. He is still active in that role, volunteering at a church near his home in North Jersey.
After nine seasons in the NBA (8 years Nets, 1 year Clippers), Kittles is back on the court. The lights aren’t as bright in the Ivy League, but as a coach for the first time, the assistant at Princeton is just fine in the shadows.
Actually, he prefers it.
Hard to believe he is now 42, married and the father of four daughters and a son – “We kept trying for the boy,’’ he cracked recently, relaxing in a soft chair in the Frick Chemistry Lab building where he goes for coffee every day. “My wife kind of had everything managed at home and told me, ‘Now is the time.’’’
He’d been scratching the itch the past two winters by dropping by to help out at Fairleigh Dickinson.
“I’ve always had an interest in giving back everything I’ve learned about the game of basketball and the game of life. I’m not an attention-seeking person,’’ he said; “I’m more mellow. I’m more like my dad in that way. Also, he has this quality of giving that just comes natural to him, that I’ve inherited. I’m always thinking about other people. Sometimes I forget to do things because my mind tends to go there. It’s kind of weird.’’
Kittles was raised Catholic. “It’s one of the reasons I picked Villanova,’’ he said. “Becoming the Eucharistic minister was to further my spirituality and growth in a different way. I still do it. Now it’s a personal kind of reflection thing for me. It just keeps me humble is some ways and kind of gets me out of my own head and into that giving mode that I tend to want to embrace. It’s more for me. It’s my selfish. I give myself through that but I’m also centering me. It’s more centering Kerry.’’
Giving and receiving. Just like coaching.
“It’s interesting, being on the other side and seeing all that it takes to prepare guys for the daily practices and get ready mentally. It’s a puzzle,’’ Kittles said. “So now, I can’t have any physical control of the game. But for me, I think coaching is all about observing and listening. It’s all about psychology and communicating. I should sign up for psychology and communications courses. That’s all coaching is.’’
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson, who played at Princeton during Kittles’ college career, said the new guy in the gym is learning, getting better, and taking directions from the head coach.
“I think he brings an element to our program that maybe we haven’t had in a long time,’’ said Henderson, in his sixth year in charge of the Tigers. “He played against Michael and Kobe, and played in the NBA finals and played under a lot of pressure. So what he brings our guys is the understanding it’s the same at all levels. Have a clear approach and play the game hard.
“We spoke on the phone and then in my office. Right away I knew he had a mind for the game and also attention to detail.’’
John Calipari coached Kittles in the NBA during his first three seasons in charge.
“I couldn’t be happier for Kerry,’’ Calipari said this week before boarding a plane to Las Vegas. “I just think he’ll be great as a coach, because one, he’s a good person with a good heart, and he cares about people, and that’s the number one thing.
“It’s one thing to be about the profession; it’s another thing to be about the people, and this has become something that you’ve got to be about these kids. And, he has something to add for a school like Princeton, because of all his experiences. And I told him that. I said, ‘You will be the best for their players and challenging them to reach beyond.’ And he loves the head coach.’’
As a player in the Big East Conference, Kittles was the kid with the one white sock up to his knee and the other at his ankle. He left Nova as its all-time leading scorer, is 14th in career assists and is 21st in career rebounding.
As a junior in 1995, he was voted conference Player of the Year. He did that one better as a senior being named first-team All-America.
“He was one of the rookie leading scorers when he played for me, and even his second year I thought he was one of those guys,’’ Calipari said. “He could score, he was long, he understood the grind. He was never gonna be late, never gonna be disruptive, never gonna be disrespectful to any player, any coach or any official. Just not who he is.
“Yet, he competed. We played Chicago, he had 17 in the first quarter against Chicago and Michael. So you’re talking about a guy who terrific ability. I really enjoyed coaching him."
A 6-foot-5 shooting guard, Kittles began playing the game at age seven. “Ninety degrees, humid, mosquitoes,’’ he said. “Every day I’d spray myself with ‘Off,’ all over my body, my head. Then I’d go outside and play. All day.’’
He loved playing football, also played baseball (“I sucked at hitting"), and in track and field ran sprints and did the high jump at St. Augustine High School. That is the same high school that produced former NBA player Avery Johnson and current LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
Majoring in Business, after the NBA he never settled into a career job. He returned to Villanova to get his master’s, but, in his words, “Nothing ever drew me in.’’
“Other sports touch different parts of your body,’’ he began to explain. “You don’t think about the hand-eye coordination, the balance, the speed, anticipation, jumping. I probably didn’t realize what I was developing by playing other sports. They manifested into the game of basketball. The better you get, when you feel you can make every shot, and you start to make them, your body starts to yearn for the game. Like anything else, when you start doing something well it’s a lot of fun.’’
And a lot of work.
Before the start of the season freshman year, Kittles discovered a gift on campus that few knew. Almost no one. Looking for a hoop after nightly study halls, he found a three-quarter length court in the basement of a girls’ dormitory. Alumni Hall.
“I would practice until 11-12. Once I found it, I’m telling you, dude, it was like walking around a corner and finding a bag of money. A treasure. I was like, ‘What is this!’ A maintenance guy got me a key, and once I had that it was, ‘Oh my God.’ I was there every night,’’ he said. “It had a ball return net, so my passing got better. I’d pass to myself, catch, jump and shoot. I was in the gym until the girls would complain. ‘It’s bed time, get that guy out of the gym!’ They’d hear the ball bouncing and it was, ‘Sorry, Kerry, you gotta go.’
“By the start of the season I couldn’t wait to come off a screen, catch and shoot. Didn’t matter if I was going right, going left, and if you were on me I’d just drive right past you. So the game was really easy then.’’
Knee injuries would eventually make the game difficult, and Kittles decided he didn’t want to life out his life in pain.
“People ask me, ‘What’s the next step?’ What does that mean? The next step is now,’’ Kittles said. “It’s the moment. I’m trying to learn everything I can learn now to become a better assistant coach. The better I’ll be at that, over time, whatever happens I’ll know. I’ll know where my path is going and where it will take me. I will figure it out whenever I get there. I don’t like to put any added stress on things I can’t control; like the future. I worry about the now, in what I can accomplish now. Those paths will cross whenever I get there.
“I don’t take life too serious,’’ he added. “I laugh at myself all the time. You gotta have perspective. Some people are too anxious to get to the end goal, wherever the destination is, instead of enjoying the ride. Sometimes you can over-complicate things by thinking too much.
“I have a lot of stuff in my head from players and coaches, guys like Jason Kidd, John Calipari. I started to tell Mitch, ‘You gotta pull it all out of me, man! It’s in there!’’’ Rising from his chair and grabbing his backpack, Kittles said, “I still want to give.’’