He chose wisely, Kittles perfect fit at Villanova
Ro Brown, Special to the American Press
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixth in a series of stories about the eight inductees to be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.
For new Villanova head basketball coach Steve Lappas, it was the first day of practice in
October 1992. He looked at his assistants and proclaimed, “Gentlemen, we have a problem.”
The assistants asked for clarification and Lappas answered, “Our best player is that freshman over there.”
That “freshman over there” was Kerry Kittles, going to college in Philadelphia, after being recruited out of New Orleans. He was unknown nationally, not on anyone’s radar in the basketball crazy Big East Conference, but was an all-state performer and the Class 5A MVP in Louisiana after leading St. Augustine High School to the state championship.
That freshman became one of the all-time great players in Villanova and Big East history. Add a successful eight-year NBA career in the mix and it has led to induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.
Kittles’ says his love for the game came during his elementary and middle school days participating in recreation leagues. At the time he was also playing the trombone. The gangly teen could have easily made his mark in high school as a member of the famed St. Aug marching band, “The Marching 100.”
He made steady progress on the junior varsity basketball squad as a ninth-grader. Quickly he was one of the school’s better players as a sophomore and junior.
That junior year he missed much of the regular season with a back injury but returned in time for the playoffs. Kittles was not a starter but saw considerable action as the Purple Knights reached the 1991 4A state final.
Bobby Knight, legendary Indiana basketball coach, used to say, “All players can hear you, the trick is to get them to listen to you.” Kittles was indeed a listener, said his St. Aug coach.
Bernard Griffith directed the Purple Knights to three of the school’s seven state basketball titles (1992, ’95 and ’99). He calls Kittles an “old soul” who looked directly in your mouth when talking to him.
“Kerry always looked like he was taking in every word you’d say to him. He did more than listen, he would also go to work,” Griffith said.
Griffith, who won 12 Catholic League championships in 18 years, said Kittles’ work had immediate returns.
“If you showed him how to execute the crossover dribble, he’d go home and work on it and return the next day as if he’d been doing it for years.”
When the 1991-92 season arrived, Kittles was more than a starter, he was undoubtably one of the best players in the state. Averaging 22.5 points a game, he led St. Aug to a 32-3 record and the 5A crown with a dominating 67-50 win over John Ehret.
Kittles was a first-team all-metro and all-state selection. He was more proud that St. Aug was 66-5 over his last two seasons.
Kittles made his collegiate decision early during his senior year of high school, choosing coach Rollie Massimino and the Villanova Wildcats of the Big East. Massimino surprisingly left for Nevada-Las Vegas and was replaced by Lappas, who had successfully rebuilt the program at Manhattan.
Understandably, Lappas knew nothing about Kittles. He never saw him play but “word of mouth” told him he should make a trip to the Crescent City to convince this prized recruit that Philadelphia was the place where he should play college basketball.
It turned out to be the most important recruiting trip of Lappas’ tenure at Villanova.
“In the end I picked Villanova because it fit all of my criteria,” Kittles said. “It was a small Catholic institution, its games were on television, I could play right away and the biggest factor was its graduation rate.”
Kittles made the most of those selling points. He earned an MBA and turned out to be one of the greatest players in school history, a school with an illustrious basketball résumé.
“He was the smartest player I ever coached,” Lappas said. “He understood the game and unlike a lot of really great, talented players he knew how to play without the ball. Most guys, especially guards, they have to have the ball in their hands. Kerry was as good off the ball as he was with the ball.”
Kittles averaged 11 points a game as a freshman during an 8-19 losing season for the Wildcats. They rebounded the next season with a 20-12 record and the school’s first National Invitation Tournament championship.
As a junior, ’Nova won the 1995 Big East Tournament and he was voted tournament MVP. With a 25-8 record, his seasonal averages of 21.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists were good enough to earn him Big East Player of the Year, beating out the likes of future NBA superstars Ray Allen and Allen Iverson.
“Once I saw what I could do in my sophomore year I just got hungrier for more and more success and I worked harder and harder in the offseason between my sophomore and junior seasons,” Kittles said. “No doubt it was some good times.”
A highly decorated junior season like Kittles’ 1995 dream season is the perfect time for underclassmen to take the money and run. But true to his penchant for being different from the crowd, Kittles decided to return for his senior season despite knowing that he would probably would have been an NBA lottery selection.
“It was simple,” Kittles said. “The NBA wasn’t going anywhere. I just felt like the money and that experience would be there for me and there was no need to rush. I knew I could play against those guys. I was just enjoying the college experience. I wanted it to continue and have fun and all of the NBA lifestyle would be there the following year.”
His senior season the Wildcats ranked as high as second in the nation. Kittles averaged 20 points a game, was an all-Big East selection and a consensus first team 1995-96 All-American.
Kittles left campus owning 15 school records, including the Wildcats’ all-time leader in points (2,243) and steals (277). The university retired his No. 30 jersey in 1998.
The kid from New Orleans had made his mark in the college basketball mecca of Philadelphia.
However, the institution made a lasting impression on one of its most decorated athletes.
While competing and excelling at the highest level of collegiate basketball competition, Kittles says he had the ultimate college experience: a time when he was on his own, making big decisions, discovering who he was. He says he’s thankful to Villanova for four of the most important years of his life.
“There were lots of great memories on the court at home or on the road, but looking back the biggest thing for me in college were the relationships and the connection to the university,” he said. “I’m still connected to the school as a member of the board of trustees. That means more to me than the basketball honors, records and awards. That Villanova community is a real strong, tight-knit community.”
In the summer of 1996 it was on to the NBA as the eighth overall selection in the draft by the New Jersey Nets.
He had immediate impact. Kittles made NBA All-Rookie second team and set franchise and NBA rookie marks for 3-point field goals made (158). He played in all 82 games, starting 57 and averaged 16.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
The 1997-98 season was his best as a pro statistically with career best in points (17.2), rebounds (4.7), 3-point percentage (41) and free-throw percentage (80).
The highlights of his professional career were consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Although unsuccessful as the Nets were beaten by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002 and by the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, he started every playoff game both seasons, teaming with backcourt mate Jason Kidd.
“Reaching the Finals was cool because of the number of media around all the time,” he reflected. “But just playing in the NBA, well, much of the time I just had to pinch myself realizing I was playing against my idols like Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan.”
Knee injuries cut short Kittles’ career. The numbers were impressive. After eight seasons, he posted career averages of 14 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
While the injuries were frustrating, this was not an athlete who had difficulty adjusting to life without the game.
Nowadays Kittles says he takes joy in teaching. He has served on the board of his children’s school. He’s scratched the coaching itch, too, spending two seasons, 2016-18 as an assistant coach at Princeton.
“When you’ve played the game at a high level you know it inside out. It was fun for me just mentoring young men and seeing them grow,” he said.
Entering the sports hall of fame of his home state means life has come full circle.
Kerry Kittles absorbed all he could learning basketball at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. The hard work led him to Villanova and resulted in an eight-year NBA career.