Sunday, June 24, 2018

NBA or bust: Kevin Knox's lifelong push for the pros

CHICAGO — His first thunderous dunk came on his second trip down the floor. The first 3-pointer on his very first shot from the perimeter. Dead on.

Kevin Knox, the inscrutable Tampa Catholic senior, did what he does best while going through the usual assortment of monotonous drills: Score.

The audience set this practice apart from countless others.

More than 60 NBA scouts and general managers sat along the baseline as Knox and fellow all-stars prepared for the McDonald's All-American Game, the nation's premier high school basketball showcase.

Forget a dress rehearsal. This was an audition.

If there was pressure to perform, the 17-year-old hid it well.


Already the main attraction locally, Kevin got a glimpse of what life is like as basketball royalty.

He and his teammates stayed at a swanky, four-star hotel located along the Magnificent Mile, an upscale shopping district. A Mercedes van chauffeured them to practices, 3-point and dunk contests and, of course, the main event at the United Center. The players were decked out in Adidas gear, compliments of the shoe company. Crowds of autograph seekers, reporters and awestruck children followed in their wake at every stop.

In a brief quiet moment during the week, Kevin looked out at the city's skyline from the 16th floor of the Ronald McDonald House.

The 6-foot-9 forward was not quite on top of the world.

It just felt that way.


• • •

A consensus five-star recruit, Kevin is guaranteed of playing at a big-time college program. He has narrowed his choices to Duke, FSU, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina and will make his decision sometime between April 26 and May 10.

But college could be a mere pit stop. Kevin is good enough to be a one-and-done — a player who leaves after one season to enter the NBA draft. He already is listed on at least three mock drafts for 2018, pegged to go anywhere from sixth to 12th overall.

"That's written on my bedroom wall, to be a one-and-done," Kevin said. "A lot of people project that I'll do that. But it's not done yet. I still have to work hard for it."

To get an idea of just how difficult it is to make the NBA, consider that of the 4,152 college players eligible to be drafted last season, only 44 were selected, according to the NCAA.


Three players from Tampa Bay are currently in the NBA: the Milwaukee Bucks' John Henson (Sickles/North Carolina), the Los Angeles Clippers' Marreese Speights (Gibbs/Admiral Farragut/Florida) and the Miami Heat's Okaro White (Clearwater/FSU).

More scarce is the player talented enough to make the leap to the NBA after one year of college. Since 2006, the first year the league required potential enrollees turn at least 19 during the year in which they are drafted and be one year removed from their graduating high school class, 86 college freshmen have been selected.

Will Kevin be the first from the area to do just that?

He has already turned down an offer to turn pro as soon as he graduates from Tampa Catholic. A professional team from China called his parents last month, offering $1.4 million for their son to play overseas for a year before entering the NBA draft.

"I didn't put much stock into the offer," said his father, also named Kevin. "We politely said thanks but no thanks. He's going to college."


Too much time was invested in meeting with coaches and taking official recruiting trips to find the right program that would help Kevin in his abbreviated college apprenticeship. To safeguard against injury before a big payday in the pros, the family is taking out a $1 million insurance policy through Lloyd's of London.

The NBA still may be a year away, but the evaluations continue. For the past three weeks, Kevin has transitioned from a 20-seat classroom to 20,000-seat arenas to play in a series of nationally televised all-star games.

First, it was the McDonald's game. Last week, he was off to Portland (Ore.) for the Nike Hoops Summit. This weekend, he is in New York City for the Jordan Brand Classic.

With each stop, there are more photo shoots, more interview requests, more practices.

But these are business trips. Graduation is nearly a month away, so Kevin tries to spend every bit of downtime in his hotel room fulfilling his obligations as a student-athlete.

"I bring my iPad with me and send in a lot of assignments," said Kevin, who has a 2.7 grade-point average and a qualifying test score. "I've missed a lot of classes so I have to catch up. When I was in Chicago, I had to finish an essay and read a book and answer some questions. You just have to find a way to get everything done."


• • •

Even as a newborn, Kevin exhibited an above-average frame. He measured 24 inches and continued to stay in the 100th percentile of growth charts as a child.

His athletic bloodlines with Florida State roots didn't hurt.

Dad was a receiver for the Seminoles on their 1993 national championship team and a sixth-round draft pick of the NFL's Buffalo Bills. His mother, Michelle, played volleyball at FSU.

Kevin started playing T-ball and basketball at a local YMCA when he was 3 years old. By age 5, he was playing flag football.

That was kid's stuff. Dad had bigger plans.

In first grade, Kevin played in a championship basketball game at the Brandon YMCA. Dad pulled out all the stops, urging everyone he knew to attend. More than 300 people showed up.

"I wanted to make that championship game an event, something bigger than life," said the elder Knox, who coached his son in basketball and football growing up. "I knew it was going to make my son handle pressure. This was my purpose since he was born, to get him in front of crowds so that he can be poker-faced, steely-eyed."


Kevin always had center stage. He played quarterback in Pop Warner, traveling across the state to find worthy competition. By seventh grade, he was flying to other states for basketball.

He continued to grow, too, sprouting from a 6-foot-2 eighth-grader to a 6-9 senior. His ascent in basketball is even more remarkable.

Known more as a football recruit his first two years of high school, Kevin shed his basketball anonymity after being selected for — and playing a pivotal role — on USA Basketball's under-16 national that won a world title.

"The big turning point was making that USA team," Tampa Catholic coach Don Dziagwa said. "That just sent Kevin into another stratosphere."

Kevin gave up football before his junior season to concentrate on basketball.

Now he cannot go anywhere without drawing attention. Fans ask him to sign everything, from foreheads to shoes to cell phone cases. Kevin always obliges, often spending a half-hour after every road game this past season handling requests.

Kevin cannot even escape his own likeness in his favorite video game, NBA2K17. There are YouTube tutorials on how to create your very own Kevin Knox player.

"It's crazy," he said. "If people have time out of their day to do that then that's pretty amazing."


Last month, Kevin fulfilled a child's birthday wish. The two took pictures in the locker room and shot hoops in Tampa Catholic's gymnasium.

"Just to see kids who are inspired by you is an amazing feeling," he said. "As a freshman I was signing no autographs, taking no pictures. I've come a long way."

Though Kevin is the big man on campus — literally — it's hard to tell that walking the hallways. He has close friends, but no one he considers his best friend. No girlfriend either. Rare down time usually is spent with family, including his three younger siblings (two brothers, one sister).

"When you're 6-9 you're supposed to be a god," TC teammate Messiah Turner said. "You're not supposed to be average, so he's just doing what he does. But he doesn't let any of that go to his head. He's humble, honestly."

And he can thank his parents for that.


• • •

For nine years, Kevin's father has worked as a youth and sports manager for the Tampa Housing Authority. After school, Kevin usually heads to his father's office at the Oaks at Riverview Community Center.

It is all by design.

"By all means we're not considered upper high-class," the elder Knox said. "We're definitely considered middle class. The kids I serve are in the inner city. …

"I wanted Kevin to see a single parent who is struggling to raise kids on her own. A kid who has holes in his shoes and can't afford to buy new ones. Hopefully my children have a greater appreciation for things."

Kevin plays games with the elementary and middle school children. He tutors them. He motivates them.

"Every time I come here is a good thing," Kevin said. "They love me. They're always asking how tall I am. I know they don't have a lot of money. I just want to show my face and come here and support them."


His dad wears many hats. Travel agent. Protector. Even media coach.

During car rides to and from school, Kevin watches videos or listens to motivational tapes to learn how to expound upon answers in interviews.

"I could have bought Kevin a car," his father said. "But that would have taken time away from helping my son become a man."

A social worker with Hillsborough County Public Schools, his mother shares some details of her cases, even the difficult ones. When Michelle had to place a family of three into a shelter, that story stuck with Kevin, then an eighth-grader.

After that, he decided benevolence was just as important as his ball-handling skills. He volunteers at ECHO of Brandon and Metropolitan Ministries. That is in addition to the 30 hours of community service required each year at Tampa Catholic.

"I remember Kevin and my son, Thomas, would go to an old folks home and just spend an entire Saturday there helping out in any way they could, and that was on their own time," Dziagwa said.

Without hesitation, Kevin said the most memorable moment from the Chicago trip was his visit to the Ronald McDonald House, where he made cookies with hospitalized children.

"Actually, that was probably the best moment of my whole year," he said. "Just to see how happy they were when we interacted with them. There were a lot of kids that had a lot of disabilities. It made me rethink everything and show how blessed I am for what I have now."


• • •

The McDonald's All-American Game was the first high school showcase Kevin played in an NBA arena. In the waning seconds of the first half, he raced down the court. Teammate Collin Sexton, an Alabama signee, twirled the ball around his back before lofting a perfect alley-oop pass to Kevin for a two-handed dunk.

The Bulls' Dwyane Wade, sitting courtside, smiled with approval. The dunk was the top play on SportsCenter. Kevin was the third-leading scorer in the game, finishing with 15 points.


The following day, Kevin was back in his own bed, staring at a cork board on his wall filled with goals and motivational sayings.

It is something he learned from his mother through the Bible scripture Habakkuk 2:2: "Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it."

Mr. Basketball. McDonald's All-American. 3.5 GPA each quarter this season. Those goals have all been reached.

There's one big one left: the NBA.

"I look at these goals every day before I walk out the door," Kevin said. "That's what gets me up in the morning."

After flying home from Chicago, he went to the prom that weekend. Then it was back to the business of basketball.

Another trip. Another audition. All part of his path to the pros.

Contact Bob Putnam at [email protected] Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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