Who Gon Stop Me
Kyle Lowry talks about developing into a leader and more.
by Aggrey Sam
As somebody who’s seen Kyle Lowry play since his sophomore year of high school—in the Philly Public League chip, before he got national shine after transferring to now-closed Cardinal Dougherty—it’s a pleasure watching him hoop. I’ve always loved his game, going for full-tilt for 32, then 40 and now 48 minutes and refusing to let any opponent outwork him, no matter the size differential.
One Philly memory I’ll always have was watching the “Holy War”—the annual Big Five battle between Villanova and St. Joseph’s—at the Palestra (the University of Pennsylvania’s historic home gym, unofficial home site for the Big Five and my favorite place to watch a game on any level) and seeing him outright bully 6-10 St. Joe’s forward Pat Calathes, despite being almost a foot shorter. However, that same competitiveness that allowed him to thrive wasn’t always properly channeled, leading to a string of regrettable incidents that had many observers in Philly labeling him a hothead. That label stuck with him when he went to hometown Villanova, but after a freshman year marred by an ACL injury—I still marvel at how he seemingly didn’t lose any of his explosiveness post-rehab—something changed.
Well, to be fair, two things happened. First, Lowry grew up. Second, Curtis Sumpter suffered his own tragic ACL injury—at that point, Sumpter was arguably ‘Nova’s best pro prospect—prompting head coach Jay Wright to insert Lowry into the starting lineup, which already featured three guards. The unconventional four-guard set was wildly successful in leading the Wildcats to the Big East chip and the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, where they fell to eventual champion Florida. But while the change cemented Villanova’s resurrection—Jay Wright was regarded as being on the hot seat not long before then—Lowry’s attitude adjustment and dynamic play was just as personally impactful.
The North Philly native seized on the momentum, left school early and was drafted in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies. A wrist injury spoiled his rookie campaign, but he showed enough promise that there was no doubt he was in the League to stay. The Grizzlies, however, opted to select Ohio State star Mike Conley in the following year’s draft, sparking a battle between the two young point guards over the next few seasons. To some (including myself), Lowry seemed to be more productive, but Memphis went with the high draft pick, shipping Lowry off to Houston. With the Rockets, Lowry again was put in a backup role, splitting time with Aaron Brooks.
While the arrangement worked well—Houston rewarded one of the better backups at his position with a contract extension, recognizing the value of the blazing-quick, one-two punch of the defensive-minded Lowry paired with the scoring-oriented Brooks—Lowry was still forced to play the background until Brooks was sidelined due to injury last season. Upon Brooks’ return, former Rockets head coach Rick Adelman stuck with Lowry, eventually resulting, combined with other factors, in Brooks being traded to Phoenix.
Given the starting nod on a permanent basis, Lowry exploded in the second half of the season and while the Yao-less Rockets again barely missed the Playoffs, still, heading into next season (whenever that may be), Lowry is now firmly established as a team leader (he’s the Rockets’ NBPA player rep) and with a new head coach in Kevin McHale, he’s optimistic about both his own and the team’s upcoming future, including the addition of fellow North Philadelphian, Marcus Morris. I caught up with Kyle the other day in Houston, where he’s working out with my guy Shawn Respert, a former Rockets staffer and while he’s come a long way in maturity from the brash kid that came at Reece Rice and Strawberry Mansion like he owned the place—that aggressive style of play, at least in Philly, leads many a scout to describe players (for example, current Villanova point guard Maalik Wayns, who Lowry’s taken under his wing) as having “Kyle Lowry characteristics” that typifies the tough, physical mentality of that city—he still plays with the same moxie. Below is some of our interview, but you’ll have to read the actual story (this post is much longer than the piece will be, but with the lockout, hopefully you’ll appreciate it) in an upcoming issue of the magazine. Enjoy.
On his approach to the game:
“Well, back in high school, those days I was always known as a little, scrawny kid, a little bit of an attitude, hot temper, but I always played hard and I always did what I had to do to win games. I never gave up on anything and everybody respected that much about me. As I got older and I got a little bit bigger and taller, I started to understand how to play the game and watch the game, and study the game a little bit more, but I always kept the fight in me. I always kept the never-lose attitude, play as hard as you possibly can because you never know. It could be your last game. Coming in the League, it was tough. Rookie year, I broke my wrist. Never got a chance to really assert myself my rookie year. I had the opportunity to play, probably because we had a losing record. Coming into my second year, we drafted Mike Conley and it was just a battle of two young point guards trying to make names for ourselves and also trying to earn a reputation in the league. For me, it was just the fact that all I could do was play my game and do what I could do, and hopefully one day, I could get an opportunity to show my potential. Coming into Houston, I came in, just got traded and wanted to fit in with the team, and play a role to help us try to go far in the playoffs and win games. That’s been my approach the last couple years and last year, unfortunately, with Aaron [Brooks] going down with an injury—you hate to get a job due to injury—but I just wanted to help my team win games and when we started to win games, Coach [Rick Adelman] stuck with me, being that we were winning and stuck with the things that were going well for us. For me personally, I’ve always felt like I could be a starter in this league and I guess last year, I proved it. I wanted to be the best I could be and like us Philly guys, the toughness, the never-quit attitude, try to win every game and play as hard as you possibly can, and it worked out for me. Now, I’m getting older, just understanding the game and understanding the player that I can be and I am, it’s great. I’m growing up every day, every year.”
On constantly having to force his way into the starting lineup:
“Honestly, that’s crazy because even in my sophomore year at Northeast High School, I didn’t start until late in the year. Just hard work and believing in yourself. A lot of people didn’t believe in me and my abilities. At Villanova—Randy Foye had a wedding [last] weekend and we actually talked about that—we brought that up, ‘If Curt [Curtis Sumpter] never got hurt, what would be the lineup?’ It always seems that I have to prove myself and take the extra step or somebody going down to get the opportunity to show my abilities. It’s just been that type of route for me and I understand that, and it’s just how some people’s destiny to go. It’s been like that since I really started playing. Even in AAU basketball, I had to prove myself and get to elite status by outworking people, outplaying people, outthinking them and sticking with my ability, and believing in myself. With the college thing, it worked out completely well for our team because we were very successful with the four guards, when Curt got hurt. You never know what would have happened, but I got the opportunity to show what I can do and make the best out of the opportunity. In Memphis, Mike was a high Draft pick and he had the potential that he showed this year and respectively, they picked him to be their franchise point guard and I understood those things. For me personally, it was kind of a diss, but I understood it. It’s a business. I wasn’t mad. I loved the organization of Memphis to even draft me to be in the league. Coming to Houston, I knew my role and it was a backup. Guys always said I was a backup and felt that I was a backup, but in my head, I didn’t believe it. I wanted to be a starter and I just wanted to keep working at it, and when I had the opportunity to show it, I did.
On Kevin McHale as the new Rockets’ head coach:
“I did have a chance to talk to him [McHale]. I’m excited about the opportunity, the newness of a coach, the chance to see his way of thinking, his way of coaching. It’s just that type of thing where you go into a new situation, you have to prove yourself again. You’ve got to prove that you’re worthy of the positions that he’s putting everyone in. He’s going to make people earn everything that they get. He had ups and downs in Minnesota. It’s different because he’s never had a training camp. He’s always been given a team halfway through and now he gets a chance to build a team from how he wants the team to be. I’m excited. Leaving Rick, he’s one of the best coaches of all-time and he’s showed that by his wins. I think it’s just going to be different. Guys are going to have a different mentality by way of the coaching staff and the head coach from Rick. Rick is very laid-back, but he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. With Kevin coming in, it’s an opportunity to show what he can do with a team from the start and I think everybody’s open-minded and willing to be ready to work.”
On his attitude adjustment:
“It actually was a quicker process than many would probably think. It was when I went to Villanova, going into my sophomore year–my freshman year, I was still one of those head cases, still looked at the world like everyone’s against me, blahzay blah–and I just changed my mentality. Me and Coach [Jay] Wright, we never talked about basketball. We would only talk about being a legit man, being accountable for all your decisions and mistakes, and I started to learn that everything I did was representative of my mom, my grandma, how I grew up. I’m coming from North Philly, in the hood, so I always had to do what I had to do to survive and that’s how I play. Now, understanding that opportunity comes at different moments and you’re a big-time, national-TV player, everyone knows your name, everyone knows your family and you’ve got to represent that. I just think me growing up fast at ‘Nova from talking to Coach Wright almost every day about being a man, being legit and helping me, having good teammates around me, Randy Foye, just learning and understanding that life’s tough and you’ve got to be a man. You’re a man and you’ve got to be accountable for every decision that you make in life.”