Q+A: Kerry Kittles
SLAMonline catches up with the former New Jersey Nets SG.
by Christian Mordi / @mordi_thecomeup
It may have been the middle of summer at Montclair State University, but the campus was buzzing with student activity last Wednesday. Former New Jersey Net Kerry Kittles was expected to be on campus for an interview with ESPN analyst Chris Broussard, so I expected a nice showing in regards to media coverage. Every seat was filled in the media room, but to my surprise, all the seats were filled by middle school students and teenage writers.
Write On sports director Byron Yake, a former sports editor and senior executive at the AP, created the program to help students enhance and apply their writing skills outside the classroom at a young age.
The students weaved with ease from question to question with the poise and professionalism of grizzled veterans. I calmly waited my turn and was honored to speak with Kerry one-on-one at the end of the event.
Kerry Kittles was one of the great players in the Big East in the ‘90s. During his time at Villanova, he broke the school’s all-time scoring record and was an All-American during his tenure. The New Orleans native was taken eighth overall in the 1996 Draft and produced some solid seasons the Nets.
SLAMonline got the chance to link up with the former Wildcat to discuss his tenure with the Nets, playing for famed coach John Calipari, his thoughts on gracing several iconic SLAM covers and more.
SLAM: You were drafted eighth overall in what consider one of the deepest draft classes of all time—You, Kobe, AI, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Peja and more. I can only imagine the pre-Draft workouts and one-on-one matchups were probably intense. Were there any encounters that you knew would be a classic moment?
Kerry Kittles: It was the best [draft class]. Nah, back then they didn’t have the players go head-to-head in regards to the college players. When I went to see the Nets, they had Ed O’Bannon there. Kobe was also there that day and we both went against [O'Bannon]. Another standout moment to me was going up to Boston, they were picking sixth, and they had me and Nash out there, and I remember watching him with Dennis Johnson. But yeah it was a great Draft. If those guys would’ve stayed in school I could’ve been the first pick in the Draft [laughs].
SLAM: What are your thoughts on the Big East realignment? Some of the tradition and rivalries will be things of the past…
KK: It puts a damper on guys like me and guys before me. The greats before me like Patrick Ewing from Georgetown, Derrick Coleman from Syracuse, a lot of the fondest memories of mine are playing against those other schools in the conference. From a business aspect, all the schools now are doing whatever they can to position themselves financially to be able to make money with their programs. Get better facilities and get bigger TV contracts. On the other side the turnover hurts the purity of the game and once hyped traditional rivalries.
For me, I used to love going to Syracuse and playing in the Dome. Boston College, I had one of my best games up there in Boston, and now they are gone in the ACC. Stuff like that—now that it’s gone is sad, but it’s the way college basketball is nowadays.
SLAM: Back in 1998 you graced an iconic SLAM cover with Sam Cassell, Kendall Gill, Jayson Williams and Keith Van Horn. Former Ed. Tony Gervino said that if that team was held together, you guys would have won a title in 2001. Do you think—barring injures and given time—that team could’ve possibly reached the Finals, or were things broken up too soon?
KK: That was a nice group. Who’s to say where we would’ve reached, you know? We were a good group of guys, we competed, but we also had our flaws. We weren’t that deep, even though we did have Sherman Douglas and Chris Gatling. But I think we would have been competitive. But we did make the Playoffs that year of the cover. And if we didn’t play the Bulls first, I believe even that year, we could’ve went further. We had some savvy veterans.
SLAM: How was it playing for Coach Cal during that time in your life? Did you like the system, and is there one piece of advice he gave you that still resonates today?
KK: I would say playing for Cal and all the coaches I ever played for, he was the most competitive. He wanted to win and was on me a lot. Those three years he was on me to do well, I mean he drafted me, bought me in. I was just out of college and he brought his college mentality to coaching me. A lot of people didn’t like it, the media didn’t like it, but I felt like it made me a better player.
Coach Cal was a good guy and it was sad when he got fired. He bought out certain competitive juices that maybe would have not risen if I had an older coach that let me just feel my way around the NBA. He was like, “You are going to be a star, you are going to work hard, and I am going to get on you every day about that.”
SLAM: The second Nets cover you were on was featured new faces—K-Mart, Kidd, MacCulloch. New coach Byron Scott was at the helm, with one of my favorite staffs ever of Eddie Jordan, Lawrence Frank, etc. Tell us about the dynamic of that team and what made it special.
KK: Well, the League is always changing in regards to style of play and how to be successful. The really good teams and coaches are able to adapt to the times. Very few can stick to the script and endure the changes, like a San Antonio or a Utah under Jerry Sloan.
When I first came in, it was guards backing you down and trying to score. Once they got rid of the backing down and illegal defense, the game changed. That opened up more pick and roll. The offense we ran with Eddie was a lot of ball screening, passing…
SLAM: You guys ran the Princeton, right?
KK: Yeah, and on that level a lot of teams weren’t used to that. We had a lot of twists and it threw teams off. It was so many different levels to what we did offensively. I think that was why we were so successful, because we really didn’t have a go-to scorer, I mean Keith could score, but we usually needed to work off a screen. Where we did shine was in transition, though. We would score 20 or 30 a game in the open court. It was just so much fun to play.
SLAM: Many young players who are true students of the game model themselves after you on and off the court. I can imagine it happens on a regular basis, but when young people ask you for advice on how to improve their game, what do you tell them?
KK: I would say first you have to have a good foundation. If you have that, then I believe it’s easier to get better. I would tell the kid to get around someone who can teach him or her the basic fundamentals. Many kids try to mimic what they see on TV or friends who may be more advanced, and it hurts their game and growth.
I was telling the kids today, and I don’t hear this stressed enough, but basketball is a speed game. When you go to high schools and ask the kids what they are working on in the offseason, nobody runs track. If you look at college or the NBA at the top-20 players the majority of the players are the fastest ones on their level, but no one now works on speed. Your footwork and speed will make you a better player. Imagine if you can dribble a ball with speed and control—how can you be stopped?
SLAM: What are kids this generation lacking in comparison to when you were 20?
KK: They are lacking the ability to play without the ball. Every kid I see now has to have the ball in his or her hands to shine. Everyone who teaches now also puts the ball in the kid’s hands and tells them to go one-on-one, stresses moves. So kids don’t know how to play without the ball in their hands. They need to learn how to move, when to cut, learn how to create space.
Also, kids don’t know how to shoot. I am a big golf fan, and when you watch the pros play golf, it’s a mechanical sport, the large majority all have the same technique in regards to swing. You would think in basketball it would translate and we would have the same form in regards to shooting the ball. Lack of fundamentals.