West Charlotte's Meeks is a big talent weighing a big decision

lwertz@charlotteobserver.comNovember 11, 2012 

Sometime soon, perhaps this week, maybe next month, West Charlotte High All-American Kennedy Meeks will make the biggest decision of his young life.

He will choose to play college basketball at either Georgetown or North Carolina. He can sign as early as Wednesday, when the NCAA’s early signing period for basketball begins.

To hear him tell it, he figures his college decision will jump-start his future.

“I want to win a state championship as a senior,” said Meeks, a 6-foot-9, 285-pound center. “I want to pass my knowledge on to the younger guys, who can hopefully be in the same position I’m in. I want to be known for something in North Carolina, no matter which college I go to. I want to be known for something great. Picking the right school is a huge part of that.”

Meeks, a National Honor Society student, is ranked by ESPN as the nation’s 20th-best player in the class of 2013. Helping him along with his college decision are three people closest to him – great-grandmother Rosalie, mom Nakhia and great-aunt Brenda.

They have been there for him from the beginning.

Meeks, nicknamed “Big Baby” by his high school coach because of his smooth facial features and a ready smile, comes from a large, close family. He lives with his great-grandmother in a house that is the center of the Meeks’ social circle. That is to say, everyone checks in and everyone checks in often.

On Sundays, the family gathers for church, then for a big meal and fellowship.

It was on one of those Sundays that Meeks first displayed some athletic talent.

He was 3 then. Everyone was in the front yard and the toddler picked up a baseball. Aunt Brenda’s husband, David Richmond, noticed how unusually strong and natural the boy’s throwing motion was. The ball came out hard and straight.

“David said, ‘He’ll play baseball,’ ” Aunt Brenda recalls.

Eventually, Pop Warner football followed baseball, than came basketball. The one constant through those years? Meeks kept getting bigger.

By fifth grade, when Meeks was at Dilworth Elementary, everyone began noticing a big growth spurt.

“When he stood alone you couldn’t tell,” said Aunt Brenda, who taught at Dilworth for nearly 30 years before retiring. “You saw his pants going all up his legs and his feet going out, but to see him in the school photo compared to the other fifth-graders that year, we were like, ‘Wow, that boy is growing fast!’ ”

As Meeks’ feet grew – he wears a size 17 now – finding shoes that fit was difficult.

“Keeping him in shoes,” mom Nakhia said, “was really, really hard. He’s been big for a long, long time.”

Three years ago, Meeks visited his grandmother, Mary, who was very sick.

“You’re looking more and more like my dad,” she told Meeks, after enjoying a good laugh at her grandson’s large feet. “You’re going to be as tall as my dad. He was 7 foot.”

She died a few days later.

Growing in height, stature

By eighth grade, Meeks was about 6-foot-5 and his teams were winning championships at AAU tournaments up and down the East Coast. Meeks, who could score easily around the basket, was becoming a star.

He played on West Charlotte’s varsity as a ninth-grader, which is rare; most players that age play junior varsity. The next season, Meeks was MVP of the Lions’ 4A state championship team, as he had 12 points and 19 rebounds in a 78-69 win over Raleigh Millbrook. That was the fourth-most rebounds in championship-game history.

As a junior, Meeks again led the Lions to the state championship game, but West Charlotte was upset, losing 67-56 to Wilmington New Hanover. Meeks had 14 points and 21 rebounds, the second-most rebounds in championship history.

After the loss, as his teammates fought through tears and the emotions of losing, Meeks stood and clapped for New Hanover’s players during the trophy presentation.. Then, a message for his teammates: We’ll be back next year.

“This was a good learning experience,” Meeks said. “We fought through a lot this season. We lost some at the buzzer and won some by 30 points. You’ve just got to deal with it.”

Meeks said almost as soon as the high school season ended, AAU season awaited. Meeks’ play in AAU helped him rise up the recruiting rankings. He moved into the top 20 on national charts and has been ranked by most as either the No. 1 or No. 2 center in the nation.

After being inundated by scholarship offers from colleges as far away as Stanford, Meeks eventually narrowed his list to six schools: Georgetown, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, N.C. State and Ohio State.

Then the home visits began.

College coaches were always scheduled for when Meeks’ family could gather at Kennedy’s great-grandmother’s house. Rosalie Meeks has raised several generations in what the family calls “the yellow house on the hill” in the University Park neighborhood in northwest Charlotte.

Miss Rosalie, who is 87, has long been famous for Sunday dinner. She prepares two meats, and one almost always has her popular fried-baked chicken. She fries it and then bakes the grease off. You can also count on four vegetables and lots of Kool-Aid. Rosalie and Meeks’ mom, Nakhia, handle much of the cooking. Traditionally, everyone attends church on Sundays, then meets afterward for dinner by 2.

So when Kentucky coach John Calipari visited this fall, he and two assistants dined on the full meal. Calipari wore a suit and a shirt with no tie. The jacket didn’t stay on long, family members said.

Georgetown coach John Thompson III and his staff attended church with Meeks and his family and then came to the house to enjoy fried-baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, greens, green beans, pulled corn and yams.

When North Carolina coach Roy Williams visited in September, he was to arrive at 5:30 p.m. Because the big meal was always earlier, the family prepared a dessert bar and planned for an hourlong visit. Williams sampled the six different desserts and settled on the coconut cake. He enjoyed two slices. Williams and assistant coaches C.B. McGrath and Hubert Davis didn’t leave until about 9 p.m. By then, Williams had removed his dark suit jacket and loosened the tie of his light blue shirt.

“He was a very humble man,” said Aunt Brenda, who has become the de-facto recruiting coordinator for Team Meeks. “He was just normal. He said any family member could ask a question. My brother asked, ‘How long will you be there?’ I’ll never forget. His nose turned red at the tip end. C.B. sat out on the couch and looked very stern.”

Williams answered the question. The family wasn’t aware that just days after the visit that Williams was scheduled for a procedure to remove a tumor from his kidney that doctors feared might be cancerous. The tumor was removed successfully and was found to be benign.

“(Williams) said he would coach five or 10 years,” Aunt Brenda said. “He said, ‘That’s my plan. Of course, you know things happen.’ ”

‘A very unique set of skills’

Meeks took officials visits to Georgetown and North Carolina. Ohio State and Kentucky had received commitments from players of similar size and skill set. There was a mutual decision to move on. After visiting his first two schools, Meeks decided he was ready to trim his list to them.

“I just felt like I had the best opportunity with those two,” he said last week. “I figured if I was to stay two years and leave (for the NBA), I could still come back and get my education. Those degrees are known around the whole country. Basketball-wise, both of them have good coaches and great teams.”

While his list is trimmed to two schools, Meeks said he’s unsure when he’ll make his decision.

“I was thinking about making it in November,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ll be ready. I might want to watch the season for a little bit, to see whichever one of them is right for me.”

ESPN national recruiting analyst Dave Telep said Meeks will bring great ability to either school. As a post player, he has a knack for catching passes thrown anywhere near him. He has the same knack of controlling rebounds. That early baseball pitching prowess he displayed at 3 shows up in his basketball outlet passes. He hits teammates with long, accurate two-handed and one-handed tosses that ignite fast breaks.

“There’s a lot to like about Kennedy,” Telep said. “He has a terrific understanding of his position in terms of rebounds and finishing (plays at the basket), and he’s got great hands. He’s a superior outlet passer. That’s a big skill for a big guy.

“If Kennedy can continue to shape up his body and put together a college resume, he can play professional basketball. That’s all reasonable. It’s a process for him. But he’s one of the few guys from coast to coast that you can dump the ball down to and get a bucket, and on the other end, he’s rebounding and starting the break. It’s a very unique set of skills and he has them.”

Another thing Meeks has, his high school coach said, is a renewed drive to do what it takes to make himself better.

The biggest knock on Meeks has always been his weight. He was 305 pounds at the end of last season and has since dropped 20 pounds.

“He’s matured a lot and gotten better basketball-wise,” West Charlotte coach Baronton Terry said. “His body has trimmed down. Most of his weight is muscle now. He’s out there running by himself on the field. He understands what it takes.”

Terry said Meeks met NBA superstars Kobe Bryant and Lebron James last summer during an AAU event in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Olympic Team was playing an exhibition. The pros talked to Meeks about dedication.

“And just dealing with the coaches he’s dealing with makes you want to get better,” Terry said. “We’ve got Roy Williams and some of the Georgetown coaches at practice two nights ago. It doesn’t do anything but motivate you when Roy sits and watches practice all by himself. Those things help him understand that he’s on that level and needs to work.”

Meeks said he’s ready to do whatever it takes. He wants to win a state championship. He wants to leave a legacy.

Most of all, he wants to make his family proud – especially the three women who mean the most to him.

“My grandma raised me with my mom and my aunt,” Meeks said. “They’ve been the backbone of everything. They’ve helped me with my grades. They’ve been there for me. Oh my gosh, they mean the whole world. These are the people I do it for; these are the people I want to make happy the most. I don’t want to let them down.”

Wertz: 704-612-9716; twitter: @langstonwertzjr

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