CHAPEL HILL — The Sunday gatherings always after church, always with fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and at least three other vegetables are about 30 years older than Kennedy Meeks, the North Carolina freshman forward who recently celebrated his 20th birthday.
All his life, he has known the familiar Sunday routine of church in the morning, followed by fellowship and feasting in the afternoon. His great grandmother, Rosalie, bakes a mean peach pie, not to mention the fried chicken and mac and cheese, and dont forget the cobbler, also peach.
The staples, said Brenda Richmond, Meeks great-aunt.
Richmond helped raise Meeks, along with his great-grandmother and mother, Nakhia. Meeks was, and is, Richmond said recently, an everybody child who received some of his most memorable childhood lessons right there at the table during those Sunday gatherings, surrounded by love, stories and, if it was summer, okra.
For the past six months, though, Meeks, a former standout at West Charlotte High, has undergone a great transformation perhaps his most important. The transformation is ongoing, even while Meeks role at UNC has become more significant.
Meeks has started each of North Carolinas past seven games all victories and scored a career-high 23 points during a victory Monday at Florida State. Entering UNCs game on Thursday night against Duke at the Smith Center, Meeks appears to have finally found comfort, and his place.
Yet looks can be deceiving, too. UNC coach Roy Williams often has described how much Meeks has progressed, but Williams said Wednesday that Meeks still has far to go. Meeks was always the biggest kid growing up and hed never been larger than when he arrived at North Carolina in the summer.
The 6-foot-9 Meeks weighed 320 pounds. He has since lost more than 30 pounds and is embarrassed to talk about how heavy hed become, but its easier to understand knowing the role food has played in Meeks life. Everybody eats, but not everybody comes from a family that loves to eat as much as Meeks family does.
There was nothing I could do about it, Meeks said of gaining the weight.
Richmond, the great-aunt Meeks simply calls her his aunt has a simple theory for why Meeks couldnt keep the weight off before traveling from Charlotte to Chapel Hill.
That last year of high school, I guess he was extra happy, she said with a laugh.
Better choices, better results
When Meeks arrived at UNC, his weight became more of a focal point. He had heard the fat jokes growing up, and had dealt with people talking about his weight throughout his life.
Now, conversations about his weight were more serious. Williams was concerned about Meeks ability to fit into the Tar Heels fast-paced playing style. Jonas Sahratian, UNCs strength and conditioning coach, wondered if Meeks could handle the work.
Williams, Sahratian and others in and around the basketball program were surprised that Meeks was so out of shape when he arrived. Seven months later, theyre perhaps equally surprised by how far Meeks has come.
I think that Kennedy should be congratulated, Williams said. Hes lost over 30 pounds. Hes understanding nutrition, understanding the value of losing that weight that was not muscle, it was just the kind of weight that you dont want to have and its not easy.
I mean, Ive never been one to have to diet very much. But everybody that I talk to talks about how hard it is and I know people are telling me the truth.
Meeks evolution took a lot of work from a lot of people. Williams and UNCs coaches taught Meeks the importance of conditioning for his basketball future. Sahratian developed a plan to rebuild Meeks physique one focused on nutrition and emphasizing healthier eating habits.
Meeks teammates have played an important role, too. When teammates go out to eat, they often make sure that Meeks is eating right.
They want the best out of me as much as I want the best out of myself, Meeks said. Say for instance if Im with Marcus (Paige) and Nate (Britt), and they get burgers or something like that, theyll probably tell me to go get a chicken wrap.
Embracing the weight question
This isnt an easy thing. Wherever Meeks goes, his physique is a focal point.
His issues with weight loss have been well-documented. TV broadcasters talk about it, and reporters write about it and fans who root for other teams know about it. Meeks has remained patient with the endless stream of questions about how many pounds hes lost, and how many more he wants to lose. About his ability to keep up in Williams offense.
Imagine your most noticeable physical flaw being the one thing people most want to talk about. Meeks knows that reality.
I havent noticed people talking about it as much as they did when I first got here, he said recently. It gets a little bit annoying at times, but Ive been through it so long I know how to deal with it. Im not worried about it.
In some ways, it bothers his family more. Going to a road game can be difficult, Richmond said, because the family hears people in the stands talking about their son and all of the elders in Meeks family views him as their son.
The game last month at Syracuse, Richmond said, was brutal, and she said brutal as if every letter were capitalized. There are still road games to come at N.C. State, and at Duke and, perhaps, three more years of playing amid hostile environments where college kids can be creatively cruel.
People can be cruel, Richmond said. People can be mean. But people are going to be people. But weve told him eons back youve got to turn a deaf ear to what people say. You know who you are. Youve got to value that. And youve got to throw the rest of it off.
A while back, Meeks said he hit the wall. It was in late December and early January. During one five-game stretch, including two starts, he went scoreless twice and at times appeared lost.
Paige, UNCs sophomore guard, empathized. Paige, now the teams leading scorer, went through a similar ordeal last year.
All freshmen hit the wall, Paige said. Its tough. Its a long season. Its a lot different than high school. Youre asked a lot more here. But I think (Meeks is) starting to figure it out. Hes starting to see what works. You know, when he goes up quickly in the paint, hes a lot more successful than when he waits and lets the people time his shot.
Thats one aspect where Meeks has shown improvement. Consistency, though, continues to be a challenge. The 23 points Meeks scored at Florida State were more than hed scored in his previous four games combined. Still, he has played a vital role in the Tar Heels improvement after their 1-4 ACC start.
Yet his journey is ongoing. He continues his own fight against his body, and his work to reshape it. Williams said he wants Meeks to become more explosive and that his lack of explosiveness is the big thing thats holding him back.
So Meeks continues to work at it. He continues to rely on Sahratian other than my family, hes probably been one of the most influential people in my life, Meeks said and he continues to rely on his teammates, who have continued to help him make better eating choices.
And when he goes back home for those Sunday gatherings, a more conducive menu awaits, which includes baked chicken, for one.
We try to eat his way, Richmond said. So its not as difficult.
After a pause, she laughed.
But now, were still going to have the fried chicken, she said. Were still going to have the macaroni and cheese.
The difference now, she said, is that Meeks limits his intake. Meeks hasnt been back home much these days. Theres not enough time during the season. When hes able he goes back to Charlotte, where the familiar gatherings await him along with some healthier food options.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter