Kennedy Meeks hovered just off the stage of West Charlotte High’s auditorium, welcoming admirers into his arms.
At 6-foot-10, the former North Carolina basketball star towered over everyone, not unlike his four years on the court at West Charlotte,where he graduated in 2013.
He hugged people he had never met, but they’d known him for years. Meeks spent 10 minutes signing autographs and 15 minutes posing for pictures. In the small brick auditorium, Thursday’s “Kennedy Meeks Day” drew an enthusiastic crowd worthy of a champion.
It wasn’t the first time he’d returned to his alma mater, where he won a high school state championship and MVP honors in 2011. But this day - nearly eight weeks after UNC won its sixth NCAA championship - was for him.
“I’m proud to be from here …” said Meeks, a Charlotte native. “This is the city that built me and created me into the man that I am today.”
He isn’t the same person who walked the halls of West Charlotte four years ago. The recent UNC graduate is about 60 pounds lighter, has a chinstrap beard and a little more discipline. But the same restless spirit that tested the patience of high school teachers and Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was celebrated on stage.
Jacoby Davis, one of Meeks’ high school coaches, said he’s seen nearly every type of personality among his players. But none was quite like the former Lions star.
“You don't find too many Kennedy Meeks,” he said.
The same applies on the court. After becoming a McDonald’s All-American and three-time all-state selection in high school, Meeks made his presence known in his four college seasons in Chapel Hill. None was bigger than his final year, when he set the school record for rebounds in an NCAA tournament and made two game-saving plays in the final two games of the Tar Heels’ title run.
His reward was a championship ring, a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a day in his honor – something he said he never imagined while in high school.
“For people to think about me in that light,” Meeks said, “it’s something special.”
After a spirited opening performance from the school’s marching band, former coaches and administrators took turns lauding Meeks, the first West Charlotte alumnus to win an NCAA men’s basketball championship.
While his jersey won’t hang in the rafters of UNC’s Smith Center, his No. 40 Lions jersey will be immortalized at West Charlotte – as if anyone needed a reminder of his success.
At one point, they did. Former West Charlotte athletics director Vernon Hunter recalled taking Meeks to lunch during his freshman year at the school. When the waitress didn’t recognize the player, Hunter set the record straight.
“That will never happen again,” Hunter remembers telling a young Meeks. “By the time your freshman year is over, everyone in this town is gonna know your name. ...
“And by the time you leave the University of North Carolina, everybody in the world is gonna know your name.”
On Thursday, Meeks couldn’t escape the attention. He waded through students and administrators, all fighting to get a picture with him. But Meeks didn’t seem to mind, never losing his jovial grin.
Finally, he made his way through his old hallways and into the parking lot, where he was swarmed by a new crowd of hopefuls. Thirty feet away, five kids stood on the sidewalk, getting a glimpse of the local hero.
They needed no introduction. They knew his name.
C Jackson Cowart: 503-964-1999, @CJacksonCowart