The Road Less Traveled – Part II

After Kyle Casey’s freshman year in college, the 6-foot-7 forward was being mentioned as a legitimate NBA prospect.

After Kyle Casey’s freshman year in college, the 6-foot-7 forward was being mentioned as a legitimate NBA prospect. Recruited by some major D-I programs, he chose to attend Harvard University, where he recently earned his undergraduate degree. Away from the glare of the national spotlight, he was instrumental in Harvard’s resurgence over the last few years, helping to transform the once moribund program into an Ivy League powerhouse.

There are many talented basketball players, who are aren’t big names like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, who were hoping to hear their names called on NBA Draft night. They’ll settle for a spot on an NBA Summer League roster, determined to play their way into a training camp invitation. Kyle Casey is among them. Here is Part II of his journey. 

If you missed it week last, here is Part I.

 

When Casey moved into Greenough Hall, one of the freshman dorms located in the Crimson Yard and just outside of the historical confines of Harvard Yard, he took a moment to let the totality of his impending opportunity seep in. He held hands with his brother and mother as they said a prayer together, and reflected on the work that led him to this juncture.

“That was a very proud moment,” said Casey. “And not just for me, but for my family and all of the teachers and coaches who had helped and supported me over the years as well. I thought about my mom’s sacrifices, changing jobs and all of those long rides to school at 6 o’clock in the morning.”

“When we moved him into his dorm, I thought about my family, my sisters, brothers, my mother, my grandfather, and I said, ‘Wow! Look at where our Kyle is. I couldn’t believe it, even as I was unpacking his things. I made it through moving him in and left to go to work.”

On the drive to her job, tears of joy cascaded down her cheeks.

Casey soon learned that, despite being heavily recruited, he wasn’t going to just step onto the court and immediately dominate. The players were bigger, the game was faster, and there was a lot less space on the floor for him to operate.

 

 

“In high school, I could get to the rim whenever I wanted and boom it on anybody,” said Casey. “I was known for attacking the rim, for being an aggressive athlete who could get to the bucket. I realized very quickly that I was going to have to expand my game.”

Outside of practice, he spent hours in the gym, working on his lateral quickness and intermediate game. He pushed himself to acquire a mid-range arsenal and a floater. Jeremy Lin and another senior, Doug Miller, helped push him, offering advice on how to approach and prepare for each practice and game.

“Those guys helped me get ready to play at a level that I needed to be at if I wanted to be successful in college,” said Casey.

“As most freshman, Kyle didn’t recognize how different and challenging the transition would be,” said Amaker. “Some people think that because they had some big name schools recruiting them, they can come to a place like Harvard and dominate from day one. But it doesn’t work like that. There are good players everywhere. He developed a profound respect for Division I basketball. But he kept working. Everything didn’t happen overnight, as most kids want it to. He had the good fortune of playing with a great player in Jeremy, and that helped him. But when Kyle found his rhythm and became confident, his talent took over and his game took off.”

As the Crimson’s sixth man, Casey scored 12 points, connecting on four of his six shots, in his college debut against Holy Cross in November of 2009. But he truly began to emerge and turn heads beginning in late December, when, against George Washington, he scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench. At Seattle, he put up 19 points, six rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes in early January. He followed that up with 27 points and eight rebounds in only 26 minutes of action against Santa Clara a few nights later.

“Things really started to click for me on that west coast trip my freshman year,” said Casey. “As the first guy off the bench, I would always study what was going on during the game so I could figure out what kind of contribution the team needed. Jeremy was off against Santa Clara, and that was a big game for him because he was playing in front of his family and friends out in California. I just came out really aggressive in that game, got some dunks early and my shot was falling.”

In the victorious postgame locker room, Lin wrapped his freshman protégé in a sincere bear hug, saying, “Thank you! I really wanted to win this game in my hometown. You really stepped up. This is the player that you can be at all times.”

“That gave me so much confidence,” said Casey. “Having the trust and support of the captain and leader of our team like that, as a freshman, meant a lot to me. It really put me over the hump.”

Amaker inserted him into the starting lineup in February, and Casey went on to earn the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year Award. Sporting News named him their Freshman of the Year and he was starting to be mentioned as a legitimate NBA prospect.

 

 

During the summer break, he did an internship at a Venture Capital firm in New York City and returned to campus excited to build upon the accomplishments of his outstanding freshman year.

During a preseason pick up game, six weeks before his sophomore campaign was slated to kick off, he took a pass at the top of the key, executed a left-to-right crossover dribble, and drove toward the hoop with a powerful, quick burst.

“I planted really hard, was about to go up for the dunk, and felt something snap in my right foot,” said Casey. “I broke my fifth metatarsal bone clear through. That was a big blow. I had surgery and that was the first injury that ever kept me away from playing basketball.”

He attacked his rehab assignments with a vigorous intensity and was able to return after only missing a few games.

“But about three games in, I was at the top of the key, caught a pass, made the exact same move and felt another pop,” said Casey. “It broke again, right up to the screw that they’d inserted during the previous surgery.”

The Ivy League does not award a redshirt year due to injuries. If Casey had surgery immediately, he would have to miss the rest of the season and only have two more years left to play at Harvard.

“You don’t get five years to play four in the Ivy,” said Casey. “I didn’t want to lose a full season, so I elected to have the surgery after our season was over. So I just played through it and finished the year out on a broken foot.”

“That was very tough for Kyle because he was coming off such a terrific year,” said Amaker. “That was our breakthrough year and he was very instrumental in that. He was the guy who was considered to be the face and the future of our program. He fought through the pain and the adversity and even though he wasn’t right physically, he gave it everything he had. It was amazing that he was able to do what he did that year.”

The pain was excruciating at times. When he wasn’t playing, he walked around campus in a boot. If the pain became too intense during practice, he’d sit down. During halftime of some games, he literally sat in the locker room and cried as his throbbing foot tortured him.

With his diminished explosion and athleticism, Casey worked on strengthening other aspects of his game.

“It actually helped me in a way because I had to develop a different style,” he said. “My mid-range game really came together. I couldn’t explode, so I really got my face-up game going. I would use my jab step and pull up for jumpers, or use the jab step to set up my defender, lean into him, use my strength, get them off balance and just raise up and release my shot over them. I benefitted from that in the long run, but that was a tough year.”

He scored 24 points against Princeton in early March, and against Oklahoma State in the postseason N.I.T., he led Harvard with 13 points and seven rebounds.

After successful offseason surgery and another intense rehab, Casey, who was the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder as a junior in 2012, led Harvard to their first NCAA Tournament birth since 1946.

 

 

Despite losing to Vanderbilt in the round of 64, his decision to play college basketball at Harvard was validated. He made the impact at the university, and within the hoops program, that Coach Amaker had envisioned and postulated during his recruiting process.

That summer, the team took a trip to Italy, strengthening their already sturdy bond.

“We were absolutely killing it over there,” said Casey. “We were really clicking, blowing pro teams out by 15 and 20 points. We came back on a real high and knew that we were poised to embark on an incredible season. When we got back to campus in the fall, that’s when we started to hear about the speculation that a lot of people in my Government, Introduction to Congress class were caught up in an academic scandal. The more we heard, the more it looked like it could be really bad.”

In late August, Harvard College announced that its administrative board was investigating allegations that approximately 125 students “…may have committed acts of academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism, on a take-home final exam.”

Casey and his teammate Brandyn Curry were among the group of students being investigated.

In Harvard undergrad circles, the class was known for years to be one where students worked together on the take home exams.

“The culture of the class was collaboration, everyone worked together,” said Casey. “It wasn’t a malicious, blatant thing where we got together and decided to cheat. Everyone was working with someone on the take home tests. We’d go to the dining hall, see some classmates and be like, ‘Hey, you guys want to get together tonight and knock this thing out.’ It was an accepted part of the class and had been for years.”

“We had discussion groups with the graduate students who were our teaching fellows, and they helped us as well,” he continued. “And then all of a sudden, the news broke and people were being asked to leave. It was surreal. The teaching fellows helped us prepare for the final, as well all of the other exams during the semester. Hypothetically, it could have happened on all of our exams, not just the final. We all had the same notes. There wasn’t some wicked conspiracy to cheat, or to ignore our academic integrity. Honestly, no one was expecting this. We were encouraged to work together. No one saw this coming until it smacked everybody in the face.”

Casey and Curry wanted to fight the allegations, but if they remained in school, started their senior season and were given an unfavorable ruling, their Harvard basketball careers would have ended. After much thought, and input from legal and academic advisors, they withdrew from the University and would be allowed to re-enroll the next year.

“I had a lot to figure out,” said Casey. “The school year had already started and we had to make a tough decision to withdraw, even though we wanted to clear our names. We knew that there was a culture in place that encouraged us to work together in that class. We didn’t feel like we’d done anything wrong. But we knew that if we didn’t get a favorable ruling, and the scandal was beginning to mushroom into a very big story around the country, that we’d never be able to play basketball at Harvard again. So we withdrew to preserve our eligibility. It was the toughest decision I ever had to make.”

At the apex of the scandal’s maelstrom in September of 2012, Casey and Curry’s names were leaked to the national media. A ravenous frenzy ensued. Out of the approximately 125 students that were involved, Casey became the face of the scandal.

Reporters zeroed in on him. At 3:00AM, on the night that he made the decision to withdraw, Casey’s cell phone started vibrating. It didn’t stop for nearly 30 minutes.

“I woke up and had about 60 missed phone calls and voicemails, all from numbers that I didn’t recognize,” said Casey. “I listened to the first few messages and they were from USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. I went on Twitter and all I saw was my name – ‘Harvard Captain Kyle Casey withdraws from school amid cheating scandal.’ Brandyn lived two doors down from me in my dorm. I went to his room and said, ‘Man, somebody leaked our names.’ Things got really hectic and started to fall apart from there. That was a helluva two or three weeks.”

Casey found media members camped out in front of his dorm the next morning. They followed him around campus. Some journalists showed up at his brother’s school, his mother’s job, and at the family’s home. School officials did not release the names of any other students that were implicated. Casey and Curry were going to have to carry the entire weight.

“One night, some media members actually got inside my dorm and came to my room,” said Casey.  

“That knocked me to my core,” said Sharon. “It paralyzed me for days. I didn’t understand. I was concerned about my son, who went about everything in his life with integrity. I saw him go inside of himself. I saw him grieving, because there was this very real sense of loss. And I was concerned about the Harvard basketball family, because they had become a part of our family as well. I was worried about how it might affect Tommy Amaker. And I was angry at the way the University handled it. That entire situation rocked him.”

“You cannot let this situation change who you are,” Sharon told her son. “We know the real story. And if you want to play at the next level, I can guarantee that this won’t be the last time where you’ll be exposed to the negative aspects of the media. So, are you cut out for this?”

“The situation engulfed the entire Harvard community,” said Amaker. “We had gained so much notoriety and attention, coming from the depths and despair of where the program was, to reaching the pinnacle of winning our conference and getting to the NCAA Tournament. And then, this unfolds. And it was Kyle and Brandyn’s names and faces, and mine too, that became the faces of that entire episode. We talked about it as a team, and with Kyle and Brandyn individually. We talked about how things weren’t always going to be fair. And so now, the question was, ‘Well, what do we do with it?’”

 

 

Amaker stressed to his players that they would have the chance to say the last word, that they would be able to write the episode’s final chapter. He asked them if they were going to wallow and become bitter because they’d been unfairly targeted and treated.

For a few days, it seemed that Casey might do just that. He was angry with the way he was being portrayed in the national media. He was initially very bitter with the way that he felt the university handled the situation. He thought about transferring to another school, and considered playing professionally in Europe for a few years before returning home to give the NBA a shot.

“I had to take some time to calm down and make a rational decision,” said Casey. “I felt like I worked so hard to make everybody proud of me, and now, when this hit, without knowing the specifics, so many people felt let down. That hurt me.”

In addition to his reputation being damaged, and the upheaval that had suddenly reconfigured his world, he also had to deal with some more sinister societal elements.

He received messages via social media that were filled with racist invective, alluding to him being just another dumb black athlete who should never have been admitted to Harvard.

“I got a lot of messages from people that basically said, ‘Good for you, you mother*****! You never deserved to be in the Ivy League in the first place,’ said Casey. “But I got through it. I really found out who was in my corner throughout all of that.”

During his year away from Harvard, Casey worked at The 3Point Foundation, a non-profit organization in Boston that conducts free after-school academic enrichment and mentoring programs for at-risk, elementary school-aged urban youth.

“That was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “Most people can’t fathom what some of these kids have experienced at such an early age. It helped me to reevaluate my own thoughts around the struggles that I was having. Some of them had been shot at, seen people killed, didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, and they were ten, eleven and twelve years old. It really touched me, knowing that they looked up to me, the bonds we formed and the impact I was able to have. I realized how great a responsibility I’d been given.”

The mentoring offered him a perspective that he hadn’t previously had. He realized that as good as things seem to be going, it can all fall apart in an instant. He became intimately familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

As much as the young kids looked up to Casey, they had no idea how much they touched and impacted his life.

“That experience opened up a new world and a new light to me,” said Casey. “The kids would tell me that they looked up to me. And they’d been though more in their few years than anything I’d ever experienced. They were talented, smart, resilient, hopeful and hilarious. I was like, ‘Nah man, I look up to you.’ Those kids gave me life again.”

“Kyle grieved during that year away from Harvard, but I saw him growing into a man,” said Sharon. “He stayed in close contact with the guys on the team and rooted for them the whole year.”

Casey talked and exchanged texts with his teammates every day. When they made their amazing breakthrough in March of 2013, beating a very talented University of New Mexico team to advance to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, Casey was at home, screaming at the television, jumping up and down with excitement.

“Obviously, I really wanted to be there and be a part of it,” he said. “When I chose to attend Harvard, there weren’t many people who ever envisioned that the program could ever get to that level. But Coach Amaker did, he shared that vision with me and the other players. And we bought in and worked our butts off to make it happen. To see the vision come to fruition, even though I couldn’t be there, was amazing. We made history. I was very proud of what we did. And it made me more hungry and excited to get back to campus for my senior year.”

When Casey and Curry returned to Harvard last fall, the dynamic of the team had changed. Junior guard/forward Wesley Saunders, a Los Angeles native, had emerged as the team’s leading scorer and an All-Ivy League First Team honoree. Minnesota native Siyani Chambers was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and was nominated for the Bob Cousy Award as one of the country’s top point guards. And forward Steve Moundou-Missi, from Cameroon, became a valuable and consistent contributor as a scorer and rebounder as well.

“Kyle and Brandyn returned with a renewed sense of hunger and desire, and they saw our team perform exceptionally without them,” said Amaker. “I thought the key for us to be successful this year, seeing Wes, Siyani and Steve’s development, was how well everybody could mesh.”

“Brandyn and I couldn’t just come back and expect to take over, we had to focus on fitting in,” said Casey. “I had to sacrifice my scoring and stats because that was going to benefit the team. My numbers went down, but we were winning and that was ultimately the most important thing. We became an outstanding team that got valuable contributions from a number of people.”

“Kyle and Brandyn showed that they were interested in the team’s success,” said Amaker. “It was brilliant, and another layer evolved in terms of our team chemistry and camaraderie. They trusted the coaching staff and the process and we went on to have a historic year.”

But fans in visiting venues were far from kind or welcoming upon his return. Casey was often greeted with chants of “CHEATER! CHEATER! CHEATER!” whenever he touched the ball. But during his year off, his older brother Randy had prepared him for what would come.

“I would get up early in the morning, and he’d come downstairs, get in my face and yell, “CHEATER! CHEATER!” said Casey. “I had to deal with him all year, screaming it at random times. So he got me ready mentally for what I was going to hear. I heard some pretty bad stuff this year, but I was able to handle it because he helped me get ready for it.”

After the loss to Michigan State in the tournament, Casey approached all of his teammates individually in the locker room, thanking each one of them. When he approached his buddy and fellow senior Brandyn Curry, Casey broke down and cried.

“It was pretty emotional,” said Casey. “We huddled up, reflected on our journey and let all of our emotions out. It really hit me in the locker room that my college career was over. You battle so much with guys who become more than friends to you and you invest so much of yourself. And in an instant, it’s over.”

 

 

After a few days, Casey was back in the gym, focused on his next goal. Jeremy Lin spoke with his agent and suggested that he think about representing Kyle. Lin insisted that he had the skills and athleticism to make an NBA roster.

“I spoke to Jeremy after the season and picked his brain about the process that he went through to make it to the NBA as an undrafted free agent,” said Casey. “When his agent reached out to me, I let him know that I wasn’t looking for handouts and that I didn’t want him to represent me just as a favor to Jeremy. But he made it clear that that wasn’t the case. He knew my game and had a vision for where he thought I could go and what I could do on the next level.”

Prior to the draft, Casey spent close to a month working out off the strip in Las Vegas at the Tarkanian Basketball Academy with Sean Higgins, the former college basketball star and national champion at the University of Michigan in 1989, who played eight years in the NBA.

“The first thing that stood out to me about Kyle was how athletic he was,” said Higgins. “That’s an incredible strength to his game. But what really surprised me was his basketball intelligence. And as he goes through this process of trying to get to the next level, people are going to be surprised with how well he can put the ball on the floor. In college, he played around the rim but he can stretch his game out. He’s an athletic slasher who has a lot of different skills. NBA folks are really going to be intrigued by him.”

“It’s really hard to find kids who are both very athletic who also know how to play,” Higgins continued. “Usually, you’ll find a very athletic kid but he still has a huge learning curve to go through. But Kyle understands the game and has a very advanced I.Q.”

“When Kyle’s on display in front of the scouts, executives and pro personnel, they are going to be surprised and wowed by his athleticism,” said Amaker. “They’re going to be impressed and intrigued by how competitive he is and his ability to shoot the ball. And they’re going to see what kind of teammate he is. You need to have a Kyle Casey on your team, because he brings an aura and a very special quality.”

“We have a saying that we used for our team this year – ‘Good teams have good players. Great teams have great teammates,’" Amaker continued. "Kyle is a great teammate. That’s why we’ve been so successful. When teams get to know him and see the qualities and attributes that he can bring to an organization, they’ll realize how valuable of a player he can be.”

Casey worked out for numerous NBA teams prior to the draft, like the Celtics, the Nets and Sacramento Kings, among a few others. He wasn’t picked in the first two rounds of last week’s draft, but was selected by the Brooklyn Nets a day later to join their summer league roster.

If he makes a good impression, he’ll earn a training camp invite with the Nets or any other team that is impressed with his performance. He knows the road will not be easy. But adversity seems to bring out the best in him.

He stared it down as an infant on the operating table, as well as during the last two years after withdrawing from school. He’s learned that one is not defined by the challenges they face, but how they respond to them.

As Amaker alluded, Casey is poised to write the next chapter, and have the final say on what his ultimate legacy will be.

“I take a lot of pride in what we accomplished at Harvard, battling through tough times, persevering and earning my degree,” said Casey. “There were highs and lows, but I’m proud of the impact that I was able to have, at a place like Harvard. I’m just going to keep on working and grinding toward these next goals that I want to achieve. I know I have a bright future ahead of me.”

His mother Sharon is convinced of it.

“My son is a Harvard graduate,” she said. “He’s a young man who just getting started, who has something important to offer the world. His best is yet to come.”

Alejandro “Ali” Danois is the Editor-in-Chief of The Shadow League.

The former Senior Editor of Bounce Magazine, he is also a Freelance Sports and Entertainment Writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, Bleacher Report, Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, SLAMonline and Ebony Magazine, among many others.

His Shadow League features “Humble Beginnings”, and “Rocky Flop” were mentioned in the Best American Sports Writing Anthology as among the country’s most notable stories of 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Ali is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, and he served as a Producer on the ESPN Films 30-for-30 documentary “Baltimore Boys”.

Follow him on twitter @alidanois