Kim English's transformation
Basketball helped Missouri's English overcome stutter and gain confidence
When he was a kid, he was too little to grasp the cruel irony, which is probably a good thing.
The cruel reality was tough enough.
Forget the kids who teased him.
His last name mocked him, too.
His surname, our language.
Our comfort, his prison.
A kid named English and yet he couldn't speak it clearly.
It's impossible to believe now. After all, Kim English is the unofficial bard of basketball, able to quote John Wooden and Rudyard Kipling with equal ease.
Make a list of most likely to boot ESPN's Dan Shulman from his chair, and English's name is at the top.
Yet not too long ago, as recently as English's freshman season at Missouri, all of the words in his brain -- the intriguing insight and strong opinions that make English one of the better interviews in the game -- got stuck on his tongue. They'd come out in a rush, a stuttering mumble jumble of tangled speech sometimes impossible to decipher.
"I always had confidence in myself and in my thoughts," English said. "I wanted to get my thoughts across; I just couldn't get out what I wanted to say. I knew I was saying things of substance. I think once I stopped thinking about it, it was truly out of sight out of mind. It's like going to the free throw line. You think about it and you miss. When you're not even thinking, when you're just shooting the ball, it's easy."
It's all easy now for English, the words and the basketball.
If Mizzou is not the most surprising team in this early portion of the college basketball season, the Tigers certainly make the top five. Despite all sorts of offseason turmoil, Missouri was labeled an early-season favorite to challenge Kansas' run of Big 12 titles. And then in October, Laurence Bowers went down with a torn ACL, bringing both the Tigers' expectations and preseason rankings right down with him.
Mizzou started the season at No. 25.
The Tigers are currently 10th -- toting a 7-0 record that includes one eye-opening, 39-point spanking of Cal -- as they head to Madison Square Garden for Tuesday's Jimmy V Classic game against Villanova (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET).
And English is averaging a career-best 16.9 points per game despite using a 6-foot-6 frame as a punching bag by filling in for Bowers and lining up at the 4.
"He's embraced it; he's really embraced it," coach Frank Haith said of English's position change. "And what he's done has really helped this team. We've got lots of guys on this team who have aspirations of playing after college, and they see Kimmie sacrificing and doing what he needs to do for the betterment of the team. That's affected everyone in a positive manner."
"Coming up next on Baltimore live."
"Coming up next on Baltimore live," Kim English would echo the announcer.
The radio and television were Kim English's speech pathologists. He visited with a real one in school, but what the Baltimore public schools could provide and what English found in the real world weren't the same.
Listening, sensing a rhythm in a person's speech, those were the real teachers. Riding along in the car with his mother, Brenda Fowlkes, or his father, Kim Sr., English would mutter under his breath, repeating over and over what he heard on the radio, mimicking the diction and pauses.
"I remember, 'Coming up next on Baltimore live,'" he said. "I'd say it over and over again. When I got older, I'd listen to Dickie V and Dan Shulman. I pretty much taught myself how to get rid of my stutter. I saw 'The King's Speech' -- and everything they taught the king, I taught myself."
I didn't stutter on the basketball court. I just destroyed people, and all of a sudden all the jokes went away, and as my confidence got better, my speech impediment, it just went away.” -- Missouri's Kim English
With the hindsight and confidence of a mature Division I athlete, English makes it all sound so simplistic and carefree. But as a kid growing up in inner-city Baltimore, he was cursed with the worst of afflictions. He was different. His stutter started not long after he began to speak, growing worse from the time he was about 4 and continuing through high school.
English's mother worked tirelessly with him and with teachers to give them strategies to help him learn. "It happened more when things weren't structured," Brenda Fowlkes said. "Everything for Kim had to be structured."
Except structure for a child goes out the door as soon as a bus door closes, leaving in its wake the harsh slap of reality.
Kids don't like different and are experts at finding a person's weakness.
English's was easily identifiable. Except he refused to hide, too confident and too smart to be ashamed, and so he let his body do the talking that his mouth couldn't muster.
The teasing came, and with it, English's two-fisted response. "I got in a lot of fights, especially in elementary school and middle school," he said.
Until he found a better way to deliver his message -- the basketball court. English's dad, Kim Sr., was a good player in his own right, a low-post load at Baltimore Community College. In his post-college career, he'd often let his son tag along to the adult league games, where Baltimore products David Wingate and Muggsy Bogues often suited up with the everyday Joes.
"He'd just sit and watch," said Kim Sr., who said he played like "Charles Barkley with a jump shot." He added, "And then he and I would play one-on-one. The day he finally beat me, you would have thought he hit the lottery."
English's game is different than his dad's, a byproduct of size as much as skill. He prefers to loiter on the outside rather than body-slam down low.
Regardless, on the basketball court, English finally found a place without a language barrier. Here he could speak without saying a word.
"I didn't stutter on the basketball court," he said. "I just destroyed people, and all of a sudden all the jokes went away, and as my confidence got better, my speech impediment, it just went away."
Here's the thing about confidence: It doesn't stick around forever.
Kim English's faith in himself hit a wall last season.
The evidence, as it always does, came in the numbers. English averaged just 10 points per game and shot only 36 percent from the floor, his statistics emblematic of a teamwide virus that sent the Tigers to an end-of-the-season skid. Missouri would lose five of its final six, including its first game in the NCAA tournament.
It's easy to see with the benefit of hindsight what went wrong, and English -- as well as his dad -- can see it now clear as day. A team built on blue-collar fabric and designed to exist in an unselfish world instead turned diva.
"We didn't play as a team and no one was really held accountable," English said. "It was the elephant in the room. Everyone knew we were not playing selfless basketball, but it was never addressed and there was a snowball effect. I know I played selfishly. We weren't going into games with the right mindset at all."
Miles away, Kim Sr. saw the same thing. Years ago, he wondered if his son would ever believe in his basketball abilities as much as his father did. Game after game, night after night, Kim Sr. told his son that he was gifted, that he was special, but the son wrote it off as fatherly pride.
Finally, in a summer-league game in Florida, English saw that his father wasn't merely trying to pump him up.
"I don't remember the opponent," Kim Sr. said. "But we were down 12 points. Kimmie got into the game and hit four 3s in a row. From that point on, he started to believe."
That kid, though, had disappeared.
Kim Sr. last season instead saw a player who wanted so desperately to do well that he was pressing, and when the anxiety manifested itself into missed shots, the vicious cycle spiraled out of control.
After he was hired, Frank Haith saw it on game film, too.
"He didn't shoot the ball well because he was trying so hard," Haith said. "Then he lost confidence, and it just kept mounting and mounting for him."
It didn't help that, at season's end, his coach bolted for Arkansas, and the man hired was met with more skepticism than optimism and then was named by a rogue booster in an NCAA investigation.
Still, English was determined to make his own judgment about Haith, or more accurately to suspend all judgment. After his difficult junior season, English vowed to leave all outside questions and influences -- class trouble, girl trouble, NCAA trouble and conference rumors -- on the side of the court and to worry simply about his team and how Haith coached it.
The blinders have worked. Haith has replaced former coach Mike Anderson's system, one where basketball players are treated like hockey lines and subbed in every five minutes, to a more free-flowing offense. There is attention to defense but it is not at the expense of the offense.
English has blossomed.
"With Coach Haith, you don't have to worry. I know I'm going to play 35 minutes," English said. "And I know I can get a shot, so now I can focus on getting my teammates involved. Instead of focusing on ourselves, we're focusing on improving."
Englishscope24, English's Twitter handle, has made more than 10,000 observations and has 12,000-plus followers interested in his pearls of wisdom.
Whether his coach likes it or not.
"Now the tweeting stuff, I'm not always a big fan," Haith admitted. "I've got him on a watch now, but I also don't want to change who he is. I want every kid to be able to express who they are, but I also need to teach them how to grow off and on the court."
Some of English's observations are acerbic -- he criticized his own student section after a win against Binghamton on Nov. 27.
Some are silly -- "Practice at John Jay College in Manhattan! I guess John Jay was important in colonial history. Only John J I know is John Jenkins."
And sometimes he just quotes his favorite poem, "If."
This time the irony isn't lost on English.
The child who couldn't share his thoughts now spiels them to a Twitterverse unencumbered. The boy who struggled to speak is a media darling, a likable and quotable athlete who is a sportswriters' dream.
It is exactly as Rudyard Kipling promises in English's daily reading.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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