- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Kennedy Meeks admits that he peeked.
Stretching out for an early Peach Jam game at the Riverview Park Activities Center last month -- and preparing to play for Charlotte's Team United despite waking up that morning with a 102-degree temperature -- the ESPN 100's 28th-ranked player in the Class of 2013 glanced over and grinned at the dozens of Division I coaches lining Court 2.
"I wasn't really surprised at who I saw," the broad-shouldered, sure-handed center from West Charlotte (N.C.) High said, listing UNC's Roy Williams and Indiana's Tom Crean among the coaches he noticed first, "because most of them texted me and told me they would be there. But it is a pretty cool thing. There were coaches there that I watched growing up -- and now here they are, watching me."
Meeks, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound load dubbed "Big Baby" because of his youthful looks, doesn't get nervous about these events anymore. With more than a dozen scholarship offers, playing in front of so many famous faces has become old hat.
But with his senior season in high school approaching, official visits to colleges looming and seemingly everyone asking about his decision, he also understands the importance of the situation.
"Of course I feel the pressure; coaches call me, [reporters] call me, and this is my dream, to go to college for free [with an athletic scholarship], to play basketball maybe play in the NBA one day,'' said Meeks, who granted ESPN.com an extended interview for a series about different people's experiences on the recruiting trail. "So I want to play my best [and] show that I am a team player. But not just because of who's here, but for the love of the game."
Family members first noticed Meeks' athletic ability when he picked up a baseball at around age 3, "and threw it straight as an arrow, time after time," said his aunt, Brenda Richmond.
And he wasn't much older when he went shopping with his great grandma, saw a giant cutout of Michael Jordan and begged her to enter a raffle for it. It marked Meeks' first big basketball win.
"I think the girl rigged it, because Kennedy wanted it so much,'' Rosalie Meeks remembered, laughing. "But that's when I realized there was something in him that really, really loved that game."
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a metropolis to mold a grounded, humble, teenage basketball star.
Great-grandma Rosalie, who Kennedy lives with, and mom Nakhia provide a loving foundation and disciplined advice.
Aunt Brenda, who attends most of his AAU events, pushes academics and serves as chaperone when necessary. Uncles Robert, Johnny, David and Frank help finance AAU trips. A passel of cousins serve as road warriors and confidants.
And ever since he hit his growth spurt in middle school, every aunt, uncle, parent and cousin has been on the lookout for shoes that fit (Kennedy now wears a size 16 or 17, depending on the cut).
"We all have our roles,'' Richmond said, "and we all embrace them, because in our family, we all look out for each other. And no one's looking for any sort of payback; it's all from the heart."
And that feeling goes both ways. The hardest part of pursuing his dream, Meeks admitted, is being away from his close-knit family so often. Playing high-level AAU basketball has meant traveling almost every weekend since April and competing sometimes twice a day. In June and July alone, Meeks found himself at camps and/or tournaments in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Richmond, Va.
The only way he was able to make it to his prom in May was to fly home early from an event in Texas. And because he had so little time to spare, he counted on family to have his clothes and transportation ready when his plane landed.
"Sometimes, you do have to make choices,'' Meeks said. "But I'm lucky because my family really supports me, keeps me humble and helps me be as normal as I can be, even with everything going on.
" In a way, I do what I do for my family, because we've all been through our struggles. But when we come together, it's pretty cool."
At the Peach Jam, for instance, Aunt Brenda was in the stands, trying to juggle talking to reporters and answering texts and phone calls from family concerned about Kennedy. His temperature had reached as high as 102.1 that morning.
But even fatigued, his jumpers were accurate, rebounding aggressive and outlet passes crisp. He finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds in the morning game, followed by 18 points and eight rebounds that night. One assistant coach good-naturedly quipped: "Maybe you should play with a fever all of the time!"
"I was worried, because I know he couldn't have really felt like playing,'' said Meeks' mom, Nakhia, who couldn't make the games that day because she had to work. "But that's my son; he was determined to play because he wanted to play. He knew there were going to be a lot of people there to watch him, and he didn't want to disappoint anybody."
Even with scholarship offers from the likes of Indiana, North Carolina, Georgetown, NC State and Louisville, July is still an important month for a four-star player like Meeks.
I want to play my best [and] show that I am a team player. But not just because of who's here, but for the love of the game.
”-- Kennedy Meeks, the 28th-ranked player in the Class of 2013
For one thing, he's positioning himself for postseason awards next spring, said ESPN senior basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep: "Kennedy Meeks should feel like he has a chance for the McDonald's game. You can't make the McDonald's game this month, but you sure as heck can put yourself in a great position to."
It's also the player's chance to reinforce to college coaches that they made the right choice by offering a scholarship. After all, offers and commitments are not binding until a letter of intent is signed.
"To some schools that are all-in on him, it doesn't matter, even if he didn't score a point," Telep said. "Other schools, especially when you're at the highest level, there's a fine line -- maybe you're not the No. 1 guy for that school, maybe you get slotted a little differently. But from a coach's perspective, you want to feel great about the kid you're recruiting. There comes a point when you're all-in on him anyway, but you want to see what you've got."
And maybe there's an opportunity to see what's around him, too.
Clay Byrd, a guard from Hickory, N.C., said he never imagined he'd have a chance to play for a Division I school when he joined Team United before his sophomore season. But as of last week he had scholarship offers from Mercer, Appalachian State, UNC-Greensboro and Yale, with 22 more schools showing interest.
He said playing with Meeks and Team United shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell, the 24th-ranked player in the ESPN 100, definitely helped him get noticed.
"Kennedy, he's one of those guys that coaches come to watch -- so playing with him, that's helped get my name out there," Byrd said.
If he hadn't played AAU and teamed with such highly regarded players, he added, "I'd probably be getting looks from smaller colleges, but not the ones I am right now."
Meeks, always modest, downplays any help he may have given his teammates, crediting those on his AAU and high school squads for making him look good, too.
He's looking for the same things out of a college team -- camaraderie, talent and success -- but he said he's not leaning toward any particular school at this point. The plan is to narrow his list to five schools as soon as this weekend, take his official visits and then pray and discuss the choices with his family.
"It's a big decision because so many of those coaches in there," he said, referring to the packed Peach Jam gym, "want me to go to their school. The academics are important to me because with basketball, you never know what's going to happen. But of course the dream is to play in the NBA, so you want that opportunity, too."
He may eventually get it. Although Meeks isn't a flashy player, he impresses coaches with his size, passing and attitude. He's working to take off his extra weight, knowing that will help him better run the floor.
Ultimately, family members stress, where Meeks decides to go to college will be his decision. He's been studying the schools as well as the basketball programs. And who he plays for, he says, will be as important as where he plays.
Which, perhaps, is why he couldn't resist taking that peek at his future potential coaches during the Peach Jam warm-ups.
"It's like a job interview," Meeks, who averaged 12 points and 8.5 rebounds during six Peach Jam games, said of the summer AAU spotlight. "I think they understand that sometimes you have a bad game, but you always want to play your best because this is their chance to see you, you don't want them to stop recruiting you.
"This is part of the process, and you can't let the fact that so many people are watching you get into your head -- you've got to keep playing. You've got to have fun. So that's what I do."
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