The Ball Father: The Inspiring Journey of Michael Kennedy

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The Ball Father: The Inspiring Journey of Michael Kennedy

EXCLUSIVE ON POINT LONG FORM FEATURE

Written by Jaspreet Grewal

Sports have always been recognized as an emancipatory tool or an outlet to a world away from poverty, violence and drugs- particularly in areas where opportunities to flourish, both personally and professionally, are hard to come by. In many respects, sports are played solely for the entertainment value, as a leisure pursuit and a platform for interaction with friends, family and even strangers.

For basketball guru and former pro player Michael Kennedy, who’s endured the heavy hardships attached to living in a poverty ridden area of Kingston, Jamaica, basketball was disguised as a universal ticket to a world away from political violence and eradication.

“In the 1970s, the political violence in Jamaica was outrageous, I mean people were dying left, right and center,” Kennedy says. ” It was a tough place to navigate. You’re in the moment and I guess you’re used to it, but it’s not something that you wanted to get used to. I lived in some of the worst areas, I was no where near a rich kid. Basketball was my outlet to a world away from that.”

In hindsight, Kennedy’s experience growing up in Jamaica during the 1970s coupled with an illustrious and relatively long career playing professional basketball overseas has been pivotal to his post-retirement endeavours, especially in regards to his ongoing ventures in China where he’s in charge of running basketball camps and classes catered to strength and conditioning- a seemingly forsaken element in China basketball, particularly at the grassroots level.

His journey from playing pick up ball at the age of 14 in Kingston, to leading San Diego State to an NCAA tournament birth in 1985, to eventually playing pro ball all across the globe, and to now teaching youth in China the game of basketball, is a long tale but nevertheless an intriguing story filled with anecdotes and references to hooping with basketball legends Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Byron Scott to name a few.

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The Beginning Journey

As an extremely poor kid with not many opportunities for a successful life, Kennedy instantly fell in love with basketball in his early teens. Although table-tennis was his preferred sport at the time, it was his decision to head downstairs at the local YMCA one day that ignited his fervent passion for the game of hoops.

“I used to play a lot of table-tennis back in the day. I remember I was upstairs practicing at the local YMCA and I heard noise downstairs, so I went down there to see what was going on. I took a seat on the bench just to soak up the atmosphere.”

Wayne Chappleton, a 6,9″ forward and Jamaica’s top prospect at the time, was at the YMCA on that day to take part in an exhibition game and, more importantly, sign a letter of intent to play college ball in the United States. For Kennedy — who didn’t know much about the game let alone the  whole process of recruiting a player to college– seeing Chappleton sign a paper of liberation (essentially) forged a new lease on life for him, one that saw a possible way out of the hostile confines of Kingston to a less-volatile and more basketball friendly environment in the United States.

“I saw the whole process with Wayne happening and thought to myself, ‘wait, I never really considered playing the sport basketball’. I kind of started to rethink what I wanted to do knowing well that there was no such thing as a table-tennis scholarship, just some tournaments”, as Kennedy laughs. “After the exhibition game I started shooting around a little bit and since then I started playing basketball everyday.”

It didn’t take long for Kennedy to really excel at the game, especially considering he was already well acclimated in track and field – a relatively popular activity in Jamaica – and also because he was extremely long, a favourable quality to possess for the game of basketball.

By the age of 15, he was on the high school basketball team for the best athletic institution in the country (Kingston College); and only two years after that he was regarded by many, if not all, as the best basketball player in the country. A lot of Kennedy’s former high school friends – who were on scholarships at the University of Texas for track and field at the time – would frequently boast the talents of the versatile big to the Longhorn staff, so much so that one day they decided to fly out to Jamaica to see what the commotion was about.

“My friends, who would watch me play in high school, would brag about me to the coaching staff. They would watch the University of Texas team practice and tell the coach, ‘we have a kid in Jamaica who’s better than all of your players’. One day they got tired of hearing it and took them seriously and sent a scout to see what the fuss was about.”

Much to the Longhorn’s delight, Kennedy lived up to the hype and was offered a full scholarship to the University of Texas.

However, due to circumstances the led to a probation penalty for the school, Kennedy wasn’t able to play in the NCAA that year; an unfortunate scenario but one that allowed him to develop even further as a player, especially through the tutelage of Kingston College’s basketball coach Winston Harvey- someone who taught Kennedy a lot about the game.

After finishing up a few seasons at Kingston College, while dominating the ranks and also stringing together a couple of championships, Kennedy opted for Tyler Junior College in Texas in an attempt get recruited again, since no other school except for the University of Texas had seen him play.

It didn’t take very long for the 6,9″ forward to garner some attention. Ultimately, Kennedy elected to play for Coach David ‘Smokey’ Gaines at San Diego State where he led the Aztecs to a long awaited NCAA tournament birth in 1985 . Although they lost in the first round against higher-ranked UNLV, it was a huge moment in San Diego State history as the school hadn’t seen NCAA tournament action for almost a decade prior.

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But it was in the summers, during and after his stint at San Diego State, where Kennedy recounted on some unique and memorable moments playing in the Los Angeles suburbs.

“In the summer time, I would always go to LA when school was over and play at Griffiths park or Trade Tech and a few other areas. I would always run into a lot of the Lakers: Byron Scott, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, Mike McGee, Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar. Playing with those guys was huge for me, I mean these guys were winning championships at that time [1980s]”, as Kennedy says. “I didn’t have a car so I’d always go to the schools early and from there I’d hitch a ride from anyone to the next venue. Sometimes it was a Scott giving me a ride or a McGee or somebody else, it always varied.”

Back in the 1980s, the LA summer pro league was a pretty big deal; countless pro players – including NBA guys – would play there every summer looking for some friendly competition. Kennedy mentions how he developed cordial bonds with some of the best basketball players to ever grace the hardwood.

“I developed some casual friendships over the years. They [pro players] would get me into places like UCLA – where the Lakers used to practice- and that’s where I used to play with guys like Magic, Kareem, Jamal Wilks, James Worthy and all of those guys. For a college kid from Jamaica this was huge, it was definitely a big ego boost.”

“In 1985′, when I left San Diego State, I played in the LA Summer Pro League at Loyola University, which was a natural transition for me because all of those guys knew me. I had guys like Scott and Reggie Miller on my team while at the same time competing against [emerging] stars like Shawn Kemp.”

Even Bill Walton – who was injured at the time – would make appearances at the games, too. He was one of Kennedy’s workout partners in San Diego and, in addition, was also one of the reasons he developed such an appreciation for the strength and conditioning aspect of the game.

The whole LA Summer Pro League was what initially kick started Kennedy’s career. Although the 6’9″ forward went undrafted after leaving San Diego State, he was able to attract attention from international scouts while playing in  the pro league.

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Pro Journey

After seemingly holding his own against some of the world’s best talent, Kennedy was able to land his first pro gig with an Irish club. Although the competition wasn’t the best, it was an opportunity for him to make some decent coin while at the same time build his name in the international ranks.

The chronology of Kennedy’s pro career is an elaborate one. After finishing up an impressive year in the Irish league, he signed a contract with a club in the Turkish league where he again dominated the competition- seemingly leading the association in points and rebounds.

But instead of staying put overseas, Kennedy elected to try his hand at the NBA where he managed to stick around with the Rocket’s summer league team and subsequently play the entire preseason. His time in Houston was yet another once in a life time experience, one that included playing with another set of hall of famers.

“Back then [1987] I played the preseason with the original twin towers [Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson]. Even in the summer time in Houston – where I lived at the time – I got to run with guys like Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler, and the whole Rockets team,” Kennedy says.

“A lot of guys say I have good footwork, that mostly came because Hakeem would teach me the fundamentals of proper foot coordination. So I was able to learn from him and put his lessons to use whenever I touched the court.”

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Although Kennedy played well for the Houston Rockets during his time there, he was waived right before the season started, which then allowed him to head back overseas to begin where he left off. He started his second stint in Europe, or more specifically, in Paris, France, where he played professionally for two years; he then went on to play in Italy – where he took part in the Euro Cup and then in Spain not too long after that.

After bouncing around and playing for some of the top leagues all over Europe, Kennedy headed back to the United States in 1992, this time trying out for the Philadelphia 76ers. There he met both Mitchell Wiggins – father of the NBA 2014 first round draft pick, Andrew Wiggins- and Tharon Mayes – whose son, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, recently committed to playing for Florida State University. Despite playing well for the 76ers, Kennedy’s time in Philly was short-lived. A decision made by him.

“My agent lived in Philly so I spent my summers playing pick up ball over there. We would go to Temple University and a couple of other schools. Charles Barkley, Jason Williams, Manute Bol were some of the big name players we were playing with. So from that the 76ers invited me to veteran’s camp and then to play preseason with them, but I declined preseason because I had good contract offers in Europe. In all honestly, I didn’t think I was going to make the 76er’s club because there were too many guaranteed contracts at my position.”

After finishing up with the 76ers, Kennedy elected to head back overseas where he ended up playing 15 more years of pro ball in Taiwan, Greece and Israel, thereby concluding an illustrious and successful professional playing career. A rare feat by any standards.

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Life as a Teacher/Trainer

Kennedy’s retirement from basketball meant that he could sit back and live comfortably for the rest of his life without any worry. But his drive and overall hunger for the game proved  to be too much for a silly little thing called retirement. Inevitably, he began searching for new opportunities as a way to stay involved and engaged with the game of hoops.

As mentioned earlier, his passion for training and conditioning developed initially from when he used to work out with Walton back in the 80s. Kennedy was able to see how the former Celtic great took care of his body and tried to incorporate a similar type of demeanor and mentality into his own practice.

After marrying a Canadian woman and settling down in the developing metropolis of Toronto, Kennedy started running basketball academies (mainly in the U.S because Canada didn’t have much of a grasp on the game at that time) ,catered to big men as a way to give back to the game that ultimately helped him escape the trenches of Kingston.

“I’d go to LA, Virginia, New York, Chicago and also do some camps with friends of mine who I played with in Europe, and then come back to Canada and work with some young bigs here, too.”

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But it wasn’t until 2003, at the Nike Battlegrounds in Toronto at the Trinity Bellwoods Park, when people started acknowledging and admiring the 53 old for his stellar physique. Kennedy played three straight summers in the event where he managed two finals appearances and one quarter-finals showing. It was a huge feat for the big man who, a retired player at the time, embraced the label of oldest competitor to make it to the finals; he was 42 when he made his first appearance, and 44 during his last showcasing. The Nike Battlegrounds was essentially where the nickname ‘The Ballfather’ came from- an all too fitting emblem for a person who – as a child in Jamaica- would sacrifice food and go to bed hungry as a means to play basketball all day and night.

After a short time of running basketball camps in the States as well as working with big men in the Toronto area, Kennedy grew restless in North America. (He lived in Toronto for 20 years in total). He was eventually offered a position in China – to which he accepted -where he was in charge of establishing (and teaching at) basketball camps directed to both elite and non-elite players.

At first, Kennedy was only working with average players, taking on up to three classes a day with sessions centered on some of the more rudimentary aspects of the game such as strength and conditioning. But once coaches caught word of his illustrious background – as a journey man who’s played all over the world – he was given access to work with some of the Chinese national team players, both from the men and women’s roster.

A friend of Kennedy’s who worked in the government would always hear the former pro baller talk about how badly China needed a strength and conditioning program implemented into the grassroots division. As Kennedy briefly mentions, there isn’t much of a foundation geared towards full body development in China.

“There isn’t a culture of strength and conditioning [in China] at all, especially at the grassroots level. A lot of these kids couldn’t even do one push up, or if they did they would have terrible structure. So I would question that and have conversations with people about it.”

His friend ultimately landed him a gig at a local international school for young children as a physical education teacher which, as a result, released him from his prior obligations with the organization that brought him there initially. In doing so, the former San Diego State standout has been helping high-schools and junior high-schools in China implement strength and conditioning programs for the past two years.

One of the primary reasons for Kennedy’s decision to embark on the role of a trainer/teacher at the institution stemmed from his vehement desire to play the game again. His new role at the athletic institution has allowed him to take part in a summer tour where he and a team of professional players compete against some of the best teams in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Something he’s yearned for ever since retirement.

“I’ve played 17 games [so far] against CBA teams all over China in front of crowds with as many as 25 or 30 thousand. It’s been amazing. I just finished five games before coming here [Toronto for the summer]. I’m just happy to be playing the game again that I love so much.”

After hearing the enthusiasm and overall jubilance from Kennedy’s voice as he spoke about playing the game again at a high level, one can’t help but feel happy and supportive for the journeyman; there’s no doubt that he’s deserved every bit of success that’s come his way.

From opting to head downstairs at the local YMCA in his hometown of Kingston, to eventually fostering the role of a strength and conditioning teacher at a prestigious athletic institute in China, there’s no doubt that Kennedy’s decision to try his hand at hoops (many years ago) was an intelligent one.

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Ultimately, the game of basketball has boded well for the Ball Father. It’s taken him from a poverty-stricken area in Kingston, Jamaica, to some of the more idyllic and renowned places around the world. It’s allowed him to raise his son, Malik, a 14 year old basketball phenom who will soon be on the radar of  college scouts, in an environment (Toronto) conducive to success. It’s given him a chance to understand and soak up all of the different cultures that are practiced all over the globe. It’s granted him a unique opportunity to teach kids the foundational elements of the game. But most of all, it’s shown him that sports are, and will continue to be, the silver lining in times of distress; a portal to a world away from negativity, pessimism and self-destruction.

Written by Jaspreet Grewal

Photos Courtesy of Mike Kennedy and Photo Riot Photography

Edited and posted by Drew Ebanks