The quiet journey of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Photo by David Ramil   Photo by David Ramil    Photo by David Ramil    Photo by David Ramil
Photo by David Ramil Photo by David Ramil Photo by David Ramil Photo by David Ramil /

The roads become smaller as you approach Greenville, Georgia. Major interstates, sterile monuments overgrown with chain stores and restaurants, eventually taper through charming towns that glow quaintly in the mid-May sun.

But the lanes narrow with each passing mile, taking you closer to your destination but also backwards, at least in time. Hollow silos, dangling and rusted, litter the landscape along with long-abandoned barns. The occasional mailbox juts out intrusively, the only signs of homes buried deep among the live oaks. There is red clay almost everywhere; it cakes the crumbling gravestones that grow next to dilapidated churches like gardens, dreary and ignored.

Greenville blends in with a handful of other cities in central Georgia, so blink and you might miss it. There’s the courthouse displayed proudly in its center. The City Hall that stands across from the police department, a converted garage. There’s a cafe, too, and the standard businesses that sustain the basic foundation of small-town life.

A mural highlights one particular worn brick wall. It’s likely an artistic rendition of the city’s founders but it remains unfinished; the painted busts of unnamed men of unknown importance hover beneath the branches of a tree. A sign stands before it but provides no clarity. Instead, it merely designates Greenville as one stop of many along the Oakfuskee Path, a trade route used by the Creek tribe, and later white settlers, in the 1700s. Even centuries ago, the city was an unremarkable stop on the way to somewhere else.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the heart of Greenville is a circular roundabout that takes you in, through and past the city in mere seconds. People who travel through here rarely stay for long. That is a privilege often reserved for the residents, all 976 of them, who make the city their home.
It’s an unlikely starting point for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s journey to the NBA. But the first steps of that improbable road were taken here, on the cracked asphalt overrun with weeds of Greenville’s only outdoor court.

The sloping road winds next to a few buildings that pass as churches, so the court sits at the top of what locals call “Baptist Hill.” If it’s a place where prayers are answered you wouldn’t know it. Tattered nets cling to tilted rims attached to bare, pockmarked backboards. A t-shirt drapes across the makeshift bench that consists of a splintered wood plank held up by cinder blocks on either side. A child’s shoe sits on a bed of pine needles, left to bake in the afternoon sun.

“This the court right here,” tells the man behind the wheel of a black pickup truck. He goes by “Trio” and he — just like everybody here — knows the story of how Caldwell-Pope got his start.

Trio wonders at first if you’re there to finally replace the rims that have hung for far too long. When told that Caldwell-Pope is the reason for just passing through, he adjusts the brim of his Cleveland Cavaliers cap and smiles broadly. “E’rbody knows Kentavious,” says Trio. “He got family right up the corner, too. He would shoot and shoot all day, right here on this court.”

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When asked why he thinks Caldwell-Pope was able to make the leap from here to the NBA, a female passenger leans forward and chimes in, “He stayed humble. And just kept working.” The answer is typical and can appear canned when coming from professional athletes but the way she beams lends a sincerity that’s hard to ignore. Trio nods knowingly; life in Greenville is pretty hard, he adds. “Shit, man. There ain’t nothing else to do.”

Even though Richard Carter considers himself “mostly retired,” he still works as both a pastor of his local church and as head coach of the boy’s basketball team in Lannet High School, located just an hour or so away across the Alabama border.

On the tiled floor of Greenville High School, Carter moves with a slight limp and unmistakable familiarity. He’s won two straight state titles at Lannet but it’s Greenville that still feels like home. “It’s the one place I should never have left,” he laments. He recognizes every face and greets former colleagues with a wide, grandfatherly grin.

Carter refers to Caldwell-Pope, the former McDonald’s All-American, as “Ken” when discussing “one of the hardest working young men I have ever been around in my life.” In a display case near one of the school’s entrances, a framed, autographed jersey hangs prominently below a proclamation from the Merriweather County School District officially retiring it.

After nearly 45 years as a coach, Carter’s analysis of Caldwell-Pope’s work ethic comes with considerable authority. He watched Caldwell-Pope grow from the lanky kid hoisting up countless shots up on Baptist Hill to the most complete player Carter has ever coached. “He could shoot. He could penetrate. He was a defensive demon,” says Carter. “He had all the things it takes to be successful.”

Carter dismisses this as just casual praise, or as a recollection borne out of potential that’s already been realized. “I saw something in him, even back then, that was very, very special.” There’s definitely a hint of pride as he laughs off a hitch in Caldwell-Pope’s shooting mechanics that he helped correct. But it was the intangibles that Carter believes helped propel Caldwell-Pope from Greenville High to the University of Georgia and now to the Detroit Pistons.

“His unselfishness,” Carter begins, ticking off a list of qualities that most coaches would consider the components of a perfect player. “His work ethic. His desire to win. His willingness to do whatever it took to get the job done.”

There are stories, too, which add weight to Carter’s plaudits. Like the time “Ken” kept shooting further and further away from the basket, until he was at the halfcourt line and simply couldn’t miss. “After the game, someone asked me, ‘Coach, you just gonna let that boy shoot out there like that?’ and I said, ‘Why not? He make ‘em, don’t he?,’” Carter recalls as he bursts with laughter.

As for Caldwell-Pope’s roots in Greenville, Carter acknowledges the biggest challenge is getting collegiate powerhouses to uncover the diamonds buried deep within the red clay. “There’s some tremendous talent here,” he says, “The size of the town does not necessarily limit the competitive spirit of the athletes that live here.”

Small-town living doesn’t exempt residents from distractions, Carter admits. At 69, he’s lived long enough to recognize that social media has its positives and negatives but concedes that kids here will see “things they shouldn’t” and try to emulate them.

“But, for the most part,” he says earnestly, “basketball was a life.”

The halls are bustling with energy and Thaddeus Jackson, the school’s principal, explains that it’s the next-to-last day of the academic calendar; Greenville’s 500 students are absolutely ready for whatever comes next. The school hosts kids from neighboring cities, some 50 miles away, and services grades 6-12.

Jackson looks across the common area next to the main office, and wistfully recalls talking with Caldwell-Pope about a future that, at that time, still remained unsure. “He just always wanted to be a ball player,” says Jackson, “and we would always tell him to just be prepared.”

They’d engage in mock interviews — “five-minute conversations,” Jackson explains — that would try to get him ready for the next step, should it ever come. If nothing else, he affirms, they helped provide a two-pronged vision that Caldwell-Pope could cling to, no matter how unlikely: to play basketball for a living and to give back to the community.

Jackson casts his relationship with Caldwell-Pope in a paternal light, with an office door that was always open when the pressures of school, sports or college recruitment could be overwhelming. “But we talked about it and the future aligned, as you can clearly see,” he asserts.

There were the occasional missteps, admits Jackson, and Caldwell-Pope was a typical teenager in many ways. But he was also a very “respectful kid” that got along with everyone, Jackson recalls before adding, “I wish I had more like him, to be honest with you.”

There’s a lingering impact from Caldwell-Pope, even six years after his graduation. He still visits the school whenever he makes his way back to Greenville, and enjoys a close bond with the school according to his former principal. Moreover, it’s Caldwell-Pope’s standing as the city’s biggest success that resonates most profoundly. “Being a small school in a small country area, he showed that you can still make it if you put in the work,” Jackson explains. “The extra effort will pay off.”

Now, when local kids play pick-up ball at the school or up on Baptist Hill, it’s Caldwell-Pope’s name they call as they practice their moves. They can dream bigger, Jackson adds, because they have a role model to live up to.

Life in Greenville provides glimpses but there’s more to Caldwell-Pope, as there often is. Unfortunately, the man himself isn’t one usually willing to share more.

“Kentavious,” says the Pistons’ staffer with a wry smile, “isn’t much of a talker.”

The statement is meant as both explanation and warning. A request for an interview has already been denied twice and, when finally granted, expectations should be lowered. When he’s finally available and asked why he’s a man of such few words, he offers this as a cryptic explanation: “It’s always better to keep to yourself. I try to stay that way.”

Detroit’s season is mere hours away from ending. The team considered a potential challenger to the Eastern Conference throne won’t even qualify for a playoff berth. The Pistons are here in Orlando to fulfill the schedule. On a night where several games have postseason implications, this insignificant matchup is a flaccid punctuation mark to a largely forgettable 82-game statement.

So while Caldwell-Pope may not share much, he’s at least willing to talk, perhaps because there’s nothing else to lose. Strangely enough, he views the season as mostly positive; while admitting the outcome wasn’t what he’d hoped for, he appreciates his teammates and being able to play alongside them. From someone who prefers keeping to himself, it’s yet another unexpected response.

Attempts are made to get Caldwell-Pope to open up about his small-town roots and what it was like growing up in Greenville but these are mostly futile. He considers it a regular childhood, one consisting of school and basketball, and not much else. There was nothing particularly memorable about it, he shares, but he wouldn’t consider it a bad life. Then, a few moments later, he admits that leaving Greenville was absolutely a goal. “It was always a motivation,” says Caldwell-Pope, “even as a kid.”

He thinks about it often as a way of staying humble, remembering the “steps it took to get here.” He goes back when he can, corroborating what Principal Jackson said, and even helps run an AAU team out of nearby Augusta.

Still, while his recollections offer little clarity (and perhaps seem even a little contradictory), it’s his future that remains most nebulous. He enters the summer as a restricted free agent and, at just 24, he’s reportedly on the radar for several teams.

Just a few feet away, Stan Van Gundy slumps comfortably back in his nylon track suit, an outfit perhaps more familiar at a New Jersey diner than courtside in Orlando’s Amway Center. His arms are folded across his chest, his hands holstered at his sides, only rarely emerging for a casual wave to emphasise a point or to tug at the cap tilted back over his graying hair.

“This has been a difficult year,” he states during an interview with reporters that lasts nearly 20 minutes.

He tackles a number of subjects — the challenges of rebuilding, his role in Detroit’s front office, how soon he’ll start looking forward to next season — and remains open throughout. He refuses to talk about any one individual, instead acknowledging that everyone, himself included, needs to do better. Still, during such a long dialogue, there are bound to be slips of the tongue and Van Gundy says of his players, “For a young team, we didn’t have enough guys take a step forward this year.”

If it’s an attack, it’s a vague one, and Van Gundy could have been directing the comment at any number of players on Detroit’s roster. Yet, it could apply to Caldwell-Pope, providing an obvious concern as the Pistons approach a summer that promises to be rife with change.

One glaring example: on Feb. 1, Caldwell-Pope scored a career-high 38 points, converting 8-of-11 attempts from 3-point range and displaying the kind of confidence that Carter witnessed all those years ago. Two nights later, he finished with just two points. The plunge in production might be tied to Caldwell-Pope’s recovery from a shoulder injury, one that kept him out of the lineup for five games. But there are other examples from earlier in the season that highlight that inconsistency, not a strong selling point for someone reportedly seeking upwards of $20 million per season from any team willing to pay him.

There’s still plenty of time for Caldwell-Pope to evolve into a more consistent scoring threat, and he has more than his share of supporters, too. Carter is one of them; he believes that leaving the University of Georgia after just two seasons hindered Caldwell-Pope’s development. “Give him another year or two,” said Carter, “and he’s going to explode in the NBA.”

Pistons teammate Reggie Jackson is another. “He has the potential. He’s definitely improved, gotten better each and every year he’s been in the league,” says the mercurial guard whose own season was bogged by injury and inconsistency. “That’s due to his work ethic and his mindset to go get it. But he’s definitely capable of taking that next step.”

Caldwell-Pope isn’t thinking about free agency just yet, or at least that’s what he contends — “That’s what I pay my agent for — and instead is looking forward to a summer with family. He and his wife, McKenzie, just welcomed a baby son, Kentavious, Jr., on Apr. 5. A trip back home is probably in the works.

He recognizes a need for growth, as a leader and as a more-vocal presence in the locker room. But Caldwell-Pope throws you off-guard, even if inadvertently so, when describing this crucial defining point in career. “I’m just going to keep it simple,” he says, before walking away, quietly and alone, toward the locker room.

The house where Caldwell-Pope grew up is just a block or two away from Baptist Hill, fairly nondescript if not for the wide trampoline located about 20 feet from the front door. His grandmother, Mattie, still makes it her home. On this particular day, Rhonda Caldwell, Kentavious’ mother, has dropped by for a visit. Along with Coach Carter, they all laugh and tell stories while standing in the shade beneath the sprawling branches of a tall oak tree.

That conversation with Caldwell-Pope in Orlando, as brief as it was, provided more new questions than clear answers. It’s what led me to Greenville, in the hope of finding what drives a boy from such humble beginnings to become a man with such a bright, if unclear, future.

Rhonda, for her part, isn’t quite sure. She just knows that for her son, there was always a love of basketball. “Just the way he would hold the ball, shoot the ball,” she says, with a focus unlike anything she’d ever seen. There were times, too, when it got the best of young Ken, and Rhonda would have to walk uphill to find her son still shooting through those tattered nets even after the sun had gone down.

There’s another quality that Rhonda can’t quite explain, and that’s Caldwell-Pope’s verbal frugality. “He always been like that, ever since he was a kid,” Rhonda tells. “Just real quiet, him and his brother. Even today, when he texts me or calls me by phone, it isn’t nothing more than a few words.”

Rhonda makes a comparison to another player of few words, albeit one more well-known. “You know, he’s just like that Kawhi Leonard boy,” she states. It’s a correlation that seems outrageous given the disparity in their on-court production. Even from a behavioral standpoint, Leonard’s laconic nature has taken a life of its own, is more widely-accepted and fits more easily with how Leonard’s team, the San Antonio Spurs, are widely viewed: as a well-oiled, immutable machine, Leonard is simply a very good and very quiet component.

Caldwell-Pope therefore remains a mystery, an alarming notion particularly as free agency looms large on the horizon. Is he simply as brusque as he is inconsistent? Can he be a future building block or is he merely a role player?

Answers won’t be found any time soon and certainly not here on the front lawn of Caldwell-Pope’s childhood home. Instead, this is a reminder of just how far Kentavious has journeyed and how much he has already achieved. It’s a time for fond memories, as well as some good natured ribbing that happens to be at Mattie’s expense. She refuses to upgrade a phone that’s been outdated for almost a decade. “Why?” she scoffs, “Mine works just fine.” At 71, the family matriarch is still clearly a handful.

She doesn’t say much about her grandson; perhaps reticence is a genetic trait. She nods thoughtfully as Rhonda recalls those long nights shooting or road trips, sandwiches and snacks in tow, to towns even smaller than Greenville.

But she does speak, and resolutely so, about Kentavious’ potential as a child. “I always knew he was going to make it,” she says sternly. It’s easy to see why someone from Greenville would consider making it and all that might constitute as the ultimate goal. It’s been years since he left his hometown and has since become a father and husband, a star and role model, and a quiet, unlikely hero, at least to the people who once knew him best.

He’s also a promise left unfulfilled, an inconsistent threat that can do it all but doesn’t always, a potential risk that will undoubtedly come with a high price tag in just a few weeks. There’s no doubt he’s made it but into what is still unclear. Caldwell-Pope understandably seeks simplicity but that might not be an option. Simplicity was left behind, in those long hours working on his shot among the pine needles, underneath the setting Georgia sun.