Earlier this month, the Palestra in Philadelphia celebrated its 90th anniversary at a game between Penn and Princeton. Since opening on January 1, 1927, the Cathedral of College Basketball, as it's widely known, has held the most regular-season and NCAA tournament games in history, hosting legendary players and coaches on its way to becoming one of the most iconic venues in college sports.
Kerry Kittles was in attendance that night, looking like he hadn't gained any weight since his NBA playing days ended more than a decade ago. Dressed in a navy blue suit and an orange tie, he could have been mistaken for a businessman working on Wall Street—something he had done, briefly, after leaving basketball. Instead, Kittles was back in his element as a Princeton assistant coach. It was the first time he had been involved in a college game in the city since he was an All-American at Villanova in the mid-1990s. Still, Kittles isn't forgotten in these parts.
At the Palestra, he's featured on a wall near the main entrance honoring members of the Big 5 Hall of Fame, named for the five Philadelphia schools (La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph's, Temple, and Villanova) that have played one another for more than 50 years. Across the corridor, there's a display commemorating Kittles and a few other players who have won multiple Big 5 MVP awards. Kittles is seen in his white No. 30 Villanova uniform with his perfect shooting form and his signature fashion style: left sock up to his knee and right sock near his ankle.
That image is how many basketball fans remember Kittles. He has plenty of fond memories from those days, too, but he's now eager to prove himself as more than just a successful player.
After retiring from the NBA in 2005, Kittles consulted a bit with the Nets, earned his MBA from Villanova, and spent some time working in finance. Still, the lure of coaching drew him back to the game.
"It's not that it's bad or good," Kittles said of the business world. "It's just different. I enjoy doing that, as well. It just doesn't scratch the itch that basketball does for me."
Kittles first considered getting into coaching in 2014 soon after he played golf with Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda, who was friends with Steve Lappas, Kittles' coach at Villanova. That summer, Herenda invited Kittles to a team workout and asked him to evaluate the Knights' players. Kittles enjoyed the experience so much that he continued attending practices and games and watching film with Herenda.
"The more and more I spent time around his program, the more and more I realized that I had a lot of information in my head that I needed to share," Kittles said. "I knew it was going to come out some kind of way. I didn't know whether it would be NBA, college, or high school. I was open to any kind of path."
Still, with a wife and five young children, Kittles didn't want to uproot his family and be too far from his home in northern New Jersey. When the Princeton job became available, he reached out to a friend who had gone to the school and was friends with Tigers coach Mitch Henderson. During the interview process, Henderson called Herenda, whom he had known for several years. Herenda gave Kittles a glowing review.
"He's not one of these pro guys that just talks about scoring and shooting," Herenda says. "He's into discipline and defense. He's an old soul. We just got along really well."
Before offering Kittles the job, Henderson said he wanted to make sure Kittles understood the time demands of the position. Kittles made more than $55 million in salary alone during his NBA career. He didn't need the money. Still, he convinced Henderson that he was willing to work long hours and would enjoy the teaching, the recruiting, the film work—all the less glamorous parts of coaching.
"It was very clear from the first time that I talked to him that he had great energy and a love for the game," Henderson said. "Kerry's main concern was how bad do the guys want to be good? Once he figured out that these guys, while they're going to Princeton, they want it just as bad as he wanted it, then I think he was sold."
Although most of Princeton's players weren't born when the New Jersey Nets selected Kittles with the eighth overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, they were well aware of their coach's past, either through their own research or by talking to their parents and friends.
When senior guard Spencer Weisz was in elementary school, he saw Kittles play in person numerous times because Weisz's family had Nets season tickets. Weisz remembers Kittles as a starting shooting guard on Nets teams that made the 2002 and 2003 NBA Finals. Still, Weisz doesn't get to see Kittles show off his skills these days.
"He doesn't like to shoot around too much," said Weisz, who is averaging 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. "We always try to get him to shoot, play HORSE, but he's pretty low-key about it."
And yet, Kittles doesn't hesitate to impart his knowledge on the players and help them develop.
"If we have any questions, he's always willing to answer them," Weisz said. "We talk about stories in the NBA, him going up against some of the best guys to ever do it. Him teaching us his techniques on how he defended, it's just helped us so far this year and I think it's showed on the court." Princeton has a 17-6 record so far this season, and is currently on a 13-game winning streak.
Kittles also isn't shy about sharing the setbacks he faced during his professional career, starting early on. Many Nets fans wished the franchise had drafted Kobe Bryant instead of him. While Bryant helped the Los Angles Lakers win three NBA championships in his first six seasons and became a future Hall of Famer, Kittles underwent four knee operations in his first five years and missed the 2000-01 season due to injury. Kittles returned and started for the next three seasons, but the Nets traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers in July 2004 for a second-round draft pick. Kittles played only 11 games with the Clippers before the team waived him in August 2005. He never appeared in another NBA game.
"One of my talking points with the kids is, 'Hey, listen, in life you're gonna have your ups and downs, you're gonna have your moments of glory, you're gonna have your moments of challenge,'" Kittles said. "It's how you respond to it, really. Do you quit and you give up? Or do you say, 'You know what, this is just one little obstacle right here, let me figure out a way of overcoming it and moving on'?"
Despite enduring a difficult NBA career at times, Kittles' place in college basketball lore is more secure, especially at Villanova. As a junior, he led the Wildcats to their first Big East tournament championship in 1995 and was named the conference's player of the year. The next season, he was a consensus first-team All-American. He remains the school's all-time leading scorer and is a member of Villanova's Board of Trustees.
Last April, Kittles attended the Final Four for the first time and saw Villanova win its second national title. This year, he could join his alma mater in the NCAA tournament. Princeton is undefeated in the Ivy League (10-0) and the favorite to clinch the conference's automatic NCAA tournament berth.
If Princeton plays in the Ivy League championship game on March 12 at the Palestra, Kittles will return to a city where he's fondly remembered. He'll have plenty of family members and friends in attendance, including Herenda, who helped Kittles get into his new profession.
"He's a talented young man that can do whatever he wants," Herenda said. "He did it on the basketball court, and I'm sure in coaching this is the beginning of his professional career. I don't know where it's gonna take him, but I know wherever Kerry's been, success follows."
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