'I Didn't Want to Go Back There': Lakers' Kyle Kuzma Talks About His Motivation

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterOctober 5, 2017

GREENBURGH, NY - AUGUST 11:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally altered) Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a portrait during the 2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot at MSG Training Center on August 11, 2017 in Greenburgh, New York.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Everyone in Flint thinks they're the best player in town. It doesn't matter if you're the fourth-grader on the AAU team or the 47-year-old on their last legs in the YMCA. If you play basketball in Flint, you think you're the best player in town.

Before he was selected 27th overall in the 2017 NBA draft, before he averaged 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game in the NBA Summer League, before he teamed up with Lonzo Ball to form "the lightskin connection," before Lakers fans yelled "KUUUUZZZ" whenever he touched the ball, Kyle Kuzma knew he was the best player in town.

He also knew he needed to get out.

Young Kyle Kuzma drives to his right.
Young Kyle Kuzma drives to his right.Photo via Karri Kuzma

Growing up in Flint, the seventh-largest city in Michigan, site of the nation's most disastrous water crisis in recent memory, Kuzma felt his world shrinking. He saw the gang violence. He saw how it took down some of his childhood friends. He saw his home, a place where he couldn't drink from the tap or open his mouth in the shower. Kuzma saw it all, and basketball was the way out.

"I didn't want to go back there," Kuzma tells Bleacher Report. "I wanted to explore the world and explore life. I wanted to have more to life than Flint."

Kuzma also knew that even if he was one of the best basketball players in the state, nobody would come out to Bentley High School to watch him play. Kuzma was the kid who told teachers he was going to the NBA, despite their dismay. When he was little, Kyle told his mother, Karri Kuzma, about his plan to play in the NBA. At a certain point, with only a few schools interested (Oakland University, University of Detroit), Kuzma knew he needed a better path to league.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 17:  Lonzo Ball (L) #2 and Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers stand on the court as the American national anthem is performed before the championship game of the 2017 Summer League against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Thomas
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"If he stayed here, he might've gone to college and played, but it probably would not have been Division I," Karri says. "His whole story would be written a different way."

Of course, the story would have still started the same. Karri was attending Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts school, on a track scholarship when she found out she was pregnant. She was a two-time Class B shot put champion at Otisville Lakeville High School, but returned to the Flint area and started life as a single parent.

Before Kyle could even walk, Karri bought her son a Little Tikes basketball hoop. Dunking on that hoop, and using a strip of tape as a free-throw line, remains one of Kyle's earliest memories. It sparked his love of the game, which followed him to the street courts, the YMCA and then AAU. Karri worked two jobs during Kyle's entire childhood as the family moved nine times in 16 years, once living in the basement of his grandmother's home when Karri was laid off.

Young Kyle Kuzma dunks on his Little Tikes hoop.
Young Kyle Kuzma dunks on his Little Tikes hoop.Photo via Karri Kuzma

"I was just working all of the time," Karri says. "I think that resonated with him. Hard work is pretty much all he knows. You've gotta work hard to feed the family."

Kyle needed to work harder to get to the NBA, and to work harder, he needed to play better competition. As a junior, he'd averaged 17.9 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.4 blocks per game for Bentley High, so before his senior year, he sent tapes of his shooting at the Y to prep schools, catching the eye of Vin Sparacio, then the head coach at Rise Academy in Philadelphia. Sparacio saw a 6'6", 175-pound, raw player who had a great feel for the game, and immediately brought him in.

Left to right: Vin Sparacio, Kyle Kuzma and Karri Kuzma
Left to right: Vin Sparacio, Kyle Kuzma and Karri KuzmaImage via Karri Kuzma

"He wasn't a great defender, a great shooter or a great ball-handler," Sparacio says. "But you could just tell he had that special feel that's hard to teach. The first couple of months, he wasn't really that good at the prep level."

For the first time, Kyle and Karri stayed apart for an extended period. The night before Kyle went to Philadelphia, Karri, in disbelief, lay down with her son. She held him as they cried together.

"That was what he wanted," Karri says. "I could not believe he was going away."

He went away and was immediately thrown for a loop. He struggled mightily out of the gate, having difficulties keeping up with the competition. He'd never stepped on a floor against five other players capable of playing Division I basketball. He pushed to change things when he faced off against Fishburne Military School's Kuran Iverson, then a top-10 recruit at his position and Allen Iverson's second cousin.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"That was my matchup, and he really got to me. I was shocked," Kuzma says. "I was like, 'Oh man, I don't know if I'm ready for this. I don't know what I got myself into.'"

With a push from Sparacio, he began lifting weights. During AAU weekends, Kuzma stayed on campus, alternating between lifting weights and playing pickup basketball from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The coach saw immediate improvement, and Kuzma ended the season averaging 22 points and seven rebounds and receiving calls from Division I schools. Offers came in from Connecticut, Iowa State, Tennessee and Missouri, among others, before Kuzma decided on Utah.

Kuzma steadily improved for the Utes under head coach Larry Krystkowiak. After averaging 8.1 minutes a game his freshman year, Kuzma joined the starting lineup his sophomore season and averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and shooting 52.2 percent from the field. In the months before his junior season, Kuzma told himself if he could average close to a double-double and finish his degree in three years, he'd declare for the NBA draft.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

After posting averages of 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and finishing his sociology degree, Kuzma declared.

Draft experts pegged him as a second-round or undrafted prospect, but Kuzma knew if he could get in front of scouts he'd impress. One excellent NBA combine and 17 team workouts later, it appeared he was right.

"I wasn't really nervous because I was killing every workout and killing the combine. It was to the point where I knew I was going to get drafted," Kuzma says.

"On draft day, I wasn't really nervous at all. Then you turn on the draft, the first five picks go by and then you still thinking, Oh man, I don't know where I'm going to go. It's really just by the time draft hits, that's when you get nervous."

On draft night, while at a party with 80 friends and family members, Kuzma became a member of the Lakers, who acquired him in the trade that sent D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 4:  Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes to the basket against the Denver Nuggets on October 4, 2017 at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
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Karri, having been a Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons fan, did not like the Lakers while growing up—except for Magic Johnson, she makes sure to note. 

L.A.'s "other" rookie quickly made a name for himself in summer league, developing a chemistry with No. 2 overall pick Ball before exploding in the early parts of the preseason with a 19-point performance in his debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 23-point game against the Denver Nuggets and a team-high 21 points in the Nuggets rematch, flashing a baseline reverse dunk.

Zero regular-season games into his career, Kuzmania is already in full swing.

"It's surreal," Kuzma says. "The Lakers are the premier franchise in all of basketball. It's the biggest brand in basketball. It's a really surreal feeling to wake up every day, put on my Lakers gear and see Magic in there and play for Luke Walton."

The hard work hasn't stopped. Sparacio, on a recent visit to L.A., couldn't help but notice all of the work Kuzma is still putting in.

"He's still working out like he hasn't gotten drafted," Sparacio says. "With the NBA money, guys take a break, and he hasn't taken a break since he got drafted. It's probably not going to stop."

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 29: Magic Johnson speaks with the new players following a press conference on June 29, 2017 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is co
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The shock hasn't stopped for Karri. Kyle recently moved her into a nice apartment with his first paycheck. On Wednesday, NBA general managers named her son the second-biggest steal of the draft. Every time she sees him do something, from the standout summer-league performances to the hype train chugging along this preseason, she can't imagine something greater happening, until something does.

Karri likes to think back to Kyle's introductory press conference. At one point Magic Johnson came over to introduce himself to the Kuzmas and Karri freaked out. So with a smile on his face, he introduced himself.

"You guys look like family," Johnson said.

For Karri, it finally put things in perspective. Her son had left Flint. He had made it to the NBA. His plan was finally a reality.