A Family First: Kai and Kas to Share Opening Night Together
Kasprintina Ellis has missed out on too many important moments in her son’s life. Being there for events like Kai’s high school and prep school graduations, his first game at the University of Texas and the NCAA Tournament simply weren’t possible because of ongoing visa restrictions.
But when Kasprintina (Kas for short) first learned Kai would be declaring for the 2021 NBA Draft scheduled for this past July 29th in New York City after his second collegiate season, it looked like she would once again be stuck in the family’s native Bahamas watching everything unfold on a laptop or screen. But life, thankfully, has an amazing way of working out sometimes.
“When he declared for the draft, I decided I would reapply [for my visa] after I was denied three times,” Kas explained. “I applied in March and they gave me an appointment for September 7. I’m like, ‘That’s not going to get me to the draft in time.’ So, I put in to have it expedited and they said they couldn’t help me right now because of COVID. They had a limited amount of appointments, but I tried again and they said they’d see what they could do to expedite it.”
She added, “I got my appointment expediated [to early July] and had to do an interview. I went into the offices and they asked what the purpose of my visa application was. I said, ‘My son is being drafted into the NBA.’ They said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’ and in my head I’m thinking, ‘It’d be pretty cool if you’d give me my visa so that I can go.’ He asked a few more questions and said, ‘Okay, I think you’re approved and should be able to make it to the draft.’”
Kas immediately phoned Kai, who at the time, was about to begin a pre-draft workout with the Orlando Magic. “It was amazing. I was on my way to the workout and my mom called me and was like, ‘The visa came through!’,” recalls Kai. “That was something we were waiting on because when you go to apply, they say no a lot and they already told her no before. I was so happy. It was dope and a really good feeling.”
And just like that, the burden Kas was carrying of not making it to New York City instantly vanished. No more sleepless nights, no more tears, no more fear of missing out, yet again. The feeling was perhaps too good to be true and it took a funny encounter on Kas’ initial voyage to Los Angeles – where Kai was training before the draft – to ease whatever remained of her initial skepticism.
“I get to the airport and the lady says, ‘You haven’t been to the United States in five years – do you need to get fingerprinted?’”, Kas said. “I’m thinking, ‘Do you always get fingerprinted?’ I told her I hadn’t traveled in five years, so she told me I had to go to secondary interrogation.”
“So, I get there and it’s a very scary, tense environment because they can tell you that you can’t go. I’m talking to this lady and she asks me why I haven’t been to the United States in five years and I said because of my situation, I couldn’t travel without a visa. She says, ‘Okay, you just got a visa two weeks ago? Why?’ and I said, ‘My son is being drafted into the NBA.’ She responds, ‘Kai Jones is your son? You’re Kai Jones’ mom? Oh my god!’ I was looking at her and asked if she knew Kai and she was like, ‘I follow him!’ She was an American, not Bahamian. She apparently met him when he came to the airport one time. She was so excited she completely forgot she was questioning me!”
Kas would make it to Los Angeles, then to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for draft night. Kai, who worked out for the Hornets twice in the weeks leading up to the big event, would be taken by the New York Knicks with the 19th overall selection, then had his rights traded to Charlotte in exchange for a future first-round pick.
“It’s really so unbelievable to see him come up that stage and hear his name called,” said Kas, on the day after the draft while in Charlotte. “That had to be the most exhilarating feeling ever to know something he worked so hard for, he accomplished. He always said, ‘I want to go to the NBA, Mom,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you can.’ He continued to stay focused like that and he’s in the NBA now. This is an unbelievable experience.”
The journey to Charlotte was just as equally long for Kai as it was for Kas. The two plus Kai’s other siblings (he has four: Kaden, Dylan, Luke and Liam) moved from The Bahamas to Boca Raton, FL when Kai was 11, so Kas could attend Florida Atlantic University on a student visa.
“I was running track, playing basketball in PE, during break time and lunch breaks. I would always just play and hoop,” says Kai. “I was one of those kids that was a gym class legend getting buckets. I never really made the basketball team in seventh or eighth grade – I kept getting cut. I kept working on my game, wearing ankle weights to school. Getting up at 5 AM to lift. I was doing all these things and the coach was still cutting me. I just kept working from there, had a growth spurt and grew to 6’6” when I was fifteen.”
By that point though, money had dried up for Kas’ schooling, her visa expired and the whole family was forced to move back to The Bahamas. “We ended up having to stay [in The Bahamas] a year,” says Kai. “I was training the whole time, but didn’t really get on a basketball team because the school I went to didn’t have one. I was playing pickup, playing around, getting in some showcase events to get my name out there. I made a video of me training and showed a high school coach in the US named Treig Burke, who was the coach at Orlando Christian Prep. I went there by myself, tried out and then made the team.”
Coincidently, the city where years later, Kai would find out his mother’s visa was finally approved is also the same one where his basketball career really started taking flight. He lived with both his aunt and trainer during his senior year of high school in Orlando, marking the first time he had ever competed in varsity-level basketball (despite having already played in Basketball Without Borders and for the Bahamian Junior National Team) and also lived away from home. “That first year I was like, ‘Dang, this is tough without parents,’ he says. “I’m only seventeen, not a lot of money, kind of hungry all the time. You’re not really eating that good of food and you’re training really hard.”
After leading OCP to a Class 3A Florida state championship, Kai continued to grow and was invited to the NBA Global Camp in Treviso, Italy during the summer of 2018 before beginning a postgraduate season at powerhouse Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Things got easier, he says, thanks to maturation and a strong support system. Following a National Prep title, Kai enrolled at the University of Texas, where he played two seasons before entering the NBA.
Kas tried to keep up with Kai’s games the best she could, which was no easy task down in Nassau. “Sometimes the games didn’t air on channels in the Bahamas,” she said. “I watched on laptops, phones, went to friends’ houses who may have had a satellite. We have people from our church who are big fans of Kai and they took me to this web shop, where I stood up and watched him play his first game at Texas. I had to see him play by any means necessary.”
Two months ago, Kai made his Hornets debut at NBA Summer League out in Las Vegas, where Kas was finally in attendance as her son’s number one fan. She’ll also be at the team’s regular season opener against Indiana on Wednesday night, where Kai will race out of the Spectrum Center tunnel and onto the court for the very first time. “I’m sure it’s going to be emotional,” says Kai. “She’s very proud of me. A moment of pride seeing how far I’ve come and the work that I’ve put in. I’m sure she’s going to be really excited to be there and see me in person.”
“Y’all are going to hear my mouth everywhere,” said Kas, who is now free to travel between the US and The Bahamas and is temporarily residing in Cleveland with Kaden, while her other three children are back home with Kai’s father, Deyvon and stepmother. “They’re going to be like, ‘That’s Kai Jones’ mom!’ I’m going to be the loudest mom in there.”
She’s very enthusiastic,” adds Kai. “She always believed in me. I used to do the long jump [in track] and if I had a bad jump or a scratch, she’d pull me aside and say, ‘Kai, don’t worry about it. Just go ahead and jump. Just have fun.’ She would always be that voice of encouragement. That’s what she was like.”
Whether his mother is making noise, sitting quietly, cheering, clapping or whatever is not super-important to Kai. The only thing that matters now is that they’ve made it to the NBA together. And Kas will be right there in person watching Kai’s next chapter unfold.