New Orleans Pelicans rookie Kira Lewis Jr. as humble and unassuming off the court as he's been dazzling on it
Dr. Quinn Headen remembers the conversation like it was yesterday. It was one of those small moments that grow over time as his students do. He was the assistant principal at Meridianville Middle School in Hazel Green, a growing but tight-knit community in north Alabama near Huntsville. One of his students, a young lady named Nakerra Lewis, approached with some news about her younger brother, who was 10 or 11 at the time.
"She told me, 'My brother can play basketball,' " Headen said. "I said, 'We'll see.' "
Headen wanted to see for himself so he started watching her brother play ball. It didn't take long to notice that the pretzel-thin, pin-drop-quiet young man from the middle school hallways had a different and definite presence on the basketball floor. Even then, he moved at a different speed.
So the assistant principal reported back to Nakerra, "You're right. Your brother can play basketball."
That early scouting report on Kira Lewis Jr. proved prophetic, but little did anyone in that school or that town know how well he would grow up to play it or how far it would take him.
Fast forward to Nov. 18, 2020. It's NBA Draft Night, and the community has gathered for an unprecedented watch party and celebration. Headen, who became the Hazel Green High School principal a year before Lewis arrived as a freshman, takes in the "surreal" scene. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is talking on the big screen. Alabama Coach Nate Oats and Athletics Director Greg Byrne are mingling. When Commissioner Adam Silver announces that, with the 13th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans have selected Kira Lewis Jr., from the University of Alabama, the room erupts for one of its favorite sons. Headen pauses to reflect.
"Wow," he thinks to himself. "This really just happened. This is the little fella we've known forever. He's an NBA lottery pick. It's still kinda unreal."
Unreal because it was unprecedented for Hazel Green High School to watch a native son hit this kind of height. Unreal because, as far back as anyone can remember, Lewis has been as humble and unassuming off the court as he's been dazzling on it. Ask Hazel Green High School secretary Donna Jo Sharp, whose son Alex played basketball and baseball with Lewis from a young age.
"It's amazing," she said, "because he's just Kira."
He's the young man who, in preparation for the draft during the Covid-19 pandemic, needed a gym to work on his game. Of course, his old school would open its doors to the projected lottery pick, just as it had when he was a Hazel Green Trojan who wanted to get some shots up early in the morning before the coach arrived. But there would be no sense of entitlement or privilege even now from this increasingly famous alum. Instead, each time he was in town and needed the gym, his mom would call the school to ask if it was OK.
"She always asked," Headen said. "To me, that was very nice."
And then mom or dad would accompany their son to his workout, serving as his rebounder, demonstrating that his journey may seem unreal in terms of what he's achieved, but it's totally real in how he's achieved it. Hard work, fierce belief and unwavering support.
This is the dream Kira Lewis Jr. envisioned for himself as he was pounding the dribble before he ever heard that expression. It's the dream Natasha and Kira Lewis Sr. encouraged in their son, who was a three-sport athlete from an early age.
As Natasha tells it, Kira Jr. was always and forever dribbling, when he wasn't making a habit of counting down to countless buzzer beaters: 3 … 2 … 1 … Shot! Score! Unless he was tapping his toes inside an imaginary backyard sideline, waiting for you to spiral a pass he could catch and then tumble out of bounds. Or urging you to toss him pop flies higher and higher to increase the challenge.
"This was before he even started playing, and he started at 5," his mom said. "This was when he was young. He always wanted to work on his game. Always."
That work ethic never left him. Danny Anderson coached Lewis during his second and third high school basketball seasons. Anderson lived across the street from the high school gym, and that first August as the school year began, the sophomore point guard started asking the coach to leave the gym keys in his mailbox so he could put in work before school began.
For three or four days, Anderson checked the mailbox before heading to school himself just in case Lewis might not have made it that morning. The coach didn't want to get to school and have to return to retrieve his keys. They were gone every time, and Anderson stopped checking.
"If he said he was going to do it," Anderson said, "he did it."
In the spring of his junior year, Lewis played in an EYBL travel tournament in Dallas. Baylor Coach Scott Drew, who was recruiting him, called Anderson to relay how well the young prospect had played. Anderson's phone buzzed with another call, this one from his star pupil. Anderson said good-bye to Drew and hello to Lewis, who had a request.
His flight would put him back home at 7 p.m. Could Anderson open the gym for him about 7:30? It was a Sunday night after a successful high-profile tournament, and still he felt he needed more work.
In the first game of his sophomore season at Alabama under Oats, the new head coach, Lewis hit a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left to give the Crimson Tide the lead over Penn. The visitors recaptured a one-point advantage but fouled Lewis with less than 3 seconds to play. He missed both free throws, and despite his career-high 30 points, Alabama lost 81-80.
After the crowd departed Coleman Coliseum that night, Lewis stayed behind to make 500 free throws, to make sure those misses in that situation wouldn't happen again. They didn't. Lewis finished his sophomore season as Alabama's leader in scoring, assists, steals, minutes and field goals attempted and made. He earned first-team All-SEC honors.
"I texted him after the (Penn) game," Anderson said. "People were bashing him on social media. They had no idea the work he put in. I told him you don't grow without some kind of conflict. He texted right back: 'I love you, coach.' "
The young man "always loved a challenge," as his mom put it. So maybe it wasn't as out of the ordinary as it seemed that he graduated from Hazel Green High School in three years and enrolled at Alabama at 17 as the youngest player in Division I basketball that season. Natasha Lewis would like you to know that then-Alabama coach Avery Johnson and his staff didn't plant and grow the seed to start college early. She and her husband did.
They knew their son better than the doubters who wondered if he was too young and too frail to succeed Collin Sexton, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, as the Alabama point guard in the rugged, unforgiving Southeastern Conference.
"It came from us," she said. "We looked at it like this. He was dominating high school ball. How was he going to improve his game by staying and dominating another year? To be a better player, you have to play better players."
After watching their son perform at a big-time AAU tournament in California after his junior year, Kira Sr. said, "there was no sense in coming back for his senior year."
After all, in a basketball-loving pocket of a notorious football state, Kira Jr. had scored 30 points in his first varsity game as a high school freshman. He'd made second-team all-state as a freshman, first-team as a sophomore and junior. As a junior, he averaged 28.5 points a game, was named Class 6A player of the year and led Hazel Green to just the third state championship game in school history. The Trojans didn't win that game, but for a young man who wanted to make basketball his career, it was time to take on a new challenge. His work in the classroom, earning enough credits to graduate in three years, made it possible.
"He didn't have any other choice," his mom said of his strong academic performance, "because in our house, it's God, family and school. Anything else, we don't have to do."
Lewis didn't necessarily have to focus on basketball to make it as an athlete. Fortunately for SEC and NFL defensive backs, he doesn't like cold weather. He stopped playing football after running past JV defenders as a freshman wide receiver and punt returner, but his first high school basketball coach swears he could've done the same at Alabama.
"I'm not saying he would've been as good as (Alabama All-American wide receiver) DeVonta Smith," Todd Jeffers said, "but he absolutely could've been a college football player. He just ran by people. He had the quick gear and the elite speed. He could do whatever he wanted to do."
Lewis' dad, Kira Sr., saw his son make one catch that violated the laws of physics so spectacularly "he looked like Inspector Gadget."
Jeffers remembered the Hazel Green football and basketball players working out together during Lewis' freshman year, when he might've weighed 140 pounds. The senior football players, being senior football players, would flex on the slender freshman in the weight room and bet they could beat him in sprints outside. After Lewis smoked a few of them, Jeffers said, there would be no more racing or taunting. And, after that ninth-grade season, no more football.
"Everybody knew basketball was his first love," Jeffers said. "He was always in the gym. He figured out, 'I know this is what I want to do the rest of my life."
Those middle school basketball games Jeffers had watched, when Lewis would display rare speed and skill and a unique basketball IQ, when "he would get up and down the floor like The Flash," were no mirage.
"I saw him leave the top of the key guarding his man when another player had a wide-open layup," Jeffers said. "He goes in behind him and blocks it off the backboard. It's one of those things where you think, 'Did that just happen?' You don't see that in middle school."
The basketball world in Alabama really took notice at a holiday tournament during Lewis' junior year. Hazel Green had never won the long-running Huntsville Times Classic, modernized for the Internet age as the AL.com Classic. In the semifinals, the Trojans faced powerhouse Mountain Brook and five-star forward Trendon Watford, who's now at LSU.
Hazel Green trailed by 18 after the first quarter, by 13 early in the fourth quarter. Led by Lewis and his 35 points, the Trojans rallied to win the game in overtime. They won the tournament the next night.
"If we had Trendon Watford," said Anderson, the Hazel Green coach at the time, "we don't win that game. I thought Kira was the best player in the state."
Three years later, Lewis is the sixth-highest draft pick in University of Alabama history. Only Antonio McDyess (No. 2 in 1995), Leon Douglas (No. 4 in 1976), Sexton (No. 8 in 2018), Derrick McKey (No. 9 in 1987) and Robert Horry (No. 11 in 1992) have been drafted higher. Virtually everyone in the vicinity of Meridianville and Hazel Green is a Pelicans fan now.
"We're all waiting for our Kira Lewis Jr. jerseys for Christmas," said Headen, the Hazel Green principal.
This is the dream Kira Lewis Jr. dreamed as far back as his parents can remember. Kira Sr. shares a memory that captures the depth of his son's love for the game.
"I used to catch him in his sleep talking basketball," Kira Sr. said. "He would say later, 'Dad, I'm just thinking about the game.' I used to get worried. I'd think, 'This kid here, he's all basketball.' I'd want him to get his mind off basketball sometimes."
Thanks to his parents, Kira Jr. kept his eyes and his mind on his books and on the prize, and here he is, on the cusp of his NBA rookie season at the tender age of 19. He won't turn 20 till April.
"This kid knew what he wanted to do when he was very, very young," Kira Sr. said. "A lot of kids will tell you that, but he meant it. He really, really meant it. It's a blessing that he's truly getting a chance to live his dream."