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A Series of Small Successes: An In-Depth Look at the Life and Journey of Kasib Powell

By Matt Dykstra | June 18, 2021

 

Kasib Powell is a former NBA G League MVP. He’s a former NBA Call-Up to the Miami HEAT. He’s one of only four members in the Sioux Falls Skyforce Hall of Fame. He began what is now one of the fastest-growing basketball academies in the state with South Dakota Network Basketball. He’s been serving as an assistant coach with the Sioux Falls Skyforce since 2016. Now, he’s ready for another step forward, but not before looking back and reflecting on where he’s been. The following four-part series takes an in-depth look at the life and basketball journey of arguably one of the most influential players, now turned coach, in Skyforce franchise history. It starts at the beginning.

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PART 3: NOTHING IN LIFE COMES EASY

Kasib Powell had faced adversity before. In every stage of his life, in fact, he had found a way to triumph over obstacles that stood in the way of achieving success.

Success, to him, was something that had a changing definition.

First, success was to find his way onto the court at Coolidge Park. Next, it was to get playing time in a varsity basketball game. Later, it would be a state championship, a committal to junior college, and a transfer to a premiere Division I school in Texas Tech.

All of these successes represented steps toward achieving his ultimate dream, which was to play in the NBA. The final step of making it to the Association would prove to be the most difficult step of Powell’s life.

After two stellar seasons at Texas Tech, Powell’s dream seamed more attainable than ever. He may have chosen to return to school for his senior season, seeing his draft stock slip just a bit, but he felt good about where he stood as the 2003 NBA Draft approached. So good, in fact, that he hosted a draft party with family and friends.

It was supposed to be a night of celebration. A night of joy. A deep breath of fresh air. A weight lifted off his shoulders, knowing the years of hard work, the investment in him by his family, coaches, and teammates, had finally paid off.

It was anything but that.

As the draft went on, an uneasiness began to grow. Frustration grew. Words and comments meant for encouragement turned into sharp knives that cut deeper and deeper as the night went on. Questions began circulating in Powell’s mind. Why wasn’t he getting a call? What could he have done differently? Why weren’t teams interested in him?

His name was never called.

“To not get drafted was a tough pill to swallow,” said Powell. “To have all those people there for you, watching you, watching how you’re reacting, waiting to celebrate with you when your name is called, only to have teams pass on you and to see yourself go undrafted…there were a lot of emotions to that.”

You hear about players using their fall in the draft as motivation. You hear about players who reinvented themselves after going undrafted and were better off for it. It’s fun to listen to those successes and cheer those players on. Those stories are much harder to appreciate, however, when you’re the main character.

For some, the reality of going undrafted is insurmountable. There’s a feeling of finality that sets in after decades of pouring heart and soul into the sport you love most. Is this the end? Was all that hard work worth it? The NBA G League has now become a steady pathway for players in that position. In 2003, going undrafted felt more like a death knell.

Powell has never been one to wallow in his own self-pity, but he admitted to being discouraged. These feelings didn’t last long, though. There wasn’t time for that. The dream was still alive, it would just have to be attained differently.

“I felt so defeated in that moment,” said Powell. “You can’t let that show, though. For me, I kind of just bottled that up and said, ‘okay, how can I use this? I have to turn this into something positive.’ To be that close and then not hear your name called, yeah, it was a let-down. That’s when you have a decision to make, though. Like, ‘I have a chance to do something this offseason.’ That’s when you’re on to summer league opportunities. To NBA free agent workouts. To training camps. There wasn’t time to sit and feel sorry for myself. The NBA was still right there for me.”

For Powell, those offseason workouts resulted in an NBA training camp invite prior to the 2003-04 season, but he had another offer on the table that was too good for a young kid to pass up. It was an offer that would eventually take him overseas, where he’d begin his professional career in Serbia.

“I had a great summer that year, and I did get a training camp invite, but the contract I was offered to play in Servia at the time was too hard for me to pass up,” said Powell. “At the time, in my situation, I was thinking, ‘I can’t afford to roll the dice on this right now.’”

In an era before two-way contracts were invented, and before the NBA G League had taken off as a legitimate pathway to the NBA, Powell’s story was a common one among athletes that “missed the first cut” in making it to the NBA. Many jumped at contract offers to play overseas. Some carve out great careers. Some are never heard from again. The temptation to follow the money, especially for Powell, was all too real.

It was a done deal. Powell’s NBA dream definitely wasn’t over, nor was it being thrown away. It was just being delayed a year. It wasn’t the route he envisioned taking, but he had a plan. He was going to get paid, and then he’d be back.

Having a plan is one thing. Wrapping your head around it is another.

For Powell, there was a specific moment when the reality of his commitment to spend the next year of his life overseas came crashing down on him. The emotions that came with that realization weren’t something he could hide.

“I can’t remember if it was before I boarded my flight to go overseas or if it was the day I signed the contract, but I remember sitting in the car with my friends and just breaking down,” said Powell. “They were looking at me thinking I was playing. I just couldn’t control it. I’m just sitting there, and everybody is talking real cool about me going to play overseas, and it just hit me. I just broke down.”

It would undoubtedly be the furthest he’d ever been from home. He’d be isolated. He’d be living in a city he wasn’t familiar with. He’d be communicating with people who didn’t speak much English. As a young kid, fresh out of college, a fear of the unknown was setting in for the first time.

“It was such a huge feeling of failure,” said Powell. “Forget what the money was. None of that mattered to me at that moment. The realization that I hadn’t made it, that I was about to go play overseas in a place I’d never been, it just hit me all at once. It was just really tough.”

Not one to back away from any of his commitments, though, Powell left determined to make the best of his first year as a professional athlete. However, while some things in Powell’s life had fallen perfectly into place for him, this wouldn’t be one of them. Not even for a little bit.

“It was tough when I got there,” said Powell. “We lived in a dorm. We had a curfew. We ate cafeteria food. I didn’t get along with many of my coaches. I wasn’t getting paid. You sign a contract like and you expect to be taken care of. You expect to be in a good situation. It wasn’t like that at all.”

Powell was confused, to say the least. He wasn’t expecting glitz and glamor while playing in Serbia, but he was expecting a lot better than what he had gotten. His concerns would fall on deaf ears, though. His agent, the one who had lined up the contract in the first place, the one person who was supposed to be in Powell’s corner and arguing on his behalf, was unresponsive. He was no where to be found.

Powell was on an island, fending for himself.

“Once I got out there, I couldn’t get in contact with my agent,” said Powell. “He just fell off the grid completely. I was supposed to have a car and an apartment. I had none of that. I just couldn’t reach him at all. Just think about that. You’re this kid who was dreaming of playing in the NBA, so much so that you’re crying in the backseat of your friend’s car before you go overseas. You’re crushed, and then when you get over there nothing is how they said it would be. You have this one guy who is supposed to be helping you out, and he won’t pick up the phone. I felt trapped.”

It was even worse that Powell realized at the time.

Not only was his agent unreachable, he was sending new American players to Serbia to compete with Powell for a place on the roster. At the time, KK FMP, the club Powell played for, was only allowed to have two American players on their roster at once. When Powell signed his contract, he didn’t know he’d have to compete for his position at various points throughout the year. Making it worse was the fact that many of his competitors were sent by his own agent.

He couldn’t get out of there soon enough.

Powell would go on to finish out the 2003-04 season playing for PAOK Thessaloniki in the Greek Basketball League before returning home to hit the reset button during the summer of 2004. It was that summer when he’d get his first real crack at making it in the NBA, joining the Minnesota Timberwolves for training camp under the direction of none other than the late Flip Saunders, who was himself a Skyforce alumni, although that connection in Powell’s career would come later.

Powell’s time with the Timberwolves would be brief, but Saunders made a lasting impact on him as a young professional. He instilled a different way of relating with people both on and off the floor, something Powell has carried with him ever since.

“He taught me such different things, you know? A lot more than just basketball,” said Powell. “I remember a time when I came to practice and he asked me if I had left the hotel maid a tip. I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ He said, ‘the maid that cleans your room…did you leave her a tip?’ He helped me see things differently. He helped me see people differently. To treat people differently. He taught me to appreciate the people in my life that help me out…even if it’s just the maid at my hotel. I’ll never forget that.”

When the Wolves’ training camp concluded that season, Powell again found himself without a job. This time, however, he wasn’t taking just any contract offer that came his way. This time he was determined to stay. He was determined to do things his own way, to do what he was comfortable with doing.

“I just couldn’t go overseas again,” said Powell. “It was very clear to me early on that if I wanted to make it to the NBA, it was going to happen right here…the NBA G League…the minor leagues here in America were the best place for me to do it. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that I was willing to grind it out here in the states.”

Powell’s new resolve to “stay home” led him first to the Great Lakes Storm in 2005. The Storm was part of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), but Powell’s tenure with the franchise was a short one. He soon found himself playing for the Dakota Wizards for almost the entirety of the 2005-06 season. At the time, the Wizards were also part of the CBA, and represented one of Sioux Falls’ biggest rivals.

He’d had success with both the Storm and the Wizards, but something was still missing. Powell was still searching for legitimacy. He wanted to feel like a professional. He wanted everything off the court to catch up with his skillset on the court.

Still searching for greener grass, Powell briefly cut ties again with the American minor league system and played the 2006-07 season with Spartak Saint Petersburg in Russia. He played well enough, in fact, that he had a much larger contract waiting for him for the following season.

Powell sensed he was getting closer, though.

After a summer of working out with his own personal trainer, he felt like he was better than he’d ever been before. If there was ever a time to finally find his way into the NBA, it was going to be now. That feeling led him to consider the up-and-coming NBA G League.

That’s when Sioux Falls Skyforce Head Coach Nate Tibbetts called him.

Powell remembered what it was like to play in Sioux Falls from his time with the Dakota Wizards. He remembered the crowds at the Sioux Falls Arena. He remembered how “big” those games felt, and he wanted to be a part of that.

A legend was soon born.

Powell would sign with the Skyforce in advance of the 2007-08 season, just the second season of NBA G League competition for Sioux Falls after moving out of the CBA. All he did after that was put together one of the greatest individual seasons in Skyforce franchise history.

Powell averaged 22.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists on his way to being named the NBA G League’s Most Valuable Player, the first MVP honor in Skyforce history. He appeared in 40 games (39 starts) before his G League run came to a screeching halt when he received the phone call he’d been dreaming of since he was a little boy growing up in Teaneck, NJ.

On March 22, 2008, Powell signed a contract with the Miami HEAT.

He bet on himself, and he made it.

Decades later, the blood, sweat, and tears that Powell had poured into the game of basketball had finally paid off. At that moment, nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter how long he’d waited to get there. He was there now, and would enjoy the ride for as long as he could.

Powell would finish out the 2007-08 season on the HEAT roster, appearing in 11 games (four starts) while averaging 7.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists in just under 28 minutes per contest. On April 8, 2008, Powell scored a career-high 18 points to go along with six rebounds and three assists in a win over the Chicago Bulls, serving as the highlight of what ultimately was a brief stint in the NBA.

The HEAT would ultimately let Powell go in free agency the following summer.

The NBA experience, no matter how brief, is something that Powell will never forget.

“It was extremely important to me,” said Powell. “It was years of hard work. It was the belief that I could make it, that I could play at that level. You always wish it was longer, of course, but to be able to say I played in the NBA is something I will always appreciate. That call I got from the HEAT justified everything I had done to that point in my life.”

Over the next four years, Powell would return to Sioux Falls after a brief stint in China, and then would ultimately finish his playing career overseas before deciding to step away for good in 2012.

Powell found success in many places, but the time he spent in Sioux Falls stands alone. Not only did it mark his best play as an individual, it served as the final steppingstone to achieving his ultimate dream. So, what went RIGHT about Powell’s short tenure in South Dakota? What allowed him to reach the next level of his game? What made such a lasting impact that he ultimately chose to come back to Sioux Falls after his retirement?

“I don’t know if I’ve ever told Greg and Mike [Heineman] this, but I think the biggest reason I found success here in Sioux Falls is that Mike and the rest of the Skyforce staff had finally made me feel comfortable,” said Powell. “On top of what Nate Tibbetts did for me as a coach, it was what the organization as a whole did for me while I was here that helped me settle in to being the player I was meant to be on the court.

“The Apartment was nice. You could get around easy. If you needed something, someone was there for you. When I played at other places, it was never like that. Then, you have the crowd element here in Sioux Falls. That was the main reason I wanted to come back here. The crowd element. The fans. The home court advantage here was huge. If I was going to play in the minor leagues, I wanted to play in front of a crowd full of people that I felt supported me. People that cared. I found that here.”

Powell had found a home away from home for the first time since turning pro. He had longed to feel like the professional athlete he was for years, never finding the perfect off-court balance to make him feel like what he was doing was worth the effort. Finally in Sioux Falls, the pieces that Powell had been looking for fell into place.

He felt validated off the court.

It unlocked a new side of him as a player on the court.

Skyforce Head Coach Nate Tibbetts saw that and took advantage of the opportunity to turn Powell into a true professional athlete, something all great coaches do with their players.

“Nate [Tibbetts] taught me how to be a true professional,” said Powell. “It’s as simple as that. I used to be slouching in the film room. Checked out sometimes at practice. I was setting a bad example for the guys around me, especially the young guys. When I got to Sioux Falls, Nate called me out on those things. He opened my eyes a little bit. He showed me what NBA teams look for besides just stats, and that’s when I really became the professional athlete that I thought I was being before.”

Powell started showing up early for practices. He started staying late for post-practice workouts. He started dressing like a professional. Gone were the days when he’d roll in wearing sweats, minutes before he had to be on the court for a pre-game workout. His mindset changed. His preparation changed. His play reflected his shift in mentality, and the HEAT (among other teams) noticed.

It was the perfect storm.

“Playing in Sioux Falls made me feel like I was actually a professional,” said Powell. “It helped me settle in. it was the staff. It was the coaches. It was the community. That’s what made it work. Everything, all of those pieces, fell into place. The organization did things for us that made us feel important. It made us feel like we were professionals. You don’t find that everywhere.”

HEAT Culture is now well-known around the NBA, and firmly planted in professional sports folklore. However, the Skyforce have had something similar here in Sioux Falls for just as long. It starts with the Heineman family, and extends down through the organization to the players on the front lines. For Powell, playing the for the Skyforce was about more than just playing for himself. It was about becoming part of the family.

“We would do these big team dinners, have these huge Thanksgiving meals, do these things as a team in the community or just on our own to build a better relationship with each other and with the staff,” said Powell. “It helps so much. I remember thinking about how much I appreciated those things back when I was a player. I don’t think there was another team at the time that was doing what we were doing here in Sioux Falls. It really does make you feel like you’re part of a family.”

For the first time since Texas Tech, Powell felt supported. He wasn’t fending for himself. He didn’t have to have all the answers. He was playing in front of thousands of fans who appreciated him on a nightly basis. For once, he could simply focus on basketball, and that focus catapulted him to the sport’s highest level.

Mission accomplished.

In the aftermath of his playing career, Powell found himself re-investing in Sioux Falls, the same community that propelled him toward achieving his childhood dream. He had started a youth basketball program. He began to raise a family. He was beginning to settle in and find his calling as a coach and father, rather than a player.

In the summer of 2016, only a few months after being inducted as one of only four members in the Sioux Falls Skyforce Hall of Fame for being one of the most outstanding players in franchise history, the Miami HEAT came calling again.

This time, it was for a different reason entirely.

It was an opportunity that would allow Powell to stay right here in Sioux Falls, all while laying the groundwork for who he has now become in the current stage of his life and his career.

It was an opportunity for him to coach the sport he loved at a professional level.

He accepted, and hasn’t looked back since.