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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 3, 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 I: A Dream That Slowly Became A Reality

Powell’s story began in Newark, New Jersey, where he and his family spent roughly the first four years of his life before eventually moving to the more suburban city of Teaneck. Despite leaving at an early age, Powell’s connections to Newark ran deep. Much of his extended family, in fact, still lives in Newark today.

“I remember Newark vividly because a lot of my family still lived there at the time, and still lives there,” said Powell. “I remember the first place I lived in Newark. Just those little things. Little memories. Most of my memories of Newark, though, come from when we’d go back and visit friends and family while I was growing up in Teaneck.”

Even for a four-year-old, the privilege of moving to a place like Teaneck was not lost on Powell. It was an opportunity for he and his family that had to be worked for and wasn’t to be taken for granted. Powell’s mother, Willie Thornton, made sure that he and his siblings took full advantage of it. It was her dedication to providing for her family, in fact, that offered Powell his first glimpse at what having a hard work ethic truly meant.

“My mom worked like three jobs,” said Powell. “She worked as a security officer. She worked at a local college. She had a few different jobs. So for me, at an early age, I got to see what hard work looked like. She had to get up early. She had to work late sometimes. She was doing all of that to provide for us kids.”

The move to Teaneck came with all the opportunities that Powell and his family could have asked for, but it wasn’t going to be easy. After moving from Newark, Powell admittedly had doubts about their ability to stay there. It was a fight. It took a lot of hard work, but over the years they began to feel like they belonged.

“As the years went on, three jobs became two for my mom,” said Powell. “Two jobs eventually became one. She had worked so hard over the years to get us to that point, and things got a little more stable for us.”

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to hear Powell coach from the sidelines, or witness how he relates to the kids that are now in his youth program, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the importance of discipline, work ethic, and a drive to compete. Those three pillars of Powell’s persona were instilled at an early age by one person in particular… his mom.

“That’s where I kind of got a lot of the roots of how I am now,” said Powell. “The hard work. The work ethic. The discipline. The relentlessness. It all comes from watching my mom take care of us all those years.”

As Powell and his family slowly began to acclimate to their new surroundings in Teaneck, he soon realized that Newark, NJ is a place that leaves its mark on you. One doesn’t simply move on from Newark, and it doesn’t simply move on from you. “People from Newark” and “people from Teaneck” were viewed differently. That’s just how it was. Powell found himself in the middle of both worlds, creating some difficult moments for a kid who was just beginning to find his own identity.

“Even when I was young, the friends that I had in Teaneck looked at me a little bit differently because I was ‘the kid from Newark,’” said Powell. “Then, when I’d go back to Newark to visit friends and family, it’d be ‘hey you’re that goodie two-shoes kid that lives in the suburbs.’ I always fought that. I always tried to find that balance…trying to keep things on track, but there was always that battle to try and find myself in the middle of that.”

Powell eventually came to terms with the situation he was in, but it wasn’t easy. It didn’t just happen overnight. As a 10-year-old kid, it’s not like he had all the answers, but he was able to find peace in being from both places.

“People say I’m authentic. They say I’m genuine. I’m thankful for that,” said Powell. “Looking back on that, I guess I had to find myself early on, and be true to who I was, you know what I’m saying? I couldn’t go to Newark and act one way, then come back to Teaneck and act another. I just had to find myself, find my niche, and that’s who I was, whether you liked me or not.”

As time went on, and as Powell got older, being true to himself became easier. Powell dove into different sporting opportunities in Teaneck, and his friend group grew larger. He began to find the balance he’d been looking for. It became easier to put the city of Teaneck on his back, and say that’s where he was from. It was important to him, though, that he didn’t forget where he came from.

“Both Newark and Teaneck are my roots,” said Powell. “Newark is where my family is from. Teaneck is where I was raised. I think both places helped give me my edge, my gritiness a little bit. It kind of separated me, being that kid from both places who was now kind of polishing himself off and starting to be well-rounded.”

It’s important to note, before getting too far ahead, that Newark is not viewed as a place Powell “escaped” from. It’s not a place he “made it out of” necessarily. It does, however, present unique challenges to the people who live there. Teaneck, though seen as an almost entirely new world, presented some of those same challenges.

“Teaneck had all the amenities to succeed, for sure,” said Powell. “It also had all the amenities to derail yourself and just fall off and do nothing with your life. The majority of the people I went to school with are still in that area. That doesn’t mean they’re all in bad situations, but some are. I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to move on and go other places.”

That opportunity began as a child’s dream. Powell became fully entrenched in the youth sports scene while growing up in Teaneck, and his love for basketball gave him a pathway he could stick to.

“I started playing basketball when I was seven,” said Powell. “We used to have something called Biddy Basketball, which was similar to like a Big Sioux Basketball League or something similar here in the Sioux Falls area. The only difference is that the league also had an all-star team, and we traveled around and played in tournaments.”

Those early tournaments, those relationships with his teammates as a young kid in his early playing days, are what kickstarted Powell’s love for the game of basketball. That’s when he got “really into it.”

Though Biddy Basketball had offered Powell a platform to shine at an early age, the New Jersey basketball culture was all about the parks, back in the day, and still is in many ways. In place of national AAU circuits and televised, high-profile high school basketball games, you had to earn your place at the park.

For Kasib Powell, that was Coolidge Park.

Eventually he’d grow up to represent Coolidge Park while matching up against groups of players from other parks around the area, but not before he first earned his keep on his home court, something a small and scrawny middle schooler had to fight for.

“It took a while,” said Powell, remembering the hours spent watching older guys at Coolidge run games back-to-back. “I was that little kid for a while, for sure. The one not playing, on the sideline. The kid just trying to shoot between games or sneak in a layup when guys were on the other end of the court, never actually getting in the game.”

We’ve all been there, no matter what sport or interest we’ve had in life. Sneaking opportunities in when there’s down time…waiting for our names to be called. In many ways, Powell was already living out the “next man up” and “always be ready” mentalities that have become such important ideals within the HEAT Culture we’re all so familiar with today.

“I was just always there,” said Powell. “I was the park mascot, almost. So if there was opportunities to play, I was always there. The older guys started seeing that, I think.”

Finally, an older kid named Clarence Baker gave Powell the shot he was waiting for. He was the first one to claim Powell as his teammate, and they’ve remained good friends to this day.

“I’ve always looked up to him,” said Powell. “He was the one who finally noticed me. I was probably 12 or 13 years old at the time, and they were saying, ‘hey, this kid can kind of play a little bit.’ As long as I wasn’t hurting them or turning the ball over, they’d let me play with them. I was just holding my own at the time, but I just kept growing and getting better and the next thing I knew, I was that older kid inviting young guys to play too.”

The park culture in New Jersey meant more to those local kids than any of us will fully understand. Success on the court, and especially at the park, brought a status and a reputation with it. Powell was no exception.

“Those were just the good old days, man. It was big,” said Powell. “We took pride in that. You wanted to be the best park. You wanted to be known for having the best basketball players in the city be from your neighborhood. When we got together, we had a lot of battles. Every park had guys that could play. The parks were just part of our culture there, for sure.”

Battling at the parks, on the court, gave Powell and many other kids a healthy and constructive outlet. They were channeling their pride and aggression in a good way, rather than falling trap to many of the other temptations in the Teaneck or Newark area.

“It was a chance for me to use some of that grittiness in a good way,” said Powell. “It was a chance for me to represent a place like Teaneck, a place like Newark, in a positive way. Those communities put a notch on me, but in a good way. In a way that I was able to channel and represent positively. I’m thankful for that. I know it wasn’t the same for everyone.”

As Powell grew both as a teen and as a player, so too did his dream of playing basketball professionally. Even he realized, though, that he had to start “doing something real” in order for that dream to become a reality. It wasn’t enough to just love the game of basketball. It wasn’t enough to just say he was going to play in the NBA. It wasn’t enough for him to tell himself, “I’m not getting into trouble with those other kids, so I’m on track to make it to the league.”

Millions of kids have the same dream. Millions of kids are disappointed, realizing that that dream is probably a bit irrational or somewhat unrealistic. Only a select few have the chance to play basketball at the sport’s highest level, and the amount of work they put in to achieve that dream is borderline unfathomable.

So…what went RIGHT for Powell as he attempted to turn his dream into a reality?

Well…there’s levels to it, he says.

It wasn’t one giant leap, but rather a series of small steps and successes that facilitated his upward trajectory. A series of small successes, and a timely seven-inch growth spurt between his junior and senior year of high school, which vaulted him from a 5-11 point guard to a lethal 6-5 forward with guard-like handles and scoring ability.

Sometimes, things just work out.

There are still a lot of 6-5 seniors in high school that never even get a sniff of the NBA, though. So what’s unique about Powell’s journey as a basketball player?

“The growth spurt definitely helped me realize how close I was,” said Powell. “But when I say there’s levels to it…the first level was when our family moved from Newark to Teaneck. The second level was me realizing who I was as a person at an early age, and figuring out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. The third level was that massive passion I had for the game of basketball, and that last level was developing physically and skill-wise to the point where I might have had a shot.”

We’ve discussed the move from Newark to Teaneck and the opportunities that opened up for Powell and his family in their new environment. We’ve discussed how Powell found himself early on, became comfortable with who he was and found a path he could stick to throughout his childhood. That brings us to his developing passion for the game of basketball. A passion that was “borderline weird” at times, according to Powell.

“I remember when I was young I used to play on the floor with pencils and markers, with basketball cards, I’d have full games and full tournaments,” said Powell. “I would set stop watches. This is really weierd but I used to do this all the time. If I had to leave and go somewhere, I’d be really mad if I came back and someone had touched my stuff. I’d have the whole bench, the players on the court…I always had this imagination.”

From creating his own basketball games on the floor to watching real ones on TV as a middle schooler, Powell always took things one step further than the rest of his friends. As a 12-year-old, he remembers sitting on the couch keeping stats to different college basketball games. He always had a “weird mind” when it came to basketball. To him, it may have seemed weird at the time. To others, it’s plain to see his that the analytical mind that separated him as a player, and now as a coach, was already developing at an early age.

One day, he wrote himself a contract.

He was going to play in the NBA. It was going to be “worth a million dollars” and he was going to commit to putting in the work required to get himself there.

He gave it to his mother.

“When I look back at it now, I obviously realize that she was just playing along with me,” said Powell. “At the time, I thought she was for real. It was just on a piece of paper, but the way she reacted to it made me think, ‘wow, she thinks this is the real thing.’ I almost felt like I had to tell her I just made it up.”

There are tipping points for children as they continue to develop. Dreams can either dissipate, change all together, or start to become reality. It might have seemed like a small gesture for Powell’s mother to pretend a piece of paper was a real NBA contract. It may not have taken more than two or three minutes for her to acknowledge what her son had created, and showed excitement about it. That moment, however, has stood out in Powell’s memory for his entire life. It’s a true testament to the power and importance of belief and encouragement, to things Willie Thornton never failed to provide her children with.

As his dream of playing professionally began to set in, so too did the realization that Powell couldn’t just get by with doing the bare minimum anymore. As he entered high school, it was either now or never. There had to be real steps toward separating himself from the millions of other kids playing the game of basketball.

“When you’re in ninth or tenth grade, you can’t just look at kids around you or other people and say, ‘I’m not getting into the things they’re getting into, so I’m going to make it to the NBA.’ It just doesn’t work like that,” said Powell. “The switch that made me realize I can’t just not get caught up in those downfalls, but I have to do extra stuff and turn things up to another level, that came when I had that growth spurt in high school.”

Now a 6-5 guard with loads of talent entering his senior season of high school, Powell began to realize it wasn’t just his on-court talent that would get him noticed by potential colleges. His academics, his character, his off-court life had to match the product that scouts saw on the court.

Easier said than done.

“That growth spurt kind of opened up my thinking that I could really go to college,” said Powell. “That’s part of the reason why I wasn’t happy with my grades at the time. I think if I knew I was a legitimate prospect a little earlier on, the 6-5 or 6-6 high school athlete that had a chance, I think I might have been a little bit more serious about school and not put myself in that position to begin with.”

Powell wasn’t at the bottom of his class, but his grades needed improvement if he was going to earn a shot at playing at the next level. It’s easy to become complacent when you feel stuck in your environment, and that’s exactly what had happened as Powell rode the bench all the way up to his junior year of high school. His dream of playing in the NBA wasn’t going to pan out if he couldn’t even get on the court in a high school varsity game.

There was frustration. Impatience. A feeling like he was being overlooked in more ways than one. Those feelings correlated to a lack of effort at times in the classroom as well. He found himself in a dangerous place, until the summer before his senior year.

“When I grew that summer, I was on all the varsity summer league teams and stuff like that, and I had a great summer, so leading up to that year I knew I was going to have a good season and finally get some playing time,” said Powell. “We ended up winning a state championship. It was kind of the perfect ending to that high school journey.”

Good things come to those who wait, so they say.

For Powell, he had almost dug himself into a hole that was too deep to climb out of.

“By the time I really put my head down and got to work, it was kind of too late,” said Powell. “So that’s what forced me to start my college career at a junior college, to give myself a little more time to catch up in the classroom.”

Every step, every hitch, every bump along Powell’s journey is one that has brought him to where he is now. It’s easy to look back on things and play the “what if” game, but Powell had made the best of the hand he was dealt at every turn. It was anything but easy. He was anything but a model student, a picturesque athlete or prospect, but the fight continued nonetheless.

“I wish that switch would have flipped a year earlier…or even my freshman year,” said Powell. “I wish I would have been that honor roll student, that I would have had that mindset so much sooner, but it didn’t work out that way, and that’s okay. For some people, it never comes. They’re still trying to figure things out. I’m fortunate that that moment came for me when it did.”

Now a 6-5 high school prospect, a state champion, and an improving student, Powell had put himself in a position to keep pursuing his playing career. It wasn’t what he imagined. He wasn’t getting calls from the big named schools. Coaches weren’t groveling at his feet trying to wine and dine him to play in their programs, but he had options.

For arguably the first time in his life, he had options.

He hadn’t yet arrived at his ultimate goal, of playing in the NBA, but his dream was still alive. His early life was highlighted by a series of small victories, and that’s continued to be the trend over the past 20 years.

His family had made it from Newark to Teaneck, and gradually grew comfortable in their new community. He had spent years biding his time at Coolidge Park, watching the older kids play, and he had finally gotten his shot. He had endured three high school basketball seasons playing freshman and junior varsity basketball and had made a massive statement with a state championship victory his senior year. Now, he had earned the right to decide where he wanted to continue his basketball career.

Having been a late bloomer on the academic side of life, starting his college career at a junior college seemed like the best choice. He had some four-year college offers, but didn’t want to sit out a full season as he improved his grades. When he first visited Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, he had no intention of signing. Things quickly changed when he stepped on campus, though, and a quick phone call back home to his mother would mark the beginning of the next phase of his life story.