Scott Fowler

How UNC’s Kennedy Meeks made everyone around him proud

He came to the University of North Carolina as a big man on campus. Really big. Too big, in fact, everyone said – including Kennedy Meeks himself.

He will leave UNC with both his mind and body transformed – graduating on time in May and weighing what he says is “70-75 pounds less” than he did early in his freshman year.

Kennedy Meeks has had the sort of experience that gives college athletics a good name – staying four years, getting better each season, slowly growing into a man. Born and raised in Charlotte, Meeks will have his Senior Night on Saturday at the Smith Center against Duke. And no matter what happens in that game or during his final carousel ride on “March Madness,” Meeks knows he is very lucky.

“It's been a long journey, and I have a lot more to go,” Meeks said. “But I am humbly appreciating the moment, because this is my dream. It always has been. And to be this close to it is something I will always be thankful for.”

Meeks remains a very big man at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds. But he is a far different man compared to the West Charlotte High star who chose North Carolina over Georgetown and a host of other schools at the end of a high school career that ended in 2013 with Meeks being named a McDonald's All-American.

Said Meeks of the player he was four years ago: “That Kennedy Meeks was just getting by off of talent. The Kennedy Meeks of West Charlotte was just a lot bigger than everybody else. ...I didn't have the correct work ethic. I didn't have the right mindset.”

“From that first year to now has just been such a huge change for Kennedy,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.

Brenda Richmond is Meeks’ great-aunt, as well as a retired elementary school teacher. Along with Meeks’ mother and his great-grandmother, Richmond and her husband played a primary role in raising Meeks. (Meeks’ great-grandfather was also instrumental in Meeks’ upbringing and is now deceased).

“When Kennedy was 18, like a lot of 18-year-olds, he felt he was the center of the world,” Richmond said. “It was all about him. And now, at 22, he knows that he is a part of the world. He has turned into more of a global thinker.”

But the quick grin that those in west Charlotte remember has never left Meeks.

“From that first year to now has just been such a huge change for him physically, but Kennedy is still a teddy bear,” Williams said. “He is a big kid. I would let him babysit my grandchildren, but after a couple of hours they would be babysitting him. The world – and the seriousness of that world – hasn't ruined Kennedy yet.”

An ‘old-school way of doing it’

When Meeks came to UNC in 2013, like all former high school basketball All-Americans he wondered if he would leave for the NBA early or stay for all four years. Ultimately, he did stay, and in each season he has played a slightly larger role for the Tar Heels.

Said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas: “Kennedy Meeks has had the development of a really good player in college in sort of the old-school way of doing it. We get spoiled by freshmen who come in and are dominant right away. It used to be like you served an apprenticeship and played behind older players.”

That's what Meeks did at North Carolina, gradually working into the big-man rotation as he worked off the pounds. He has found his niche as a solid low-post scorer and a very good rebounder. This season Meeks averages 12.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. . He is No. 9 on the Tar Heels’ all-time rebounding list.

“There have been very few college rebounders on the level of Kennedy Meeks,” Bilas said.

“When I first saw Kennedy as a basketball player, he had great hands, a great ability to pass the ball and good moves inside,” Williams said. “And he had a tremendous weight problem. I remember he tipped the scales at 319 once (Meeks actually told me he weighed close to 335 pounds when he first showed up in Chapel Hill). And then Kennedy did what everybody tells me is one of the most difficult things in the world – he lost weight.”

‘I don’t want to go back to that’

Kennedy's mother, Nakhia Meeks, counseled him early in his career to “stay off the Internet,” knowing that her kind-hearted oldest son might be upset by what he found people saying about him being overweight under the cloak of anonymity. And under the tutelage of Jonas Sahratian, North Carolina’s director of strength and conditioning, less became more for Meeks.

Sahratian was fond of telling Meeks that “Fat don't fly.” Meeks started being able to jump higher and working on his explosiveness as he ate grilled chicken and salads rather than fried foods. It was not easy, especially the grueling conditioning workouts. Meeks remembers days where he “wanted to cry and wanted to quit,” but he kept at it.

Meeks has had a steady girlfriend for the past 18 months. Erin Flowers has graduated from UNC and is a bone-marrow transplant nurse working at Duke University Hospital.

“When we go to dinner now, Kennedy is pretty picky,” Flowers said. “He might get chicken or a steak and a side salad. He tries to stay away from the carbs.”

“I'm not going to say I eat perfect all the time, even now,” Meeks said. “That has never been the case. But I do think about the old me, and I know I don't want to go back to that.”

Now when he returns to Charlotte during holidays or the summer, Meeks jokes with relatives at the Sunday dinners that have long been a family tradition.

“Every now and again he comes home and makes us feel like we are eating the wrong foods,” mother Nakhia Meeks said with a laugh.

Said great-aunt Brenda: “Kennedy will look at your plate and say, ‘You don't need those croutons on your salad!’ But seriously, he has gotten a lot of family members doing a little bit better on their eating, too. He has inspired us.”

As a freshman, Meeks quickly realized how much higher other college athletes who were guarding him could leap. He got his shot rejected a few times early, which prompted a tendency to repeatedly pump-fake when he got the ball.

“Early in my career, I was a little too timid to go straight up,” Meeks said. “I kept thinking people would block my shot all the time. I would say the last two offseasons I tried to work on being explosive, and this year I have a lot more dunks than in past years.”

Meeks has lived on-campus in Chapel Hill for all four years, and every year one of his roommates has been fellow senior forward Isaiah Hicks (they both agree Hicks has the messier room). Hicks laughingly refers to the Meeks he met as a freshman as “Big Kennedy.”

“Some mornings, you still hear the door open early and it's Kennedy going to put some more extra work in,” Hicks said. “I'm so proud of the player he has become. He's so aggressive now. ‘Big Kennedy’ is long gone.”

NBA uncertainty

One way or another, Meeks’ college career is about to close down for good. He first wants to beat Duke – Meeks is 2-5 in his career against the Blue Devils – in front of his family. Meanwhile, his family is making bets on which relative will cry first when Meeks has to make a brief speech.

“I'm so proud of that boy,” Nakhia Meeks, Kennedy's mother, said. “He's gone from a typical 18-year-old teenager to a 22-year-old mature man.”

What Meeks wants most in the next five weeks is the national title that barely eluded North Carolina a year ago, when the Tar Heels lost on a memorable buzzer-beater to Villanova. He will graduate in May and then go look for work – eventually in sports broadcasting but first as a basketball player.

Meeks’ NBA future is unclear. Most 2017 NBA mock drafts have Meeks being picked in the second round, and some don't have him being selected. He will certainly be in an NBA training camp this fall, but it's hard to tell if he will stick on a team. Meeks is an old-school, back-to-the-basket big man in an era where most NBA players under 7 foot are very good 3-point shooters.

“I think he'll play basketball for a living,” Williams said, leaving open the possibility of Meeks playing overseas. “But it's hard these days, really hard. If you're a college senior, you're competing against your class, everyone who leaves early and all the European guys, too.

“And his body type – there are not a lot of those in the NBA. So what you have to do is find something you're great at. If it’s rebounding, passing the ball – something you're great at. And that's how you hang on.”

Like many soon-to-be college graduates, Meeks doesn't know where he will be this time next year and is intent on enjoying his last couple of months of school – ideally with a national championship.

“Whatever happens, though,” Meeks said, “my goal every day has been to become the best man that I can and the best basketball player that I can. And that's what I hope I have done.”