Born With A Basketball In His Hands

Jan. 17, 2006

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

All eyes are upon him, watching his every move. Fans, family, friends and foes. Following his moves on both defense and offense. The eyes don't get a chance to rest because Kevin Hamilton Jr. never stops.

His father, a standout collegiate guard at Iona, studies his namesake son. He punches a mental calculator every time his oldest boy touches the basketball. He records exactly what happens. His father knows the game inside and out. Shrewdly, he is formulating his opinion about how Kevin is playing. He seems too busy to be proud.

Kevin's coach, Ralph Willard '67, a captain-guard himself at Holy Cross four decades ago, follows Hamilton during the ebb and flow of each game. He knows Hamilton will do something to change the tide of every game--a burst of three-pointers, a flurry of steals, a wave of energizing excitement. He realizes Kevin Jr. has something special, that he is another All-American in the student-athlete tradition of Holy Cross.

Kevin's mother, Netty, is there to cheer on her son. Until the game gets too tense, and her nerves rattle, and she needs to exit the building and sneak a puff or three on a calming cigarette.

The fans wait for Kevin to explode. At home, they chant "MVP" to encourage or remind him that he is the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year. The pressure to perform surrounds him.

Being under such constant scrutiny might suffocate some athletes. Fortunately, nobody watches Kevin more closely than Kevin himself. He understands how to play the game and exactly why he is playing it.

His father had been an Iona College shooting star under Jimmy Valvano. His net-snapping touch made him the fourth draft-pick of the Boston Celtics in 1980 (selected after the College's All-American Ronnie Perry).

"My dad is not shy about voicing his opinion," says Hamilton, with a telling smile.

"Coach Willard doesn't sugarcoat anything. It's like having another parent," Hamilton adds. Now he breaks into a full-fledged grin.

"I have so many coaches when I'm playing, it's not even funny," he cracks. Then he corrects himself. "Actually it is funny. I'm always joking around with them about it. I appreciate how supportive my parents and coach are. I have a lot of friends back home who didn't have both parents around."

His dad and his coach come from the same breeding ground. Willard was a skinny 6-foot-3-inch guard at St. Dominic's in Oyster Bay. He was coaching at his high school alma mater when Kevin Sr. emerged as a schoolboy whiz at Long Island's North Babylon High.

"As a coach, I knew about him, and he knew who I was," remarks Willard. "We know all the same folks. He understood from the beginning, this (the grooming of Kevin) was going to be a process. We speak all the time."

Kevin Sr. had written Willard a note, suggesting that he come watch his son play at a hoop invitational. Kevin was still an undeveloped kid who hadn't played much as a junior.

"I watched Kevin for a half hour and told his dad, `I've got to have him!'" says Willard. He perceived that "New York City guard instinct" and envisioned Kevin in a more mature body. "He's got incredibly quick hands and a relentless attitude," Willard says.

Holy Cross had what his parents insisted upon. Academics would come first.

"Kevin is very bright and needed to be challenged academically. Lots of basketball factories were interested, but Holy Cross is the perfect fit," his dad comments.

Willard had Kevin signed up by the fall of his senior year. Kevin would blossom, making All-City and becoming a blue-chip commodity among hoop cognoscenti.

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It would be easy to insert Kevin Hamilton in a convenient formula. Genetics plus geography equals success. Just analyze the nurture and nature factors, and one might assume Kevin Bernard Hamilton Jr. would be an All-American basketball player from the day he arrived on May 2, 1984.

"My mother says I was born with a basketball in my hands," quips Hamilton.

He did grow up in a basketball incubator. He learned the game in the neighborhoods of Queens Village, a few hook shots away from St. Albans--where Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, Holy Cross All-America, became All-City Captain while performing for Andrew Jackson High.

Hamilton played at Archbishop Molloy in Queens, coached by the legendary Jack Curran, who has been developing players such as Kenny Anderson and Kenny Smith for more than four decades.

His dad had been a scoring machine (20 points a game) for 20-2 North Babylon High, making the 1976 All-Long Island team. The slender 6-foot-3-inch guard emerged as the outside force on the highly regarded Iona team led by burly Jeff Ruland. Recall that team upset No.1-ranked Louisville on Feb. 21, 1980. That January, Hamilton scored 18 points as Iona trounced Holy Cross 82-67 in the Hart Center. Only an elbow injury during preseason grind dashed Kevin Sr.'s dreams of becoming a Celtic in the Larry Bird era.

Netty and Kevin Hamilton come from large families where excellent athletes abound. Netty excelled in racquetball. Their younger sons are also following in their dad's footsteps. Keith, 16, is a fine junior guard with Division 1 promise, playing at Holy Cross High in Flushing. Dad serves as the freshman team coach there. Kiernan, 9, is already showing signs of hoop excellence as he tags along with Kevin and Keith to summer workout sessions. "I've never seen a kid his age so dedicated to doing basketball drills," remarks Kevin Jr.

Kevin Jr. is quick to point out his good fortune. His mom, her heritage rooted in Puerto Rico, was the first in her family to graduate from college (the Catholic all-women's College of New Rochelle in New York where Iona is located.) "We were college sweethearts," notes Kevin Sr., now a regional vice president for IKON Office Solutions, a major distributor of business equipment. Netty is an addiction counselor at Queens Hospital.

"My dad never pushed me into basketball, never pressured me to play. I showed some interest in junior high, and I signed up for youth leagues like CYO. He was never overbearing, not a drill-sergeant type at all," Hamilton says.

"I never wanted to pressure him to do what I did--I didn't want him to play at Iona and feel he had to be another me," says Kevin Sr., who is a member of the Iona Hall of Fame.

"I knew Holy Cross would give him the independence to grow. I knew Ralph would make him a complete player. There is nobody I trusted more than Ralph Willard with my son's development as a player and person."

His parents are always there for their three sons. At their games, chauffeuring them around. His mom insists their homework be done. His dad shows them some sweet moves.

Yet Kevin Jr.'s ardent passion for basketball seems to erupt somewhere from deep within.

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To be sure, Hamilton has made himself into an honorable-mention All-American with a gleaming future in basketball. No doubt geography and genes and coaching have helped. But he is the one who devotes countless hours in weight rooms and on asphalt courts. Back home, he pushes himself to lift at a local YMCA and play endless pick-up games at a nearby summer camp.

He arrived at Holy Cross uncertain. There were talented upperclassmen who would play ahead of him. They would show him the ropes but cut him little slack. Even pals like Jave Meade would test him rigorously in practice. His high school coach, Jack Curran, is old-school tough but had mellowed some. Willard would be a no-nonsense, no-shortcuts mentor who had the full blessing of Kevin's father.

His first year, a tough transition for any freshman, would shake him. "He would come to me and ask if I liked him," Willard recalls.

Willard, who acknowledges he "loves Kevin like a son," would treat Hamilton as he does any first-year grunt once he enters the arena of combat. Hamilton would be brainwashed until the Willard brand of basketball that emphasizes defense was ingrained. You don't play in-your-shirt defense, you don't get to shoot ... make that, you don't get to play.

Hamilton sat and learned. In his debut appearance, Kevin played 15 minutes against mighty Kansas and scored seven points. In the Patriot League playoffs, Hamilton flashed his potential and made the all-tourney team.

"My dad is not shy about telling me I played badly. Coach Willard drilled defense into my head. In time, I learned how not to listen to their tone, but to take the words out and understand they weren't trying to hurt me, but to teach me," Hamilton says.

His dad says he no long lectures his son. "He's bigger than I am," Kevin Sr. adds, laughing. "He's also better than I was. But I'll never tell him that!" Yet he confides that truth to Willard and others all the time.

Hamilton has improved every year. He has learned to love the intricacies and challenges of Willard's defensive schemes. His defensive prowess sets him apart. Relying on his amazing quickness and instinct, Hamilton had 92 steals last season, ranking him third in the country. He can run, rebound, thieve and bury threes. He is the prime reason Holy Cross came within an eyelash of winning the Patriot League Championship and a trip to the NCAA (the Crusaders went to the NIT).

From last April through the fall, his fierce weight-lifting routine sculpted his muscular upper body and added 12 pounds to his frame. Before last season's liftoff, three left-wrist fractures in 14 months had slowed his development.

Now Hamilton is a senior leader. Now he puts good pressure on himself. He leads by exemplary hustle. He welcomes the burden.

Off the court, he does very well. He loves his college and its campus life. A sociology major, he goes beyond course requirements and volunteers extra hours dishing out food down at the Worcester Inebriate Center's "People in Peril" shelter.

His girlfriend, Ariana Guerrero '08, is also a sociology major. He gets razzed by his pals about the high percentage of Holy Cross undergrads who marry each other. He enjoys education and even raves about courses he takes, such as "Classical America" (the influence of the Latin and Greek cultures on our country's formation).

He would love to play pro ball but also anticipates a later business career in a competitive environment.

"He's a complete player with NBA potential," gushes Willard.

Willard also adds, "Kevin is a great kid ... quiet, well-spoken, intelligent, modest. He has a great sense of humor. And once he steps on the court, he is very, very competitive."

Sounding very much like a dad bragging about his son.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.