“Much is given, much is required,” Kennedy says today, now a 20-year-old sophomore forward on the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
Aunt Brenda carefully picked when to pass along the seven words to Kennedy.
He began playing church league basketball at the age of 5. A year later, Kennedy made the jump to AAU basketball — a league that serves as the opening of the pipeline to hoop dreams for every young player.
“We wanted him to have a basic understanding that that which he’s going through is given to him,” Brenda Richmond said.
“We made sacrifices. The whole family made sacrifices for him to get on that track to go and move forward.
"And so, there are things we require of him, whether it’s character, whether it’s grades, whether it’s spirituality.”
Kennedy understands the value-laden verse. He knows that God gave him the talent, the physical stature and compassionate nature to be successful in basketball and in life.
At times the pressure of the college environment comes crashing down. So he’ll call, FaceTime or text Aunt Brenda; his mother, Nakhia; or his best friend in the world, Carlton. But he does so just to talk.
They no longer need to remind him that when much is given, much is required. He knows.
Kennedy makes sure he calls home to talk to Aunt Brenda and his mother at least every other day.
He and Aunt Brenda only talk about life, she said. The basketball discussions are left for his mother.
Just a few weeks ago during their routine phone call, Nakhia thought back to when Kennedy was 3 years old. She got him a mini basketball hoop, always decked him out in Air Jordan sneakers and even mounted a life-sized poster of Michael Jordan on the wall for the little fella to admire.
They laughed about “Space Jam,” one of his favorite movies growing up, and how he followed the path of his lifelong hero by attending UNC to play basketball.
“Basketball was a sport that he was just destined to play,” Nakhia says. “We put that first basketball in his hand at the age of 3. It just really started from there.”
Carlton Metz, now a sophomore at N.C. Agricultural & Technical State University, remembers it starting in second grade. He heard rumblings about a kid bigger than he was, one bigger than most. At recess, Carlton asked this mysterious kid he’d just met to join him and another friend on the court for games of 3-on-3. He did, and rarely did the three boys lose after that.
Back in the neighborhood, the mystique persisted.
“There’s this big kid down the street who lives on Burbank Drive. You might wanna check him out,” Carlton’s uncle told him.
Carlton went down there to check out the player. “Oh, that’s Kennedy. He’s in my class,” he told his uncle and father, Carlton Chapman. “The rest is history.”
Kennedy’s mother might have put the ball in his hand when he was 3, but he credits Carlton’s father, “Coach Cotton” as he calls him, for teaching him the game. After church league with Greater Mount Moriah Primitive Baptist, Kennedy played on six recreational leagues and AAU teams with Carlton under Coach Cotton’s direction.
“I remember his very first shot when he started playing AAU with us,” Carlton says with a laugh. “It was a no-look, hook shot from the free throw line over the backboard.
“Kennedy was terrible. I never thought he would be this good.”
Then came high school and the glimpses of promise. First in the form of double-doubles when Kennedy was a freshman on the West Charlotte High School basketball team. Then came West Charlotte’s state championship his sophomore year. Kennedy was named the MVP of that game, which was played in the Smith Center, after grabbing 19 rebounds.
“Kennedy, the look and feel he had on the court when West Charlotte won the game,” Nakhia says, “I was just thinking in my mind, ‘he’d look good playing on this court.’”
Then came the 10 p.m. phone call from Roy Williams after a game his junior year.
“He just basically offered me a scholarship to come here,” Kennedy says. “All I could do was smile and be so happy with my family because it’s all I worked for: to get a scholarship from Carolina.”
Then came the decision. Kennedy chose UNC, though he admits his family wanted him to go to Georgetown. He also chose the coach whose offer brought him to tears.
“This is the best place for me,” Kennedy says.
He got the opportunity. Then came the trials.
Right before he returned to UNC for his sophomore season, Kennedy called Carlton.
“He asked me to take him running, and I was real surprised,” Carlton says. “I asked him was he OK because he really doesn’t like running.”
Putting in the work at UNC to lose weight and realize his full potential on the court wasn’t the problem. But when he returned home, he needed to maintain his motivation. He couldn’t make those daily trips to Bojangles’ for a chicken supreme combo with cajun fries. Bo-Size. He could no longer eat a plate of food in bed like he did after games in high school.
Kennedy only trusted his best friend to help him through his transition.
That’s because Carlton always defended Kennedy during high school games when opponents teased, “Look at the fat kid.” But even then, Kennedy sought to live healthier. He turned to his faith, going on a spiritual fast in 11th grade.
“He wouldn’t eat chicken. He would just eat vegetables and drink water,” Carlton remembers of Kennedy’s pregame meals that season. “He always prayed. Gave glory to God, no matter what.”
Aunt Brenda says the freedom Kennedy gained when he got his driver’s license senior year led him to regain the weight before arriving at UNC as a freshman.
“I’ve never had anybody report at 319,” said Williams after UNC’s 90-72 win over Davidson Nov. 22. But asked if he’s ever had a player make such a transformation in one season, Williams quickly responded, “No.”
Kennedy is now listed at 270 pounds. Heading into Saturday’s matchup between No. 19 UNC and No. 3 Duke, he’s third on the team in points with 12.4 points a game and second in rebounds with 7.6 in 27 starts. As a freshman, he averaged 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in just 17 starts.
But the sophomore success has come with costs. On top of the everlasting struggle to maintain his weight, he’s faced illness. In late December, he contracted a stomach bug but still played, having to get an IV after a game against William & Mary. In early February, he played against Virginia with a 101-degree fever. Then there’s the lineup changes. Williams has taken the 6-foot-9 forward out of the starting lineup three times this season.
But the setbacks keep Kennedy going.
“This is a big sacrifice — something that I gotta take upon myself because basketball is really what I want to do for a living,” he says. “I just gotta keep being encouraged, keep praying and never be satisfied.
“Everybody has their destiny. Everybody has their goals. It’s just all about will.”
You probably haven’t met the real Kennedy Meeks.
There’s the Kennedy who blew a kiss at the N.C. State student section after UNC’s 85-84 overtime win at PNC Arena in 2014. There’s also the Kennedy who sang Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at Late Night With Roy 2014.
Those are glimpses of his goofy personality that often overshadow his most defining trait: selfless compassion.
You don’t get to see this Kennedy often, but he’s around. The one who at Christmas tells Nakhia, “No, Ma. Don’t get me anything. Make sure my brothers and sisters have what they need.” The one who in 11th grade gave three pairs of his shoes to a kid from another high school. His teacher heard he only had one pair. Kennedy didn’t tell anyone what he’d done.
“He does things like that and doesn’t speak about it,” Aunt Brenda said.
But at times perception blurs reality.
“He feels, and most people don’t think he should feel the way he feels, but he does,” Aunt Brenda said. “And so when he gets frustrated, he calls home.”
He’ll reminisce with Carlton. He’ll talk basketball with Nakhia. He’ll talk life and faith with Aunt Brenda.
But Aunt Brenda can’t remember the last time she or his mother had to remind him of the message packed in his favorite bible verse. He’s mature now. He understands what it takes to be a college basketball player and that all he needs is his faith and family to push forward.
Just out of curiosity, do you remember what it is?
“His favorite Bible verse? Well, there’s a lot of them,” Nakhia says before looking across the room to enlist the help of Aunt Brenda, who soon breaks the silence.
“Where much is given, much is required.”