CHARLOTTE — Nowadays, he’s an urban legend.
Kids in the neighborhood ask for his autograph. They wear his jerseys. They want to be like him.
But in 2010, Kennedy Meeks was just a West Charlotte High School first-year trying to get through tryouts like the rest of the team.
“He comes over, he puts his arm around me and says, ‘Coach, I think I’m just going to play JV,’” Meeks' former coach Baronton Terry said. “I sat out there for a little longer, and he finished his laps and came back to me and said, ‘Oh no, I was just jokin’. I want to play varsity.’”
“I knew, at that point, we had a winner.”
That winner, who West Mecklenburg athletic director Vernon Hunter described as “a big boy in the middle that looked like an offensive lineman," helped take the Lions to the 2011 NCHSAA 4A state championship game. He grabbed 19 rebounds — and the MVP award — in West Charlotte’s 78-69 win.
Six years later, he visited the same school where his basketball career started. But this time was different. This time, it was Kennedy Meeks Day.
“I was proud because I can honestly say that he made a change,” said Terry, likening Meeks to the lyrics of “Man in the Mirror.” “He made a change in his attitude. He made a change in his body. He made a change in his decisions. He definitely made a difference.”
The 6-foot-10 forward leaned backed comfortably in his front-row seat at Clinton L. Blake Auditorium on Thursday. He beamed and shook his head in laughter as more speakers praised him and recalled stories. He couldn’t have avoided the spotlight if he tried.
“If you coach long enough, you coach all types of kids,” said Jacoby Davis, who coached Meeks as an assistant under Terry. “I’ve coached every type of kid. You don’t find too many Kennedy Meekses.”
Hunter recalled a conversation he heard between his son, Chandler, and one of his friends about Meeks.
“They were talking like grown men,” he said. “They were like, ‘Man, it seemed like just yesterday (Meeks) was at West Charlotte.’ I’m like, ‘Y’all are nine!’”
The entire auditorium was filled with pride. West Charlotte community members had gathered to celebrate a kid who grew up down the street from the school, raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother. A high-schooler who stayed even when private schools tried to lure him and his talents away.
They had gathered to celebrate a productive four-year player with over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his UNC career. An NCAA champion — the first in West Charlotte history — who had the game of his life against Oregon and a title-game swat against Gonzaga that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
They had gathered to celebrate one of their own — a boy who now stood in front of them a man.
Meeks walked on stage, where his coaches gave him his red, white and gold No. 40 jersey in a display case. The number had been retired. He didn’t say a word about himself in his speech. He thanked his school, his coaches and his family (which completely filled the first three rows of the auditorium).
“I don’t know if you know it or not,” Meeks told them, “but you guys are definitely the reason I played basketball and the reason I love the game so much.”
Then he flashed the big grin to which West Charlotte and North Carolina fans have become so accustomed.
“And I’m out,” he said, holding up a peace sign. “Appreciate it.”
Applause broke out as Meeks and his high-top Vans disappeared backstage. He was leaving for now, but that didn’t matter.
This place was — and always will be — home.
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