Gonzaga’s Kris Jenkins reaped the benefits of his mother’s tough decision to send him away from home
By Brandon Parker,
The day began like many winter mornings for Kris Jenkins — with a text.
“It’s game day today, right?” the message read, to which the Gonzaga senior replied, “Yes ma’am. Let’s go.”
Except Jenkins’s mother, Felicia, wasn’t supposed to be going to the senior night matchup against Good Counsel on Valentine’s Day. As far as Jenkins knew, his mother would be a thousand miles away in Jackson, Miss., undergoing the daily grind as an assistant coach for the Jackson State women’s basketball team while firing off texts of instruction to her most important pupil — her son.
It’s been this way since 2006. Before then, Jenkins’s hoops dreams were becoming clouded by academic problems as a child in South Carolina. So Felicia made the tough decision to send her son to Upper Marlboro to live under the guardianship of Nate and Melody Britt, a family she had grown close with after Kris played against their son, Nate Jr., on the AAU circuit.
In the seven years since, Jenkins has blossomed into one of the nation’s top players. Buoyed by a rare blend of size and perimeter skills at 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds, the Villanova recruit is a matchup nightmare, resulting in averages of 18.6 points and 11.2 rebounds for the top-ranked Eagles.
And now, as he and his teammates begin their quest for a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title with Saturday’s quarterfinal against Bishop Ireton, Jenkins can see the fruits of an upbringing that’s proven just as unconventional as his game.
“I didn’t want to move away from my mom and I kept thinking maybe she wouldn’t do it,” Jenkins said. “But she followed through with it and it’s turned out to be one of the best things ever as far as making me a much better student-athlete and person.”
It began as a love-hate relationship. For as much as Jenkins enjoyed basketball, he despised the fundamental drills that his mother made him do in between practices at Claflin University, where Felicia was an assistant coach from 2002 to 2004.
“Anything he didn’t like as a kid, I gave him a lot of it,” said Felicia, who also starred at the Orangeburg, S.C. program. “He didn’t like to run and do push-ups, so I made him do push-ups and run. He hated shooting bank shots because they didn’t look cool, so I made him shoot 500 bank shots a day.”
Developing an old man’s game didn’t make much sense to a child. But now for every opponent who has trouble guarding him or every expert who struggles to label him, Jenkins understands the purpose behind that painstaking process.
“My parents always said they wanted me to be a basketball player,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t know what that meant until now; it’s somebody that can do a little bit of everything.”
Things weren’t so smooth when it came to Jenkins’s progression off the court. Poor grades were compounded by a tendency to hang with the wrong crowd, leading Felicia to worry that her son’s potential would be laid waste to negative influences.
Jenkins met the Britts at an AAU tournament in 2004 and stayed with them the following summer as part of the D.C. Assault team. Upon his return home, Felicia noticed her son turn for the better, and after careful consideration on both sides, Felicia handed legal guardianship of her son to the Britts in 2007.
The reality of the situation didn’t initially set in with Jenkins, who figured his mother would eventually change her mind.
“I was younger, so I got homesick sometimes,” Jenkins said. “But the Britts welcomed me with open arms and that made things easier. And as I got older, I began to realize it was something I had to do for myself.”
Much of Jenkins’s trust in the arrangement was built on the basketball court. There, Nate Sr. pushed Jenkins just as hard as his own son through workouts bent on pushing a player’s limits and testing his will.
“Kris knew how to play and he’s the type of player who didn’t mind getting in the gym and going to work,” Britt said. “I remember when we were looking at high schools and sitting in [Gonzaga Coach] Steve Turner’s office and saying to him that Kris had the best footwork in the WCAC and he hadn’t even played a game yet.”
Making his mark
Once Jenkins and Nate Jr. enrolled at Gonzaga in 2009, it didn’t take long for Turner to see what Nate Sr. meant.
“His ability not to pigeonhole his game makes him special and versatile to where he can hurt you in a lot of ways,” Turner said. “And where he’s evolved is his ability to be a leader.”
That process began as a sophomore, when his teammates unanimously voted him captain. The next year, before a national audience on ESPN, Jenkins showed his versatility and leadership by volunteering to guard top recruit Jahlil Okafor of Whitney Young (Ill.). Despite giving up three inches and 20 pounds, Jenkins held Okafor in check and scored 21 points in a victory.
The effort sparked a five-game stretch in which Jenkins averaged 29.2 points, drawing the attention of recruiters everywhere while silencing those who labeled him a “tweener.” Jenkins finished the year as an All-Met.
“I think he got in a mind-set that he was going to do everything he could to help his team succeed,” said Sidwell Friends senior Josh Hart, who will join Jenkins at Villanova. “He led by example and most important, he was confident, and when you have those intangibles with his skills, you’re able to do certain things and break out like he did.”
Jenkins remained with the Britts after their son Nate left Gonzaga after his junior year to play for national powerhouse Oak Hill in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
One thing Jenkins, 19, hadn’t been able to do often was play in front of his mother, who decided to surprise him on senior night, until her flight was delayed three hours.
But just as Kris’s name was called among the seniors, in walked Felicia, approaching her unsuspecting son from behind before the two wrapped in a warm embrace.
“I was just happy to see my mom, and the rest of the night I was focused on playing good for her,” said Jenkins, who had 25 points and 11 rebounds in the win. “She’s where I get my passion from to be where I am today.”