At 6 foot 9, Kadeem Jack is a towering force on the basketball court. In practice, he glides down the court, throwing down dunks almost effortlessly. But less than six years ago, he was standing between goal posts on the soccer field. Jack grew up playing soccer and cricket in Trinidad and Tobago, before moving to Flushing, Queens, at 12.
“I played soccer until I came to New York, and then fell in love with basketball,” Jack says.
He started playing the summer after his freshman year. His future mentor, Damian Leslie, discovered Jack walking by a playground basketball court near his home and asked if he was waiting to play the next game. “I said no, I play soccer, and he told me, ‘You’re too tall for soccer,” Jack says with a laugh. Leslie, now producing a documentary about New York City basketball, was at the park looking for a different player, but Jack caught his eye.
Leslie happens to be good friends with former Rice High School head coach Maurice Hicks. Leslie asked Jack if he wanted to play basketball at Rice, a private Catholic school in Harlem with a prestigious basketball program that has produced many Division I players. “I just thought about the Catholic school education and I brought the idea to my mother and she said ‘OK,’” Jack says.
Four years later, he’s one of the most highly recruited forwards coming out of New York. Last year, his senior year at Rice, some of the biggest programs in college basketball — including Arizona, UConn, Miami and Kentucky — showed interest in him. Now enrolled at South Kent School, a Connecticut prep school, Jack is taking this year to prepare his game for the college level. “His progress has been amazing; to make such strides in a such a short amount of time, especially given his size, is remarkable,” says South Kent basketball coach Kelvin Jefferson.
Jack began his first year at Rice as a sophomore and didn’t play much that season. As he watched from the bench, his teammate’s strong play motivated him to get better. “I just fell in love with the game because not playing that whole year, I just wanted to play, watching all of my teammates and how hard they went in the game,”Jack says.
Blessed with extraordinary athleticism, Jack had to learn that the game involves more than getting the ball in the basket. He remembers not knowing what to do when coaches yelled instructions like “go to the box.”
“It was awkward at first,” he says. “It seemed like I was lost on the court. But as soon as I picked up the terms of the game, I got better and more attentive.” Jack recalls a game against Patterson Catholic in his junior year as a turning point: He scored 17 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. “That was my first game of the season where I felt like I accomplished something,” he says.
Rice’s head coach, Dwayne Mitchell, an assistant coach at the time, immediately saw Jack’s potential. “We recognized that he was really raw and really athletic,” Mitchell says. “His athleticism makes him someone who can change the momentum of the game. He’s one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever seen.”
Since he started at Rice three years ago, Jack has worked hard to improve his skill level, to complement his athleticism. “He’s made big strides since his sophomore year,” Mitchell says. “His understanding of the game has come a long way.”
By his senior year, Jack was coming into his own. “I’m most fond of my senior year,” he says. “I blew up that year. I went hard the summer in between my junior and senior year, because I knew I had something big ahead of me.”
By attending Rice, Jack says that Harlem has become “a second home” and that it has influenced aspects of his game. “Harlem gave me my style of play; my flair and attitude on the court comes from there,” he says.
Jack’s decision to turn down full scholarship offers from some big college basketball programs and attend prep school caught a few people by surprise. “We thought he was ready for school, ready to continue his education and get his degree,” Mitchell says.
Adam Zagoria, a sports reporter who covers high school recruiting says, “It’s surprising for a kid to turn down scholarship offers from places like Miami or West Virginia.”
But Jack says he felt he needed more time to develop. “When all those schools came after me,” he says, “I was just fascinated by the big names, but realized that I needed to work on my skill level.”
In August, Jack announced his decision to attend Rutgers University next fall. While Rutgers is not mentioned with the heavyweight basketball programs, new head coach Mike Rice has worked hard to bring in a talented recruiting class next year, headlined by Jack.
“I chose Rutgers, so I could be a part of something new,” Jack says. “We’re going to do big things next year.”