“I don’t want to hear this shit at all.”
That’s what was going through my head. It was late in the 2011-12 season. I was with the Houston Rockets, and we were in Denver playing the Nuggets. Kevin McHale was talking to me during the game, but I don’t really remember what he said because I was tuning him out. There were a few other incidents like it that year. I remember a film session where he called me out, and I didn’t like it. Moments where my mindset became, Damn, this might not work out.
McHale’s coaching style is exactly like his playing style: hard-nosed, rugged, up in your face. It’s about team, team, team, and doing whatever it takes to be the best teammate possible. He pushed each player hard to make his team the best. But I didn’t know how to interpret his style. I didn’t understand his philosophy.
Which sucks, because he was only trying to help me become a better player.
If I had allowed him to coach me, things could have worked in Houston.
In the summer of 2014, before I re-signed with the Toronto Raptors, I visited the Rockets as a free agent. It was a typical free agent meeting. Daryl Morey, Houston’s general manager, explained the team’s goals and how it could work out having me back. They tried to sell me on the organization, like every team does.
But I also made sure to apologize to Coach McHale. During my time with him, I was immature. I didn’t handle things the right way.
Looking back, the issue wasn’t even about Coach McHale, really. My frustration was from losing Rick Adelman, whom Coach McHale replaced during the offseason before my last year in Houston. I had grown to trust Rick with every call, and just as importantly, it felt like he trusted me from the start. When I was traded from Memphis to Houston in 2009, he played me 15 minutes in my first game, even though I’d been with the team less than 24 hours. Rick was just a laid-back coach who let players learn on their own and coached them when they needed to be coached. There were definitely expectations, but generally, he let me figure out how to meet those expectations.
When you keep getting better and growing under the same coach for four seasons, it’s hard to adjust to a new style. I was used to Rick Adelman not giving a damn where I picked up on defense, and suddenly Kevin McHale was making me pick up full court. I didn’t want to adapt. We all question things we’re told, but as a point guard, you still have to believe in — and do — what the coach is asking, then trust they’ll make adjustments when necessary.
As a leader, I have to be on the same page with the coach. He can’t trust me if I don’t trust him.
And for most of my lifetime, trust has been hard for me to give.
Growing up, I had very little interaction with my father. My mom would never even call him my “dad.” She would call him by his name, Lonnie. When I was about seven, my father took me, my brother Lonnie and my half-sister Laquira to breakfast. There’s really only one thing I remember from that morning — it’s the last memory of seeing or dealing with my father.
My brother Lonnie, who is five years older, took it on himself to play that father role as much as he could. He taught me how to play basketball. He made me dribble with my off hand while walking to the park so I’d be just as good with my left. He showed me what he knew from watching games on TV. Lonnie would look at the ads in the paper, and if he saw there was an AAU tryout, he’d get me up there so I could make the team.
He taught me not to dwell on my father. We’re not ever gonna worry about that man. Ever. We’re gonna make do, no matter what. I had Lonnie. I had my grandmother, who was the disciplinarian. My mom worked two jobs and made sure she provided everything I needed. It’s just the way it was. I grew up at 20th and Lehigh in Philadelphia. In my neighborhood, I was hardly the only one who was fatherless or motherless growing up. I didn’t assume there was some void in my life, and I didn’t feel one.
So when people look at my past and assume, “Kyle’s dad wasn’t there, and that’s why he doesn’t trust male authority figures,” they don’t get it right. In my neighborhood, outside of my family, it was hard to trust anybody.
Nobody trusts anybody.
You were always worried about the consequences. Older guys seem like they’re looking out for you, giving you a little money, but at the end of the day, they’re trying to get you to sell drugs and get that money back. Some of my friends had weed and other drugs in their bags and lockers at school. They might ask you to “carry my bookbag for me,” but I knew what was in them and steered clear of that stuff. I thought of those guys as my friends, but never totally trusted them. When I look back on it now, those friends weren’t really even “friends” to begin with, just people I hung out with to play sports. We did nothing else together.
The process of recruiting put me on guard, too. People who were supposedly friends would make commitments in my name because there was something in it for them. I’d get calls from college coaches telling me someone I knew said we could meet today.
I had no idea what they were talking about.
Sometimes coaches would call trying to get a visit, asking for a commitment to their school … then they’d give the spot away before I got there. I was set to go to Xavier, but they let someone else commit instead. I think it happened four times, where a school let another player commit a few days before my visit. These people weren’t worried about anything other than getting the next “best” player, so how do you trust them?
There were some good people around me, for sure. My high school assistant coach, Dave Distal. Jay Wright at Villanova. They cared about me as a person, about me growing as a man and an individual. But sometimes even relationships with genuinely good people left me feeling empty.
I remember a guy in my neighborhood named Rob. Everyone called him “Real Roller.” He got us haircuts and bought us sneakers. He took all the kids under his wing and made sure we had somewhere to go. He was the rare neighborhood guy who took care of everyone he could. All he wanted was to help, and he was probably the first person besides my brother whom I let in and allowed myself to trust.
I was about 16 when Rob passed away from a drug overdose. Suddenly, a guy I knew was always there for me wasn’t around anymore. It’s tough to let somebody else in and risk feeling those emotions all over again, so most of the time, you don’t. Instead, you put everything on yourself.
And I had a chip on my shoulder, anyway.
I grew up playing with guys five years older than me, and I always made it clear that they weren’t going to hurt me. People said I wouldn’t make it because I was too small, but I let people know how good I wanted to be. I wanted to be Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudamire, Tim Hardaway. I wanted to be an All-Star. I wanted to be good so bad, and I saw a lot of people as holding me back. I thought, “I’m going to figure out how to do my thing, and if we don’t get along, fuck ‘em.”
I didn’t understand that coaches had a job to do that was bigger than just me. I was still living by the rules of the neighborhood, and that doesn’t work once you’re in the NBA.
Changing that mindset was a long process.
One significant moment came in 2010, when I was 24, still in Houston with the Rockets. I was at home playing Call of Duty or whatever, and my wife Ayahna came into the room and gave me a greeting card. I didn’t pay much attention at first, but finally, I looked. It said, “You’re not the boss anymore. Guess who’s the boss?”
It was a picture of a dad pushing a stroller.
I was so happy.
I didn’t know what I was doing when I became a parent. I didn’t know how to change a diaper or burp a baby. Ayahna didn’t know what she was doing, either. So we had to trust each other to figure it out, but also trust our family and what we read in books. Sometimes, it might be the wrong advice, but I understood they didn’t do it purposely. Everybody was looking out for us.
Once you have kids, the world doesn’t revolve around you anymore. You have to give up control. You have to be patient. I’m the one who has to adjust. My first son Karter and my youngest, Kameron, are really good, and they pretty much do what I tell them. But Karter can be stubborn when it comes to food. In those moments, your life becomes about trying to get him to eat this cereal that’s good for him. It’s like, Yo dude, you’ve got to do this! You’ve got to eat this!
I came to realize that Karter not wanting to eat his cereal even though he needs to … That’s me and Coach McHale. He wanted me to do something so badly, and I’m just pushing back at it so hard.
You figure things like that out when you have kids. Big time. They helped me grow as a man, understanding I was playing for something more important. You live for them. I understood that I could put them in a situation where they didn’t have to worry about people like I did growing up. They can be free and easy, without that stress and mistrust.
But there’s a big separation between family and professional life, and trust in basketball still didn’t come easy.
There were still plenty of moments where I fought against coaching, always asking, “Why can’t I do this? Why aren’t they letting me?” Thinking that way, I made a lot of mistakes. Some battles, you just aren’t gonna win. You have to figure out which ones do you actually want to fight and which you let go. At this point in my life and career, there are still battles, but you don’t have to fight them. You talk and you compromise, and it makes things a lot easier. But earlier in my career it’s not something I fully understood.
When I was traded to Toronto, I figured I’d do my thing and show my talents, but in two years I would become a free agent and I’d be gone. I didn’t try hard enough in the beginning to click with Dwane Casey. And Dwane was more comfortable with José Calderón and the style he played.
In the summer of 2013, heading into my second season with the Raptors and a contract year, I had a lot of important conversations with people: Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, my agent, Andy Miller, Ty Lue and especially Chauncey Billups. They were all straight with me.
How come you are the component in everything that’s going wrong? How come everyone is saying your name? You’ve got to look in the mirror sometimes.
When you respect the people saying those things, it hits you right away. You don’t second guess it. This is what they saw, and I wanted to fix it. To be a great player, I had to grow up and be more mature. Understand not everyone was out to get me, and just listen to my coach and teammates and my organization. I had to learn to be the face of a franchise. To be a leader. To be that guy.
In December of 2013, the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento. They handed the keys to me and DeMar DeRozan. That was trust. It was on us, something we had to take advantage of. We put pressure on ourselves. How great did we want to be?
How great did I want to be?
That season, I was locked in to being a leader and winning games. That’s all I cared about. And after the Rudy Gay trade, things kind of took off. Coach Casey and I developed the respect for each other to keep going and keep getting better, trusting we both wanted what’s best for our team. I had stopped worrying about the other stuff.
This mentality is very freeing, because I’ve learned that just being yourself can work. My teammates are going to love me. My family loves me. And that’s all that matters. It’s a change that helped earn me a contract, and last season, my first All-Star appearance. We’ve won nearly 50 games in each of the last two seasons, and we believe we can do that this season — and much more in the playoffs.
There’s pressure, but it feels good to handle it the right way.
I’ve let people into my life. People have actually started to see who I am. To be voted into the All-Star game this year means a lot. A few years ago, I think people thought of me more as a pain in the ass than a guy who deserved this kind of honor. Now, it feels like they appreciate what I do. And to do it in Toronto, for our fans, in our arena? It shows that the Raptors are on the map, and the city we play for is getting some respect.
It’s funny to look back at that season with Kevin McHale in Houston. Who I was then is so different than who I am now. I think, Man you were really immature. But I’ve gotten older, and I’ve learned. I’m in a great position. I have a wonderful wife and two kids. I’m an All-Star, and my team is making a strong playoff run. We may not win every game, but we trust in each other and believe if we go about our jobs the right way, great things will happen.
Somebody asked me recently if I’m more at peace now. I wouldn’t say that.
I’d say I’m me.