By Adam Lucas
Kennedy Meeks is starting to get the hang of celebrating.
Just over a month ago, he was cradling the national championship trophy on the University of Phoenix Stadium court, soaking in the moment as he watched “One Shining Moment” with his teammates on the 2017 national champions.
That's a moment that still makes him marvel. Today, he'll get another one.
It's graduation day in Chapel Hill. For Meeks, the fact that it falls on Mother's Day is only appropriate, because he believes he's in position to graduate largely because of the strong women in his life.
“Graduation day is going to be big for me,” he says, “but I think it's going to be even bigger for my mom, my aunt and my cousin. They helped me get so far with my education and tried to teach me good study habits, even though sometimes I didn't feel like doing it. They made sure I was on top of my stuff.”
Meeks is extremely close with his mother, Nakhia. The duo endured some trials as Meeks grew up in a rough part of Charlotte, but he also benefited from the additional influence of his aunt, Brenda Richmond. They're the ladies who have cheered him on from arenas around the country, and they're the ladies who have talked him through the toughest moments of the past four years.
The big man knows he's emotional, and has already shed tears on senior day and during his senior speech at the basketball banquet. When he puts on that blue robe today, it's entirely likely the tears will fall again.
“We know Sunday will not be absent of tears, laughter and a plethora of hugs,” says Richmond.
There will still be basketball, of course. Fellow graduates are certain to want photos with Meeks and his senior teammates—Stilman White, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt and Kanler Coker—all of whom are graduating. Perhaps some will even know Meeks is coming off a stellar performance at the NBA Draft combine in Chicago, where he had 19 points and 16 rebounds in five-on-five scrimmage action.
But Meeks knows basketball will eventually come to an end for him. When John Thompson won the first annual Dean Smith Award, he visited Chapel Hill to accept the award. The Tar Heels attended the ceremony, and Meeks has quoted one particular portion of Thompson's speech on multiple occasions over the past 18 months: “Someday,” Thompson told the Tar Heels, “the ball will go flat.”
He meant it as a reminder that eventually their basketball careers will end. Today, Meeks picks up a key piece of paper to help him with that part of his life. Roy Williams memorably recalled there were 18 people in the Meeks home when he made his in-home recruiting visit. Most of those will be in Chapel Hill today, celebrating Kennedy's latest accomplishment.
“On Sunday, Kennedy is going to be a double winner,” Richmond says. “He will always be remembered for the many plays that helped propel UNC toward a championship, but he will also be a graduate from an esteemed college.”
Meeks freely admits that, like any college student, there were days he didn't want to study, and mornings after late games when it was tough to summon the initiative to go to class. Today, all of those struggles—including some challenges for those who pushed him, as he laughingly admits he wasn't always easy to motivate—are worth it. In Chapel Hill, he's always going to be remembered as one of the key pieces of a national championship team. In the rest of the world, he's always going to be a Carolina graduate.
“To do it on Mother's Day is something special for my mom and also for my aunt,” Meeks said. “My mom started me off and put that ball in my hands for the first time. They did so much for me. Whether that was going on the road with me to camps, or paying for whatever I needed, those two people were there. My family has been so supportive.”