Kent Bazemore carries small town roots
The remote road leading toward his house isn't well-lit, so Kent Bazemore warns of deer appearing in the headlights along the way.
Blink, the locals say, and you might miss Kelford, N.C., driving right past the Old Dominion junior's hometown of less than 300 people.
Given the size of it, Kelford sure seems like an unlikely place to have produced one of the top defenders in the nation and an NBA prospect.
"No stoplights, just stop signs," Bazemore said.
These small-town roots motivated Bazemore to make it on a big stage, and Old Dominion gave him that opportunity. The Monarchs now possess one of the most dynamic playmakers heading into the bright lights of the NCAA tournament.
A little more than 100 miles east of Raleigh, the road out of Kelford isn't an easy one. Glynis Bazemore, Kent's mother, knows that as well as anyone. She drives a school bus, serves as a teacher's assistant at the local elementary school and also cooks at her brother-in-law's diner, the Bazemore Country Kitchen.
With all that, she found the time to put a couple hundred thousand miles on her Malibu shuttling Kent to AAU games and practices so that he might enjoy the game and maybe earn a college scholarship. They weren't easy trips to make. In this isolated part of North Carolina, Kent needed an hour-long bus ride just to attend Bertie High in Windsor.
Years earlier, Glynis had given up playing basketball at Bertie High herself due to a transportation issue and went to work after graduating. It was now her son's time to shine, and he was going to get that chance.
The Bazemores set up a ¾-length basketball court at their home where there had once been horse stables. The local kids would ride their bikes over to get in games that lasted until sundown.
"I would have at least 30 boys out there playing basketball," Glynis said. "Mom had to set the rules down. No profanity. I'm not having that. I had no fights. A lot of the guys knew me, me being a teacher's assistant. They weren't going to do anything in the Bazemore yard."
Being blessed with long arms and leaping ability, Kent's talents began to emerge.
During his sophomore year, Kent got his big break. Then-Old Dominion assistant coach and Bertie High alumnus John Richardson came home to watch his alma mater. Kent stole the show on Senior Day and dominated the action by making plays all over the court.
"His athleticism struck me, his ability to handle the ball," recalled Richardson, now an assistant at Virginia Tech. "Everything he is doing right now, he was doing then.
"I was like, 'Who in the world is this?'"
As it turned out, in an area where everybody seems to know everybody, Richardson learned he had grown up with Kent's parents. Kent later received an invitation to an open gym session at Old Dominion and impressed the coaches by holding his own with the players on the team.
Lightly recruited in part because of his location, Kent chose Old Dominion over VCU and East Carolina. His small-town background intrigued coach Blaine Taylor, a Montana native who has had success recruiting such players.
"I've always said about some of the kids from larger metropolitan areas, some of what you see is what you get because they played year-round," Taylor said. "With somebody like Kent, once he was able to find year-round competition at a certain level, everything fell into place.
"I can identify. I see kids like him prosper and become as good as anybody in the land."
Old Dominion decided to redshirt Kent during his freshman season, giving him a year to adjust to campus life in Norfolk and work on his game.
Kent had never even heard of redshirting. He went along with it, but Glynis let it be known she was unhappy her son would have to go a year without playing. "I gave Coach Richardson that year a fit," she said.
"The day we decided to do that, I knew hell was going to break loose," Richardson said. "That was about a three-hour conversation, and she did most of the talking about what she thought of me. Looking back at it now, we laugh. She'll tell you it's a blessing in disguise."
The decision ended up being a wise one. Bazemore used the year to work with then-ODU assistant coach Travis DeCuire on revamping his shot mechanics, as the left-hander spent three weeks alone on shooting with one hand until he got it right. Coaches also helped him add versatility, teaching the youngster the finer points of guard play and decision-making at the position while he bulked up his 6-foot-5 frame.
"He's a poster child for a guy who takes an extra year," Taylor said.
Bazemore worked his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore and led the team in assists and steals, utilizing his length to become a difference-maker on defense. This season, he's the Monarchs' second-leading scorer (12.5) and led the CAA in steals (2.3). His 3-point shooting percentage has improved to .408, and his high-flying dunks have made him a crowd-pleaser.
As Bazemore has risen, so has Old Dominion. The Monarchs upset No. 6-seeded Notre Dame in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, and he said that experience should help them make a run this year as they open with a game against 8-seed Butler on Thursday.
Bazemore credited Taylor for making the right call with the redshirt decision ("He's a fortune teller or something.") and also for taking a chance on a kid from Kelford.
"Going home, it makes me realize I have to work that much harder," Bazemore said. "You're heading to a dead end financially. There's not much down there. It's fuel to my fire.
"[My mother] always told me good things would never come easy."
Richardson, who knows from his own experience, said that he constantly reminded Bazemore about what it meant to represent the blue-collar town where he came from.
"There's a lot of people who don't even get to go 20 miles out of town, let alone to Norfolk and playing in the NCAA tournament," Richardson said. "He has probably the hometown riding on his shoulders. For him to have the opportunity, everybody wants him to do something special."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.