DeAndre Kane breaks out at Iowa State after long, dangerous journey

DeAndre Kane is averaging 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists for the 22-6 Cyclones.

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AMES, Iowa — The young man sits near the baseline in the empty arena, the place where, at the very un-collegian age of 24, his basketball career has blossomed from mid-major obscurity into one of the most talked-about surprises in the nation.

There are plenty of things to talk about with DeAndre Kane, the graduate transfer from Marshall who helped Iowa State crack the top 10 earlier this year.

You could talk about one of the most versatile players in the country. You could talk about making the midseason watch list for the Wooden Award. You could talk about what his coach, former NBA player and executive Fred Hoiberg, just told you about Kane’s shot at making the NBA — that speed, that explosiveness — despite turning an ancient 25 before the June draft.

But to get to the heart of Kane, the point guard who has so quickly become the motor for one of the fastest-paced teams in college hoops, you must start not in this shiny, scrubbed-clean arena that’€™s home to the 16th-ranked team in college basketball. Instead, you must start back home, 800 miles to the east, in the gritty streets of Pittsburgh’€™s Hill District.

It is there where, at the age of six or seven, DeAndre’s father, Calvin Kane, put a basketball in his hands, led him down to Kennard Playground and told him, "Go."

There was talent on that streetball court; lots of it. DeAndre gawked at the older athletes, then years later wondered why they never made it. It was always a different version of the same story: Drugs. Gangs. Jail. Worse.

His dad knew this. So did his older brother. And they watched over him as he developed into one of the best basketball players in the city.

"It’s really difficult, coming from where I’m from," Kane said as a few Iowa State teammates started wandering out for the afternoon practice. "You just can’t get caught up in that life.

"There’s always guys there that should’ve been, that could’ve been, were supposed to be that person — but the streets took over. In the Hill District you can get caught up like that. There’s a lot of guys there that are your friends, that want to do right by you. But at the same time they’re the guys that are saying, ‘Let’s go to this party. Let’s go drink. Let’s go smoke.’

"It coulda been easy. One of us coulda been one of those guys caught up in that life, didn’t make it out, didn’t go Division I, or probably dead or in jail. That’s what it ends up to for a lot of guys where I’m from."

Sure, it can be a worn tale in American sports: Inner-city kid uses athletic talents to get out of the hood. That doesn’t make it any less real for a young man like Kane. Nor does it make it any less impressive that he did make it out.

Especially when you hear him talk about the pull of the streets on a teenage boy.

"Growing up, we were definitely young and stupid and thinking we were gang-bangers," he said. "There was parties and me and my friends would go to buy red bandanas just to have. High school, 10th or 11th grade. We were into sports, but we were still into our hood. We were the Bloods, the other side was Crips. Gangsters. We still wanted to try to represent and think we were doing something."

Or listen to him speak about how close he was to never making it here:

"I had a girlfriend in high school," Kane said. "She was over at her friend’s house on the North Side, over across the bridge. She was over there. They did a drive-by.

"I got a phone call: Did Shavaughn just get shot? I’m like, ‘What? No.’ I’m calling her, and she’s not answering. I call her mom and dad. I could just hear it how they answered. It was crazy. I rode over there, me and a couple of my friends. We rushed over there to the North Side. She was still laying there with the blanket over her. I was crying. Everyone was crying. It was a hard time."

It is a worn tale, yes. It is an incredibly sad tale, too, when you think of how many youngsters like Kane never make it out.

Just listen:

"I got a few friends who got shot, but this one right here was crazy because I was with him at the time," he said. "We were at a party. Things got heated. We left the party. We walked across the field, trying to go to our car.

"Shots rang out. Me and my friends started running. He falls. I’m thinking he’s just trying to get low, so I keep running. Eventually I duck and get on the ground too. By the time the bullets stopped, everyone’s running, screaming, hollering. I’m getting up trying to find him, call his name, and nobody responds. I go over, he was a light-skinned guy but by the time I got to him he was dark as me. He got shot in the head."

He could go on and on. But his point stays the same: DeAndre Kane shouldn’€™t be sitting here, working on his master’s degree in child development, leading his team to seven wins in the past nine games in the toughest conference in college basketball, heading toward a high seed in the NCAA tournament. After that? Maybe the NBA. Maybe Europe.

Any of a number of high places he should never have reached.

He shouldn’t be here because the streets should have gotten him.

And he shouldn’t be here because his dad, the man who taught him basketball, went away.

That’s the story you hear most when people talk about DeAndre Kane: How his dad and his mom, Carol Robinson, stood next to that playground and watched him play ball every Saturday. How they made sure he was raised in a house, not in the projects. How his dad’s tough love on the basketball court made him one of the best players in the city, winning the state championship his senior year with current NBA player DeJuan Blair on his team — 29 years after his father won state for the same school.

And how, two winters ago, days before his family was supposed to come to a Marshall game his sophomore year, DeAndre’s mother called late one night. His father had suffered a brain aneurysm. A graduate assistant drove DeAndre back to Pittsburgh. He walked into the hospital room at 4 a.m. His father was on life support.

"They were waiting on DeAndre to walk in, and then he was gone," his mother said. "(DeAndre) hit the sanitizer dispenser on the wall. DeAndre went through it. It was hard on him. He was done with ball. He was done with school. And I told him, ‘This isn’t what your dad wanted. He wants you to get your degree, go play ball. You gotta do it for him.’ "

So he did. He got his degree. He decided to transfer to a program that could get him more exposure among NBA scouts. He looked at USC, Memphis, Pittsburgh and St. Mary’s, but decided on Iowa State because he felt like he could be the missing piece on a team that could win.

Hoiberg gave him a fresh start. He left behind his reputation as a street-baller, a kid who couldn’€™t control his emotions and twice led the nation in technical fouls at Marshall, and became the ultimate team player.

"He’s just a basketball player," Hoiberg said. "He’s not a one, not a two, not a three — he’s a basketball player. Versatility is his biggest strength. He can really defend. He’s got great feet. He does things that translate to that next level."

Led by a three-headed beast of Kane, Oscar Robertson Trophy finalist Melvin Ejim and do-it-all sophomore forward Georges Niang, Iowa State is sixth in the nation in scoring. The team has a real shot of going deep into March.

It’ll be Kane’s last time to shine as a college basketball player. He’ll sport No. 50, which he wears in honor of his father. He’ll play for his dad, just like he does every game.

In the Ames arena, practice is about to start. The energy of college basketball players is livening up the arena. But Kane is still talking about his father, and about just how unlikely it is that he’s sitting here today. His voice lowers to just above a whisper.

"My dad, he was the biggest person to me in this world," Kane said. "When I lost him, basketball was the last thing I was ever thinking about doing again. I was pretty much done with it.

"I just miss his voice. Him being here. I just miss everything. I miss him. Everything about him was positive. I just miss him being in my life. You always want to be able to call your pops when things go bad. … Every time I step out on the court, I’m playing for him. I’m dedicating this whole basketball career to him."

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.