Kyle Fuller’s playing time diminished.
A year after he played in every game and figured into coach Kevin Stallings’ eight-man rotation, Fuller was an afterthought last season as Vanderbilt tried to live up to preseason expectations and make a run through the NCAA Tournament.
He started as the primary backup to point guard Brad Tinsley, but in his first seven games, he had as many turnovers as points (six) and was benched in favor of freshman Kedren Johnson. Fuller never got himself back into the regular lineup, didn’t play more than 11 minutes in a game after November and sat on the bench for all of the last seven.
Fuller was frustrated. He was ready to give in and transfer; perhaps move back closer to his hometown of Moreno Valley, Calif., nearly 2,000 miles from Nashville. So every day he got on the phone and vented to his best friend — his father, Kyle Sr. And every day he got the same advice.
“He told me I’m not a quitter,” Fuller said. “The reason you are here is because you earned it. Now because stuff is not going your way, you’re going to quit. You’re going to earn it. You’re going to get everything you earned, so you’re not going nowhere.”
Those words have echoed through Kyle Jr.’s head since May — since Kyle Sr. died from lung cancer.
He contemplated not returning to Vanderbilt for his junior year. Initially, picking up a basketball was too hard. He couldn’t shoot without crying. His dad introduced him to basketball. How could it serve as a diversion when stepping onto the court sparked memories of the man he looked up to most?
But as the 20-year-old tried to cope with an unimaginable loss, he also heard what his father had told him a day before he died. Kyle Sr. asked him to be the man of the house. He wanted Kyle Jr. to be there for his mother, Olga, and told him to be a father figure for his 16-year-old brother Khalil.
Carrying on a normal life — as normal as possible — became Kyle Jr.’s top priority.
He believes he is setting an example for Khalil when he joins the rest of his teammates for the first practice on Friday.
“My brother loves watching me play — loves it,” Fuller said. “I’m doing this to show my brother that he can make it. He doesn’t have to stop here.”
Kyle Sr. battled lung cancer for six years, into his early 40s.
He was a “unique, phenomenal individual,” Stallings remembers. Kyle Sr. often put on an oxygen mask and ventured to Rancho Verde High School, where Kyle Jr. became the school’s winningest player. But his condition worsened over the past two years, forcing him in and out of the hospital.
“I never thought it would get to him, because he’s always been that strong man,” Fuller said.
In May, shortly after Kyle Jr. returned from Vanderbilt, Khalil rushed into his room. Something was wrong.
“I went in there and he wasn’t breathing,” Fuller said. “I told them to call the ambulance while I stayed there and lay on my dad’s chest, crying. ... I didn’t want them to come in. I had to keep everything under control, and I know they would have lost it. It was difficult. To see my dad like that, cold, it killed me. They came and they took his body, and I literally watched them leave. I sat there in the driveway and cried.”
Everyone copes differently. Fuller keeps his emotions in check — for as long as possible. He doesn’t cry in front of his mother or brother — “I try to be strong for them,” he said — or his teammates. He no longer cries when shooting a basketball. But he can’t help but get overwhelmed when he is alone.
“I’m a dude who when something’s hurting me, I keep to myself or talk to my dad,” he said. “Sometimes, I just sit down and cry. I make sure everybody is gone, and I break down. It is just so dang difficult. He was there throughout my whole life.”
But he’s not entirely alone.
Two former teammates experienced the wrenching loss of a parent while still in their college years.
Andre Walker’s mother died of cardiac arrest four years ago when he was just a sophomore. In January 2011, Chris Meriwether was a senior when his mother died of a heart attack.
“I don’t think that anyone can really say anything that makes them feel better,” Stallings said. “Feeling better is not part of the equation when you lose someone you’re really close to like a parent, and you’re a college-aged person.”
Stallings speaks from experience.
Just before his senior season at Purdue, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Thirty years later, he can look back and say that time helps.
“Eventually, it is not something that tugs on your heart all day every day,” he said.
Stallings also warned that during the grieving period it’s easy to “feel sorry for yourself or make decisions that are counterproductive to your well-being.” That’s where the support of others helps.
Meriwether remembers Fuller was one of the first people to lend a shoulder when his mother died.
“The support system is everything, I’ve found,” Meriwether said. “There are going to be days when you don’t want to be around people. But you know if you’re not around people, it is really going to make it worse. With Kyle, he’s brought a good face and he really hasn’t shown a lot of the emotion I expressed after my mom passed away. But you can tell it is always on his mind. He’s always thinking about him.”
Every time Kyle Jr. looks into the mirror, every time he hits the weight room, every time he shoots a jumper, Kyle Sr. stares back at him.
A tattoo of his father covers his right arm. The image, which took more than a month to complete, depicts Kyle Sr. “leaving Earth and God accepting him into Heaven’s gates.” In addition, etched into the back of his sneakers are the words, “RIP DADDY.”
Holding back the emotions won’t be easy when the Commodores open the regular season Nov. 10 at Memorial Gymnasium against Nicholls State.
“That’s going to be so emotional,” he said. “Now that he is gone, I’ve got to make sure I represent him well and show him that I’m glad to be a junior. Glad to be Kyle Jr.”
One of two juniors on a young team with no seniors, he is likely to have a significant role.
“I don’t think there is any question he will be a guy we will count on and a guy who will see a lot of playing time,” Stallings said.
This year, Fuller believes those minutes won’t dwindle. Citing more confidence, he says his jump shot is better and his ball handling is crisper. He feels more mature, too.
He knows basketball just isn’t about him anymore.
“I’ve worked so hard this offseason. ... I’m not the same Kyle I was two years ago. That’s a guarantee,” he says. “I’m hungry. I’m literally hungry. I’m going after everybody I play against — after everybody. I’m doing this for my little brother.”