Rhymer becomes fan favorite
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff, 1/7/1999

AMHERST - As Virginia Tech's Eddie Lucas drove into the lane Saturday, the Hokies were rolling. If his shot fell, they would be within six points of the University of Massachusetts, with momentum on their side.

Video clip of Rhymer's block.
Courtesey: MSG Network
But as the shot went up, Minutemen center Kitwana Rhymer was already in the air and promptly swatted away the ball.

It was the highlight of what has been a slow emergence for Rhymer this season, and a play that added to his status as a fan favorite.

Rhymer never expected it, but he's enjoying it so far.

When the tall high school sophomore from the Virgin Islands first arrived at St. Raymond's High School in the Bronx, coach Gary DeCesare wasn't sure what to expect.

Outside of Tim Duncan, the Caribbean islands don't exactly bring to mind the term 'hoop hotbed.'

"He was tall, but his skills weren't all there," recalled DeCesare. "But he ran the floor well and he worked hard."

Rhymer left St. Thomas at the urging of his mother. Uncomfortable with the changing atmosphere of the island, she sent Kitwana, her youngest son, to New York to live with his brother and grandmother.

"The island was getting kind of rough and my mother didn't want me around that anymore," Rhymer said. "She just tried to keep me out of trouble."

While the Bronx doesn't exactly have a reputation as a trouble-free haven, it proved to be a good learning ground for Rhymer.

Having developed several Division I players in the past, DeCesare rode Rhymer hard in hopes of bringing him to that level.

"We were tough on him, but he always bounced back," DeCesare said. "He got better every year because he wanted to become a better player."

Rhymer averaged just 10 points per game as a senior, but the numbers were a bit deceiving. With another, more polished seven-footer in Ernest Brown already on the roster, Rhymer had to come off the bench. Few opposing teams had two legitimate big men, making it a defensive liability to have both Brown and Rhymer on the floor. Having both out there meant one of them would have to guard a smaller, quicker player.

Rhymer struggled academically as well, failing to meet the NCAA-mandated grade-point average and Scholastic Aptitude Test levels to be eligible for college ball. That led some schools to shy away.

DeCesare and UMass coach Bruiser Flint know each other well - two other St. Raymond's alums, Dana Dingle and Charlton Clarke, have done well at UMass.

When DeCesare learned that Flint still hoped to add a big man in the summer of 1997, he thought he had the answer.

"I told him, 'You should really look at my kid Kit.' I thought he could help them," DeCesare said.

The Minutemen have had success with non-qualifiers in the past, so Flint decided to take a chance and Rhymer enrolled in September.

While Rhymer missed being on the court as a full-fledged member of the team, he admitted that the year off helped him academically.

"That helped me big-time. It helped me to improve my grades and see what I have to do in college, so when I started playing I'd know exactly what I had to do," said Rhymer, who credits his teammates for making the year easier. "They told me it was going to be hard. Monty (Mack) had to do it and Lari (Ketner) had to do it and they talked me through it."

Rhymer is considering majoring in sports psychology. He says his academic success from a year ago carried over into the fall semester of this year.

With that hurdle behind him, however, basketball questions remained. Even Flint wondered how a player who was so inexperienced to begin with would fit in after a year off.

That question mark got larger when, early in camp this year, Rhymer suffered a high ankle sprain that knocked him out of the practice rotation.

"That was kind of heart-breaking. I spoke to my mother and she said, take your time, heal it, get back into the flow. Don't get frustrated," Rhymer said. "I did kind of rush back. I just tried to do more and more every day and keep going back into the training room. It paid off.

"I was behind. I need to learn the four spot and some of the five," Rhymer continued, referring to the power forward and center positions. "We had added new plays so I was totally off."

Rhymer made his debut against St. John's, but played only a combined eight minutes in his first four games. But while he was watching most of the games, he was quickly improving in practice.

"The main thing that helped him a lot is that he listened," said Ketner. "Last year he was kind of discouraged because he had to sit out, but he did a good job doing what he needed to do with school. He's going to be a great player here."

The first on-court signs that that prediction might have legitimacy came on Dec. 12. against Boston College.

With Ketner on the sideline with a one-game suspension due to violating a team rule, Rhymer saw his highest amount of playing time to that point, and he took advantage. In 17 minutes he scored seven points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked two shots.

"Kit did everything," said Flint.

Fans took note. Admiring his athleticism, effort and enthusiasm on the court and his polite and gentle nature off it, UMass fans have begun cheering whenever Rhymer bounds over to the scorer's table to check in to games.

"I like the fans. I like when I come on the court and they scream 'yeah Kit.' It makes me feel good that people like me," Rhymer said. "I'm just trying to go out there and please them and please myself and coach. I really didn't expect it."

He's been giving his biggest fan regular updates as well.

"I speak to my mother every day. She's partially disabled so I'm always thinking about her," Rhymer said. "If I don't talk to her one day, I'll call her the next day and speak to her for about three hours. I have to know how she's doing."

His teammates are enjoying his success.

"It feels good, because I was in his shoes and people worked with me and it got me to this point," Ketner said. "It's a lot of fun because we're roommates and good friends, so it's fun being out on the floor with him."

While his game has progressed considerably since he first arrived on the mainland, there's still improvement to be made.

"In high school, I wasn't all that good. My main goal in high school was to get to college. In college I'm trying to pick up my whole game and do everything the best that I can," Rhymer said. "My game improved a whole lot. I'm still working on it and I still have a whole lot to learn."

That attitude is only part of what's made him fun to coach.

"He such a nice kid. After the Davidson loss, he hugged me and told me everything was going to be all right. You like to see a kid like that do well," Flint said. "With as hard as he works, the sky is the limit for him."

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