ORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Kitwana Rhymer's phone bill should be down a bit this month. For at least this week anyway, the calls that originate from Rhymer's Amherst dorm room every day, often as regularly as three times, to his mother Joycelin Hendricks' St. Thomas home, have ceased temporarily.
The conversations between mother and her 6-foot-10 son now are occurring face-to-face. With Rhymer's University of Massachusetts men's basketball team playing in the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, his mother made the 45-minute flight from St. Thomas to see her son in action.
Rhymer's face breaks into a big grin when he talks about his mother.
"My mother is my best friend. I tell my mother everything. Every day. Twice, sometimes three times a day for four-to-five hours," he said.
She won't be alone, either, as a large contingent from the Virgin Islands will be in Puerto Rico for the three-day tournament, which begins Tuesday, to see their native son in action.
"Everyone is looking forward to it. Family, friends ... everyone wants to come over and see me play," Rhymer said. "It's extra special because it's around Christmas."
What the Virgin Islands contingent will witness is a much-improved and still-improving starting center.
If Rhymer was raw when he left St. Thomas, he wasn't much more than medium rare when he left St. Raymond's High School in the Bronx. His skills were so unpolished that few schools even recruited him. UMass coach Bruiser Flint took him as a project who would sit out his first season as a Prop. 48 student.
But what the college coaches who overlooked him didn't see was Rhymer's work ethic and capacity for improvement. So when he arrives in Puerto Rico, his fans will see a much better player than the one who left St. Thomas.
"Most people will probably be surprised," Rhymer said. "I still have a lot of improving to do. I've gotten better. I haven't even gotten halfway toward where I want to be. It's exciting to know where I could be from where I am right now."
Even Flint is surprised at how good his affable center has become, admitting he wasn't sure Rhymer would ever be a starter.
"Not really," Flint said when asked if he thought Rhymer would contribute as much as he has. "One of the things I liked about him is that he blocked a lot of shots.
"I thought he could be pretty good defensively," Flint continued. "I never thought he'd rebound as well as he has. He's getting a lot better offensively. The kid works really hard and has a great attitude about everything.
"I've been talking to him a lot. If he wants the ball a little bit more, he's got to finish a little bit better. He's been getting the ball around the basket and not finishing."
Rhymer finished better Saturday in UMass' 69-60 win over Florida State, going 3-for-4 from the field and 3-for-4 from the line. In 1999 he's averaged 6.7 points and a team-best nine rebounds. He has been UMass' only true post presence.
"We'd be in trouble without him," Flint said. "We saw (his promise) last year, so we didn't have to go get another big guy. We got Micah (Brand), but we knew we had time because we had Kit."
Brand might have to play a big role in Puerto Rico because historically, UMass players haven't exactly shined in homecoming games in the past.
"His whole family is going to be down there. Whenever these guys play against their home folks, they're never very good," Flint said. "I hope we're in the game because we're going to need him."
Rhymer hopes to return to his island eventually, but he has a lot of basketball to play between now and then.
"Someday. I'll build a house and retire from whatever it is I'm doing," he said. "I just have to work hard and keep on rebounding. You get paid for rebounding."