t doesn't take long to get the impression that Kitwana Rhymer holds a very special place in his heart for his family, especially his mother. A simple smile at the mention of her name speaks volumes as to the kind of influence she has on him.
"My mother has always pushed me," Rhymer said. "I admire her because even when we didn't have much, she still pushed us. That's just the way she is."
The soft-spoken Rhymer, who grew up in St. Thomas on the Virgin Islands with an older brother and sister, speaks of his mother with sincere love and admiration for the many sacrifices she made in order for him to be successful. The most significant of these was enabling Rhymer to attend high school in the United States and consequently earn a scholarship to play Division I basketball at UMass.
All of this may have never happened, however, had Rhymer's uncle not made him pick up a basketball one day in 10th grade.
"I had never played basketball before that," Rhymer said. "Baseball and swimming was what I did, but my uncle told me I was too big not to play basketball, so I did."
So Rhymer began playing the game he would fall quickly in love with on the playgrounds of St. Thomas. But he wouldn't be there much longer.
"St. Thomas was getting bad," Rhymer said of his home. "It was a small island getting to be like New York City, crime-wise."
So Rhymer's mother decided it would be best for her youngest son to pack up and move to New York City to live with her oldest son in the Bronx and attend high school there. Rhymer proceeded to enroll as a sophomore at Saint Raymond's High School, a perennial national powerhouse in boy's high school basketball and the same school that produced former UMass guard Charlton Clarke and forward Dana Dingle.
As a senior, Rhymer garnered All-Catholic High Athletic Association honors after averaging 10.0 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, and colleges were pining for his services. Among the schools that were interested in the young, but powerful Rhymer were St. John's, Fordham, Rutgers and Manhattan.
But the whole process of choosing which school he wanted to attend began to take a toll on Rhymer, and it was time for him to make a decision.
"I was just really getting tired of all the coaches calling me," Rhymer said. "So I just told my mother to pick, and I trusted whatever choice she made."
His mother decided it would be best for Rhymer to attend UMass, not only because of the well-respected Sociology program her son would go into, but also in order to separate her son from the often-dangerous streets of the Bronx.
"I had visited the school [UMass] already, and I liked it," Rhymer said. "It was definitely my first choice, and then my mom picked UMass, too."
By signing his letter of intent to play for the Minutemen, Rhymer knew that he would have to sit out his first year as a partial qualifier. Under those rules, Rhymer would be able to practice with the team but could not suit up and play in games. But Rhymer never even put on a maroon and white practice uniform, much less a game uniform.
"I didn't even practice with the team," Rhymer said of his first year on campus. "I went to games and couldn't even contribute. That was the toughest part."
But his mother was behind him just as she had been every other time he was in a rough spot. "She was fine with it," Rhymer said of not being able to play. "She saw it as a chance to get a better head start on my schoolwork."
Now three years and 95 games later, Rhymer has all but forgotten about his tumultuous freshman year and is poised to help lead the Minutemen to an Atlantic 10 Conference title and hopefully his first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"We want to win the Atlantic 10," Rhymer said confidently. "That's our whole thing. If we get that, then we'll deal with the [NCAA] Tournament."
In order for the Minutemen to accomplish these lofty goals, Rhymer, along with his fellow comrades in the post, will have to impose their will in the paint more than they did last year. Sophomore Micah Brand, who now has a year of college experience under his belt, Syracuse transfer Eric Williams, and 6'8" newcomer Jackie Rodgers should help out Rhymer under the basket with rebounding and toughness, but most of the pressure to score down low will fall squarely on the shoulders of the senior Rhymer. And he is ready for that.
"I've got to be consistent," said Rhymer without hesitation. "My rebounding is good and I'm a good shot-blocker, but scoring-wise I've got to become more consistent. And I've got to just keep playing hard and stepping up my defense."
The UMass coaching staff and fans saw flashes of how dominating of a player Rhymer can be in the paint toward the end of the last year and into the Atlantic 10 Tournament, when he averaged 10 points and 8.3 rebounds over the Minutemen's final three games. For the year, Rhymer led UMass and was fifth in the A-10 in rebounding at 7.6 caroms a game. He also led the Minutemen in field-goal percentage (.535) while averaging a solid 7.8 points per game. In addition, he is just two rejections shy of cracking the top 10 at UMass in career blocks, of which he currently has 74.
But Rhymer wants to improve on these numbers and in all aspects of his game. He wants to make this season, one that could end up being his last as a Minuteman, a memorable one.
"I'll take my fifth year if I can get it," Rhymer said in reference to the NCAA rule that allows players who sat out their first year due to Proposition 48 regulations the ability to regain that "lost" year of eligibility if they complete their degree requirements in four years. Fellow Minuteman Monty Mack will be the only fifth-year senior on this year's UMass roster.
"All I have to do is graduate on time and I'll get it," Rhymer said in respect to obtaining his fifth year. "But I'm concentrating on getting ready for the upcoming season right now."
And Rhymer can be sure that his mother, though thousands of miles away, is eager for her son to graduate on time as well.
"My mother has nothing but love for us," Rhymer said. "But she is also the most straightforward person you'll ever meet, that's what I love about her. She doesn't care how she says it or when she says it, it's coming out."
Rhymer's tenacious nature on both ends of the court is not surprising given his 6-10, 260-pound frame. It is not unusual to see him block a shot on one end of the floor and sprint down to grab an offensive rebound and score on a putback at the other end. What may surprise you, however, is that Rhymer almost didn't live to see his first birthday. Upon birth, his umbilical cord was wrapped twice around his neck and doctors discovered a hole in his heart.
"The doctors told my mother that I wasn't going to live past 12 [years old]," Rhymer said. "So that is where my mother got my name from. It's Swahili and means `pledged to live.'"
In the years since his complicated first days in this world, Rhymer has gained the strength and persistence that is evident each time he steps on the basketball floor from the person he admires and respects the most.
"My mother has shown me how to be strong," Rhymer said. "You can beat me, but I'll always get up and keep coming."
And this is exactly what UMass fans want to see from the big man this year.