It’s the road less traveled, likely never to be traveled again, from Coconut Creek to Sioux Falls, SD to the top of the NBA with the Miami Heat’s G League affiliate.
With all of the lengthy success stories the Miami Heat have created over the years, including those created with their developmental league partner, Landon Kirkwoods is like no other.
The goal right now is to get back to South Florida, where a basketball career was reignited at a former community college that no longer has an athletics department.
“I mean,” Kirkwood said amid the South Dakota cold, “it’s a crazy experience. It’s surreal.”
And real. As real as a 20-point performance by the 6-foot-5 guard for the Heat’s G League partner in the franchise’s second win of the season last weekend, a game that saw opponents with NBA pedigrees like Justin Anderson, Norvel Pelle and Trevelin attended Queen.
So where do you start? They start in Brooklyn. No, not Barclays Center Brooklyn, where the Nets play, but Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, in a small high school, as a player with big NCAA vision and a scholarship to Cal State-Fullerton.
And then, after a misstep interrupts the process, you pause and start looking for another path.
Enter Anthony Anderson, a longtime college recruiter and coach who dared to dream big about making it big at Broward College.
Already booked to attend the 2019 NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis, a detour was made to Brooklyn Center.
“And it all worked,” said Anderson, who is now in his third season as a coach at the University of Fort Lauderdale. “And somehow it all came together. And the following year, Landon Kirkwood ended up at Broward College.”
For Kirkwood, it was an easy flight into a South Florida basketball hurricane. Playing during his lone season at Broward not only allowed him to transfer to Barry University in Miami Shores, but also featured in the summer of the Miami Pro League and NBA practice sessions in the area.
There was practice alongside John Wall and Michael Beasley at a training center, court time with Derrick Jones Jr. and heat center Bam Adebayo at the Summer Pro-Am.
“He got his chance,” Adebayo said this week, smiling when asked about Kirkwood. “He took his chance.”
The ultimate hug came at an open test match for the Sioux Falls Skyforce in September, an event attended by Heat staff and coaches from the team’s G-League partner.
Such tryouts are typically courtesy events in the partner company’s NBA and G-League markets, which rarely produce G-League contributors.
Kirkwood’s training session caught the attention of Skyforce coach Kasib Powell, the former Heat forward.
“He didn’t have the best tryout,” Powell said, “but I could tell he was competitive and knew how to play the game. So I knew in the Heat culture that those are the things we’re looking for. So I was excited to see what he could bring to the table. And we saw that he can take pictures. And when you mix all that in, we were glad to see that.
“We will try to find this diamond in the rough. There’s a lot of turnover in the G League so it’s really important for us to find that guy who can move up.”
Kirkwood did just that, with a revolving door in Sioux Falls that saw Jamal Cain come and go on his two-way Heat contract, Orlando Robinson called up to two-way contact with Heat, and players with Heat -Experience, such as Mychal Mulder, Jamaree Bouya, and Dru Smith spend time in Sioux Falls with Kirkwood.
“Everything I’ve done I have to earn myself,” Kirkwood said. “Since I arrived at Broward, Miami has just given me the ability to step onto this floor with the Heat G-League team. So it’s still surreal.”
So surreal that the season after Kirkwood played at Broward, the school dissolved its athletics department with the announcement, “We are proud of our student-athletes, our coaches and staff and thank them for their dedication to our institution and community . The suspension of the athletics program is part of the 2020-21 budget approved by the Broward College District Board of Trustees … to reallocate the use of the college’s resources to impact all 63,000 students we serve.”
Still, there was plenty of time to rekindle the dream, as during that lonely season as Kirkwood’s manager Anderson sensed there was more to come.
“Broward College had a name and we put players in situations where we would win and empower them to advance their careers,” said Anderson, whose college coaching career has included working with future NBA players like James Jones and Robert Hite included at the University of Miami.
“Landon Kirkwood is a kid who just needed a stage to show people he could play, and he did,” Anderson said. “And I look forward to hearing from him in the years to come. And I honestly think if he keeps working on it you’re going to see him in a real Heat uniform.”
This is of course the hardest step of all, even harder than coming a long way from a former community college to G League playtime.
But there is also hope for something bigger.
“I was told by my first agent, before I met the agent that I have now, he told me, ‘You’re never going to go into the NBA. You can go to Iraq, you can go to Iceland.’ I’m like, ‘What? We won’t take any chances?’ “
From a tryout at LaSalle High School in Miami to spending time alongside NBA prospects in South Dakota.
“I think it means a little bit more to him and it shows on the court,” Powell said of Kirkwood. “He plays like every minute, every second is his last.
“Our task is to find this diamond in the rough. There are a lot of fluctuations in the G League, so finding that guy who can move up is very important to us.
“He’s an extreme athlete. He’s a guy who can work at both ends of the floor. Because of his athletic ability, ability to play on both sides of the ball, and ability to make shots, the NBA is always looking for athletic guys who can do those things. He has those qualities and tools.”
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