March 14, 2013
No words were needed. A single look, followed by a hand motion towards his heart struck an emotional chord with Kyle Fuller much more than any combination of words could have articulated.
Last summer, Fuller's father - Kyle Sr. - succumbed to lung cancer. Just a junior at Vanderbilt, Fuller, was suddenly dealt with the emotions of losing his role model and becoming the man of the house for his mother, Olga and younger brother, Khalil (16), who lived thousands of miles away in Moreno Valley, Calif.
On Wednesday, Fuller couldn't wipe the smile off his face. He constantly watched the clock as he counted down the hours and minutes in the day until his mom and brother arrived in Nashville for the SEC Tournament.
He had seen his mother at a few games this season, with the last coming at home against Tennessee, but he hadn't seen Khalil since last summer. They had spoken on the phone and texted back and forth on a daily basis, but it wasn't the same.
As soon as Khalil and Olga arrived, Kyle and his brother immediately went to the place they had spent so many memorable times before as children - the basketball court. Inside Memorial Gymnasium, Kyle and Khalil caught up and kidded around with one another while shooting baskets for a few hours.
Each shot healed some of the pain of losing their father and made them remember the many days and nights growing up when they would spend hours playing basketball together.
"Last night was one of the happiest days that I've had in a while," Fuller said as he sat in the locker room Thursday night after Vanderbilt's win over Arkansas. "My mom was in the gym with us and she actually fell asleep in the chair because I haven't shot with my brother for so long."
Twenty-four hours later, the Fuller's were in a different gym just a few miles from Vanderbilt's campus as the Commodores opened the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena. Kyle was on the court, while his mom and his brother were in the crowd to watch as Vanderbilt began its quest in defending its SEC Tournament title.
Kyle began the game on the bench, and watched helplessly as the team came out cold from the field. The team misfired on 12 of its first 14 shots and were facing an early deficit when freshman guard Kevin Bright was whistled for his second foul with 16:25 to play in the first half.
With Bright facing foul trouble, Fuller got the call off the bench, and provided an immediate jolt of energy to the lineup. He connected on his first three shots of the game and scored 11 points in his first 6 minutes and 24 seconds of action.
"He came into that game and lit a spark automatically as soon as he got into the game," sophomore guard Kedren Johnson said. "I saw it in him even before the game during warmups; he had a different look about him today and he came out and got it started."
With Fuller in the game, the Commodores rebounded from their slow start from the field by making nine of their next 11 shots to go ahead, 31-17, with 7:30 to play. It was Fuller's first bucket of the game - a three-pointer - with 14:38 to go in the half that triggered Vanderbilt's hot shooting.
"I thought Kyle was huge for us," Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings said. "He came in in the first half and got us going, gave us some energy that we didn't have, made shots, got to the rim and made plays for people."
Fuller finished the first half with 12 points and added six more in the second half for a total of 19 points in Vanderbilt 75-72 win over the Razorbacks. For the game, Fuller hit 5-of-8 shots, including three three-pointers to go along with two steals in 28 minutes of action.
Fuller's 19 points were the most since Dec. 6 when he poured in a career-high 25 points at Xavier.
"I was kind of getting homesick, kind of missing my family a lot and I feel like they gave me that spark that I needed," Fuller said. "It was good to see them in the crowd and now I can reconnect with my brother. It is kind of hard losing a dad and you really don't have the person to talk to like you used to about ups and downs."
The presence of his family in the stands couldn't have come at a better time for Fuller, who had been mired in a 4-of-22 shooting slump in his last five games.
Thursday also provided Fuller with an opportunity to play in his first SEC Tournament game since his freshman season. He sat on the bench and watched as the Commodores won their first tournament title since 1951 last season. This year, he will play a big role in how far this team can go.
"Kyle plays with a ton of energy," sophomore forward Shelby Moats said. "Tonight, he made a couple of big shots early and he was very helpful in getting us going."
Most of Fuller's scoring came in the first half, but his most important basket of all may have come late in the game. With Arkansas in the midst of a 10-3 run, which had whittled Vanderbilt's lead to six, 67-61, Fuller caught the ball in the left corner, rose up and buried a triple to extend Vanderbilt's lead back to nine, 70-61, with 3:04 remaining.
"I thought his performance was real critical to our ability to win," Stallings said.
Fuller's teammates were aware of his family's presence in the stands, and believe they played a part in his performance.
"I saw him with his brother last night," Johnson said. "He was in the gym getting some shots up with him and I'm sure that played a role and helped motivate him."
"We knew his mom and his brother were here and I think that is part of why he was able to find so much success tonight - just having that extra motivation of having his family in attendance," Moats added.
As Fuller entered Bridgestone Arena to warmup Thursday, he took one look in the stands and immediately spotted his mom and brother. His eyes lit up as he saw them. It had been so long since he had played in front of them and he was eager with anticipation to get on the court. As his eyes met Khalil's, his brother gave him a look, closed his fist, raised his arm and tapped it a few times across his chest.
No words needed to be said. The two brothers had their lives turned upside down just a few months earlier, and the tragedy has brought them even closer. That exchange told Fuller all he needed to know and provided him with an emotional lift that, in turn, helped prolong Vanderbilt's season for at least one more day.