Oct. 30, 2012
by Chris Weinman
Adversity has put a full-court press on Kyle Fuller. The junior from Moreno Valley, Calif., has had quite a load thrown on him in the past year.
After a freshman season in which he was featured in all 34 of Vanderbilt's games and averaged 14.7 minutes per game, Fuller played in only 18 contests as a sophomore and saw his minutes-per-game average cut in half. He failed to make a three-pointer, going 0-for-8 on the season, and did not play a minute in the Commodores' championship run through the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
But those on-court hardships now look insignificant.
At home during the summer, Fuller was awoken one morning by his 16-year-old brother, Khalil. Their father, Kyle Sr., who had been battling illness, was not breathing. Kyle ran into the room to find that his father had already passed. After ushering his mother and brother out of the room, Kyle arranged for an ambulance to come to the house.
Kyle Jr.'s bond with his father was special. Kyle Sr. had introduced his son to the game of basketball, and together they coached up the younger Khalil. The loss hit the 20-year-old extremely hard.
"He was always there," Fuller said. "He was always the loudest in the gym. My freshman year (at Vanderbilt), I still heard him in the gym. I told him everything that happened in my life, good or bad. Because regardless of how mad he'd be at me, he'd still be there for me.
"So when he passed, I lost my best friend and one of the main reasons why I play this game. We've been through so much together, so it really affects me badly."
Fuller remembers vividly a conversation he had with his father the night before he died, as Kyle Sr.'s health was quickly deteriorating.
"He said, `If I don't make it, you need to step up and be the man.' He told me that he didn't want me to cry at his funeral, so my little brother wouldn't cry more. He wanted me to step up and be the man of this family. `Take care of your mother. Make sure your mother is okay.' Take care of my little brother. Be hard on him when I need to be hard on him. Call him more `cause I'm so far away."
His responsibility to his younger brother is now Fuller's top motivation. He is focused on turning off any outside noise that may have previously distracted his efforts in life, on the court and in the classroom. Fuller is determined to put a past that he says included "immature" behavior behind him and focus on the future.
"I want to make sure I'm the greatest role model to my little brother," Fuller said. "I'm gonna show him that I'm always there for him. I promised [my father] that I would be the man of the house. I'm not a junior anymore, I'm not gonna be a little boy anymore. I can't argue about little things any more. I have to grow up."
Back at school, Fuller's newly embraced maturity is translating to his leadership role as one of only two upperclassmen on a team without any seniors. The point guard came back to campus in the best physical shape of his career after shedding 15 pounds in the offseason and has never felt better about his game. He also understands the responsibility of stepping up to show younger players what it takes to succeed in the SEC.
"I'm trying to beat them in every sprint, so they know that they need to try and beat me in every sprint," Fuller said. "I'm trying to beat them in every pickup game, so they know they need to elevate their game. I'm trying to be fresh in every way possible, so they know that even though we lost three great players and our seniors, that this team is not going to have a downfall."
The Commodores return only three games started--one by Fuller and two by classmate Rod Odom--from last year's team, and Fuller knows that this season will not be easy. But he has gained strength through hardship, and carries his father's memory with him both mentally and in the form of a tattoo on his right arm that depicts Kyle Sr. entering heaven's gates. That inspiration has led him to work harder than ever, because, he says, "I know my dad wouldn't want me to quit."