Kay Felder is Oakland’s big little man

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Oakland junior point guard Kay Felder was selected the Horizon League player of the year in voting from coaches and media.

It wasn’t the first time Greg Kampe’s been asked.

It probably wasn’t even the hundredth time.

How did Kay Felder, one of the consensus top players in the country, end up at little old Oakland University, a school that has a nice basketball reputation, to be sure, but hardly is on the collective consciousness among basketball fans outside of Metro Detroit?

“We knew that he was a big-time talent,” said Kampe, in his 32nd year as head coach at Oakland. “But we also knew because of his size, some people would be scared of him and afraid of him.

“So we hoped he didn’t grow.”

Physically, Felder has barely grown from the 5-foot-9 he’s now generally listed at in Oakland’s media relations publications.

His stature, though, has risen off the charts — as he leads NCAA Division I in assists per game (9.1) and is fourth in scoring (24.7 points) entering Thursday’s game against Milwaukee at home, where Oakland will look for its seventh consecutive victory.

Felder, just a junior, has become a scorching-hot name in basketball circles, with his high-flying athleticism and his big-time performances against some big-time competition, including 38 points in a road victory over Washington, then 37 the next game out against then-No. 1 Michigan State, followed with a 30-point showing against then-No. 5 Virginia.

Kampe would be lying if he said he saw this coming, but maybe, just maybe, Felder had the foresight. He did, after all, recently shorten his name from Khalil, because folks couldn’t pronounce it.

ESPN, for one, is appreciative, given the air time it has devoted to Felder, including a 2-minute, 5-second feature last week, comparing Felder to another Oakland guy — one Steph Curry, who plays in Oakland, California, for the world-champion Golden State Warriors.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Tiffany Williams, Felder’s mother, speaking of the increasing national attention, which also includes a spot on the Wooden Watch List, along with the likes of Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Michigan’s Caris LeVert, as well as appearances on NBA mock drafts.

“But he’s worked hard. He deserves this.”

Oakland guard Kay Felder (20) shoots over Michigan State forward Deyonta Davis (23) and guard Lourawls Nairn Jr. (11) during the first half of a game in December at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

‘I think he’s our future’

Felder was a freshman at Detroit Pershing High, which had won a state championship, when Kampe and his top lieutenant, associate head coach and recruiting guru Saddi Washington, first started noticing the short kid with all the hops.

Not long after that, Felder was among the hundreds of kids to come through Oakland’s camp. Washington told Kampe, “I think he’s our future.”

So Kampe, in an unusual move, considering 65 or so teams come through the camp, watched all six of Felder’s games during that camp.

He knew quickly, Washington was right.

He also knew, because of Felder’s size, Oakland might be able to pull off the coup. Michigan was more interested in a kid from Chandler Park Academy named Derrick Walton Jr. Michigan State was almost certain to sign Lansing Sexton star Denzel Valentine.

Neither Michigan or Michigan State made a pitch for Felder, who was offered by Oakland as a sophomore.

So committed to Felder, in fact, Oakland wouldn’t recruit a point guard after offering Felder, and ended up playing an entire season without one — so no opposing coach could get in Felder’s ear and suggest Oakland already had its point guard, and he’d be riding the bench for a season or even two.

“We left that open and did not recruit, even though we should’ve,” Kampe said. “We didn’t, and it turned out lucky for us.”

Kampe and Washington spent hours and hours building a relationship with Kampe, within the framework and time allotments of the NCAA rules.

And it worked. When Felder was a junior, he called Washington and said he was coming to Oakland.

The next call went to Kampe, who was beyond excited — but still nervous.

Oakland still had to wait until National Signing Day of Felder’s senior year for it to be official. Other schools were still making a pitch, including several in the Mid-American Conference, most notably Akron, as well as Southern Illinois and St. Bonaventure.

“We went about our business,” Kampe said. “We kept recruiting him.”

It turned out, the nerves were for naught.

Felder always wanted to come to Oakland, for a number of reasons, but No. 1 was family. He wanted to stay close to his mother; his father, Khalil Sr., a former star at Eastern Michigan; three siblings; and a host of others.

Felder really liked the idea of staying close to home, and seeing his family in the stands for every home game — especially Mom, who wears an old No. 20 Oakland jersey to every home game. She’s missed only one game in Felder’s three years, and is a regular on the road, too.

“Definitely can hear her,” Felder said, laughing. “She’s pretty loud.”

But seriously, he said, Oakland was always the perfect fit, and he never wavered between his verbal commitment and National Signing Day.

“Oh no, not at all. I didn’t talk to any schools,” Felder said. “I had my mind set once I committed. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it all the way.

“That’s loyalty and respect.”

Now, how refreshing is that, given the flurry of commitments and decommitments and commitments again during the recent round of football recruiting?

Felder’s mother — one of as many as 30 family members Felder has at every home game — said the Oakland decision was based on more than just being close to home. They wanted Division I, they wanted a comfortable campus, and they wanted a good relationship with Kampe — and that relationship has exceeded expectations, from the moment Kampe and Washington first laid eyes on the kid from Pershing.

“I really admire the relationship we have with him, because he’s not distant at all,” said Williams, who said she first started believing Felder had a future in big-time basketball at age 11. “You can always call him. He always has a solution. He’s very supportive.”

“I love the relationship that Kay and Kampe have.”

A money man

Getting the player is great. What the player contributes is much more important — and, of course, often unpredictable.

“Did I think he would be a John Wooden finalist, top 10 for national player of the year? I mean, no,” Kampe said. “But you don’t think that way.”

His first season, averaging 32.4 minutes, Felder averaged 9.5 points and 6.4 assists, good for seventh in the country, in earning Horizon League freshman of the year honors.

As a sophomore, playing 38.5 minutes, he averaged 18.1 points and 7.6 assists, second in the nation.

And as a junior, he’s really taken off, and is threatening to become the first player ever to lead the nation in points and assists.

Felder has been an absolute boon for Oakland, given his propensity for making the highlight reels.

“It has become a challenge, no doubt,” said Oakland broadcaster Neal Ruhl, speaking of finding different ways to call Felder’s array of amazing plays. “I have to keep a thesaurus handy.”

Kampe actually said Felder, worth so much to the team, has been worth so much more to the university — perhaps worth as much as millions of dollars, given the exposure he’s brought to the school.

That included the ESPN Curry/Felder feature last week, which no doubt re-aired ad nauseam.

“You think about buying 2 minutes, 5 seconds of an ad,” Kampe said. “It’s been unbelievable for us.”

But as good as the Felder-Oakland marriage has been, one thing is missing: a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Oakland hasn’t made it since 2011, when Felder was a sophomore at Pershing.

There’s a chance this season, though Oakland knows, because of a midseason slip-up, it will have to win the Horizon League tournament to get to the Big Dance. Only league-leading Valparaiso is a candidate for an at-large berth.

Oakland has gobs of talent, aside from Felder, with the likes of Percy Gibson, Martez Walker, Max Hooper, Jalen Hayes and Sherron Dorsey-Walker. With so many transfers, there were some bumps in the road last month, but things are finally starting to click — with six wins in a row, and three more winnable games before a rematch at Valpo on Feb. 19.

The accolades are starting to pour in for Felder, but the NCAA Tournament, that’s what’s still been missing.

“We’re hungry to get back,” Kampe said. “I want it for the school, I want it for the fans, I want it for everybody on the team, and I want it for Kay. It’s hard to say you’re the greatest player in school history when others got you to the NCAA Tournament.”