Dimondale, Mich. — His parents found a familiar spot, sitting quietly in the top row of the bleachers.
But Thomas Kithier found one, too, in the middle of all that noise on the basketball court, playing a game that probably mattered less to just about everyone else in the gym.
“The Promised Land — those were his words,” smiled Karl Kithier, whose son, Thomas, was saying something similar after making his summer-league debut in the 15th annual Moneyball Pro-Am at the Aim High Sports Complex.
“Definitely,” the younger Kithier said. “It felt good to get back on the court and do what I do.”
What he was doing — playing games with his new teammates at Michigan State in front of a packed house, with a scoreboard and referees and a public-address announcer — is what he couldn’t do last winter.
Kithier’s senior season played out in a courtroom instead, after the Michigan High School Athletic Association ruled him ineligible to play following a transfer from Macomb Dakota to Clarkston, a controversial decision that prompted a federal lawsuit and angry cries of injustice and double standards — Kithier’s transfer was deemed “athletically-motivated” — but ultimately a no-win situation for the 18-year-old at the center of the debate.
Kithier was allowed to practice with his Clarkston teammates last winter, but he could only sit at the end of the bench for games as the Wolves — led by Foster Loyer, his AAU teammate last summer and a fellow MSU recruit — repeated as Class A state champs in March.
But if there’s a lingering sense of bitterness about all of that — and it’s hard to imagine there isn’t — Kithier’s not sharing it publicly.
“I’m not gonna look back on it,” he said Tuesday night, after his Moneyball team, led by former Oakland University star Kay Felder and Michigan State junior Josh Langford, claimed a 100-92 victory over a squad featuring the Spartans’ Kenny Goins and fellow freshman Aaron Henry.
“I’m just glad it’s over with, and it’s done. I’m looking forward to the next part of my life, which is being able to play for Coach (Tom) Izzo at Michigan State. I’ve just got to focus on the positives, and I’m having a great time here.”
Wait for it ...
He and the rest of Izzo’s five-member freshman class have been on campus since mid-May, enrolling in summer classes, moving into the dorms — Kithier’s rooming with fellow big man Marcus Bingham Jr. — and taking part in informal workouts daily with their new teammates.
“He was the first guy here, of the freshmen, and he didn’t want to come home,” his mother, Jane, laughed. “He said, ‘I’m here. I’m ready to play.’ He was just so ready to go, and be on his own.”
And be with his teammates, of course, including Loyer, who was waiting patiently for a ride home Tuesday night while Kithier finished up a postgame interview, then signed a few autographs for kids — as all the MSU players do at these Moneyball games, which run twice a week through early August.
“I think it’s been great for him to get up here, and being able to hoop with the team again,” said Loyer, the 6-foot point guard who was named Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in March. “He’s been working hard all last year, all spring, preparing for this. And now that we’re here, now that we have that team feeling again, he knows he can come in and contribute and that’s gonna be fun — not only for him, but for all of us.
“I mean, I had to sit out one game last year (due to a knee injury), and I hated it. So I can only imagine what he felt.”
What Kithier felt then and what he feels now are polar opposites, obviously. But he and his family credit the administrators, teachers and coaches in Clarkston — “They were fantastic to him, and to us,” his father says — as well as the staff at Michigan State for providing a support system.
“No matter what the situation was, no matter what the news was, they always had my back supporting me,” Kithier said. “Always texting me saying, ‘We’re with you’ and reminding me, ‘It’s gonna be a short year, and then you’re up here.’ Just telling me to focus on the path ahead.”
His parents kept telling him the same, even as the drama played out through sworn affidavits and angry phone calls and contentious school board meetings and eventually a U.S. District Court in Detroit.
“Through the entire process we just told him, ‘Control what you can control,’” Jane Kithier said. “And the only thing you can control is your effort, whether it’s at school or on the basketball court.
“He always appreciated basketball. But he maybe appreciates it more now, because he knows it can be taken away at any second, whether it’s injury or other circumstances.”
Working through it
And considering the circumstances, it could’ve been worse, he realizes. Kithier still found a way to work on his game while his eligibility case played out. When he wasn’t practicing with his team, he was driving to Livonia every Tuesday and Thursday to play with a group of former college and professional players in pick-up games loosely organized by ex-Detroit Titans guard Greg Grays and former Xavier center Reggie Butler.
Jordan Crawford, a Detroit native who was between stints with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans last winter, and 31-year-old Malik Hairston, another Detroiter who spent most of his 10-year pro career overseas after starting with the San Antonio Spurs, were among the regulars.
“And it really did help me, playing with the older guys, seeing the game differently and picking up little things here and there,” Kithier said.
Now he’s getting tutored by younger vets, like Goins, a Michigan State senior who has taken Kithier under his wing in workouts in East Lansing.
“He’s really helping me out with understanding how we play defense — pin-downs, pick-and-rolls, whatever the situation,” Kithier said.
The situation he’s in now is the one he’s been waiting for, though. And for Kithier and the rest of MSU’s freshmen, the bonding is well underway.
“We’ve got a tight group,” he said. “Everybody likes each other, everybody does everything together. There’s no problems with anybody.”
No promises, either, though there’s an opportunity for some with the departure of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the NBA and the loss of three other seniors from last season. Kithier, who checked in at 6-foot-8 and a slimmed-down 225 pounds last month, knows he has some catching up to do.
But he’s not worrying about that now.
“I haven’t heard anything, and I haven’t really thought about redshirting,” he said. “Obviously, everyone wants to play. But I’m just focused on learning and doing my part to figure out what my niche is, what I can do to help the team.
“I think there’s two things I have to do before I’ll even see the floor. One is play hard and, even if you’re making mistakes, play through it. And the second thing is rebounding. If you can do those things, Coach Izzo will find a spot for you.”
Sweat dripping off his forehead, a smile on his face, it would appear he’s already found his, though.