When Kyle Weems’ career finally came to an end at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis on March 2, he felt as if he had “let Missouri State down and the city of Springfield down.”
That might be hard to believe considering Weems’ career includes a Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year trophy, an MVC regular-season title and 1,868 points scored—good for second all-time at Missouri State.
“I think he’ll have his number retired,” MSU head coach Paul Lusk said.
But the thing that Weems desired the most—for both his team and the Missouri State community—was not to have his number retired. It was to make a trip to the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament.
Although his dreams of playing in the tournament never came to fruition, he is still leaving quite a legacy at MSU, the place where he has developed as a basketball player and as a young man.
“I’ll be a part of Missouri State for the rest of my life because I really feel like that’s my second home and everybody there is my family,” Weems said after his team’s quarterfinal loss to Evansville. “I’ve been blessed with a great opportunity to spend five years of my life there.”
To understand Kyle Weems, you must first understand where he came from and how he was brought up.
Weems was raised to play the game of basketball. His father, Kevin Weems, played for the Drury University basketball team from 1978 to 1980. His grandfather, Charles Weems, was a referee in the Ozarks area and officiated the last MSU game ever played in McDonald Arena in 1976. His uncle, Kris Weems, played for Stanford in the late ‘90s and went to the Final Four with the team in 1998.
Kevin taught his son the game of basketball from an early age and pushed Kyle to work hard, not only at basketball, but also in life.
“He was tough on me,” Weems said in an interview last year. “I can remember times, fifth or sixth grade, Saturday mornings—everybody else was asleep at six in the morning, but I’m up jumping rope, running sprints, ball handling, getting shots up. I can remember running on a dirt road with cleats.
“At the time I might not have been very happy with him, but I knew in the long run things would work out. I’m just really blessed to have him on my side.”
That dirt road is located in Topeka, Kan. where Weems grew up, a four-hour drive from Springfield. It was there that he attended Highland Park High School, an inner-city school of about 700 students.
“People can’t understand it unless they know where we’re from,” Weems’ high school coach Ken Darting said. “We’re an inner-city school. We see a lot of teenagers die in the streets and see a lot of struggling families and struggling individuals.”
Darting said Weems has blazed a trail for all of the kids that walk through the halls of Highland Park on a daily basis and see the trophy case designated specifically for him.
“It’s great when you get somebody like Kyle, who not only makes it and succeeds, but is also such a great ambassador of Highland Park, a great ambassador of the Highland Park community, and a guy that all our kids just watch with interest and dream of someday being Kyle,” Darting said. “Kyle gives them something to follow.”
Darting said he knew when Weems was a sophomore, he had a chance to play at the Division I level and saw a significant growth in Weems’ game from that point on.
“Through his freshman and sophomore year, it was kind of a developmental time,” Darting said. “Especially his sophomore year, I pushed him really hard. By the end of his sophomore year, I knew he had a chance to play Division I. He was showing signs of being a Division I player.”
Weems finished off his high school career by leading Highland Park to a Kansas 5A state title with a perfect 25-0 record. He earned all-state honors that year, averaging 15.2 points, eight rebounds and three blocks per game.
When it came time to make a decision about where he would continue his education and basketball career, Weems chose MSU over Indiana State, Illinois State and UC Santa Clara.
“The people (at MSU) are definitely basketball people,” Weems said. “It’s just a rich-tradition basketball town and Missouri State had great tradition. Coach (Steve) Woodberry coached me in AAU and coach (Barry) Hinson and his staff were just great. That’s why I decided to come here.”
Becoming a Bear
Weems came to Missouri State in 2007 and was redshirted in his first season under coach Barry Hinson. Hinson first got a glimpse of Weems while he was playing for now-MSU assistant coach Steve Woodberry’s AAU team, Pump ‘n’ Run, and knew immediately Weems was a player he was interested in bringing to Springfield.
“When you’re with Kyle Weems, I think the thing that catches your eye is how he portrays himself,” Hinson said. “There may be only one more jovial character in the world than Kyle Weems, and that’s Santa Claus. He is probably the most personable kid I’ve ever recruited.”
When Hinson was fired from his coaching position at MSU in 2008, Weems underwent the first of two coaching changes he would experience in his five-year career. Out went Hinson, and in came Purdue assistant coach Cuonzo Martin.
Weems emerged into stardom in Martin’s third season at the helm, averaging 16 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, leading the Bears to a 26-9 record and the school’s first ever regular-season MVC title while claiming MVC Player of the Year honors.
“I was glad for him last year when he won the MVP of the league,” Woodberry said. “I thought that was something he put a lot of effort into and we had a really good team, so we did something special together and he was a big part of that.”
The success of the team led to Martin’s departure as he took the coaching vacancy at Tennessee, and Weems was facing yet another coaching change going into his final season. He could have gone somewhere else to finish up his college career—bigger schools such as Kansas, Kansas State and Oregon had interest in him—but instead he decided to stay at MSU and play for new coach Paul Lusk.
“Couldn’t ask for anything more when you talk about a kid who’s gone through two coaching changes,” Lusk said. “Then I come in here during his last year, and he’s the only returning starter. He kept a very good attitude, and it was a tough year from the standpoint for him. He was a joy to coach, and I want to do everything in my power to help him in the future.”
Leaving a legacy
When a player’s career comes to close, one thing that people tend to think about is how that player will be remembered. There is little doubt that Weems’ No. 34 jersey will some day hang from the rafters of JQH Arena.
But that honor will come from what he accomplished on the basketball court. What might be more important to those who know him, is the way that he conducted himself off the court.
“You always want to pass something down, and I think the thing that he’ll pass down is that you go about your business the right way,” Lusk said. “You can still be very successful, have a lot of awards, get your degree and act the right way. He was never in trouble. He was a professional with the way he approached his business.”
Over the past five years, there have been several people at MSU that have pushed Weems to become the player that he is. But the people who have inspired him the most are very much close to home.
“I think it’s a mixture of my dad and my uncle Kris,” Weems said. “My dad because he unfortunately didn’t finish college, and he always drove and instilled in me that I need that piece of paper to open up more doors for me in the future. And also my uncle Kris because he’s been there and he’s done that. And I grew up watching him win state tournaments and I got to watch him play in the Final Four. And just seeing him do it means anyone can do it.”
As Weems leaves Missouri State, he remembers all of the teammates, coaches, fans and community members that he will leave behind as he pursues a professional basketball career either in the NBA or overseas.
“It’s been awesome,” Weems said. “It’s opened up so many doors for me, so many opportunities, and I just want to thank Missouri State because they’ve really welcomed me with open arms and helped me out a lot. I got a great degree from here, and I’ve had the best five years of my life getting to play basketball.
“Not a whole lot of people have had the opportunity to do this, some of the stuff that I’ve done and accomplish some of the stuff that I’ve accomplished, and none of it would be possible without Missouri State.”