Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Former Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn trying to rehab image, game at Oakland University

Former Illini guard Kendrick Nunn is trying to rehab his character, image and game at Oakland University. The jury is out on whether he will be successful.

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. -- Kendrick Nunn is not a redemption story -- not yet at least.

He also is not a monster, according to those who know him -- though they know others may think differently.

What is certain is that whatever Nunn did on March 16, 2016, lives with him to this day -- and will the rest of his life.

He’s doing that living now just a short walk from the Oakland University Athletics Center O’Rena in this northern Detroit suburb (best known as the former home of the Detroit Pistons), a six-hour drive away from the place from which he was shunned last spring.

Melvin Nunn told his son, Kendrick, not to expect his second recruitment to be like his first. Dozens of star coaches would not blow up his phone this time around.

For one, most staffs had full recruiting classes by the time Illinois dismissed Nunn in late May. Second, most universities -- even if their basketball coaches were interested in the talented guard -- wouldn't touch Nunn. Hitting a woman is a nonstarter for most universities and athletic programs.

Oakland and East Carolina were the only Division-I schools to pursue Nunn, and only one Division-II school showed interest by the time Nunn committed to Oakland.

"He probably thought as a kid, 'I'm getting re-recruited again,'" Melvin Nunn said. "Nah, that ain't the case. It's going to be someone that cares about you and knows you from other coaches. ...Luckily Coach Kampe called."

Kendrick Nunn could have transferred from Illinois to a Division-II program and already started a money-making pro basketball career. He could’ve just turned pro and tried to land a money-making gig somewhere on this earth. He considered both options, but his father convinced him to finish his degree, and Greg Kampe seemed like the right guy to lead him in his basketball and life reset.

“He just wanted me to stay out the way," Nunn said. "I came from Illinois with some troubles and things like that. He wanted me to put that in the past and move on from that and keep getting better.”

On the anniversary of the incident that earned him a ticket out of Illinois, Nunn reflected a bit on what was -- but focused more on what is and what will be.

“It’s just a lot of drama I put myself into, a lot of things I was doing that I shouldn’t have been,” Nunn said. “I’m moving on from that. By March of this year, I was thinking, ‘A year ago I was in a lot of stuff.’ I was thinking that same day this year, ‘Now, I’m at Oakland and doing good for myself.’ I’m glad that happened."

It’s his choices from now on that will determine whether that day was a wake-up call that changes him for the better or the screw-up that led him down a darker path.

"I told Kendrick, you can't be uptight about what people think of you based on what you did," Melvin Nunn said. "But when you get there, you have to prove them wrong."

March 16, 2016

Nunn plead guilty to misdemeanor battery, so he admits he did something wrong on that Wednesday evening.

Nunn was arrested the next day and originally charged with domestic battery. What actually happened in that campustown apartment are only clear to Nunn and the young woman.

The details from the police and the state’s attorney are such. Police were called to the apartment at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, 2016, after neighbors heard a loud argument between a man and a woman. A witness said he heard the woman yelling, “Get off me” with a man yelling, “Give me my money.” When police arrived, Nunn and the woman were the only ones in the apartment. Both parties originally denied anything physical occurred.

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But the woman later called police and said something indeed did happen and that she and Nunn had a relationship. The police took photos of red marks on her neck and shoulder. Nunn was arrested the following day.

The charges alleged that Nunn hit the woman, pushed her to the floor and poured water over her in an “insulting or provoking” way. Even Nunn's father doesn't deny that Nunn poured water on the woman.

Nunn accepted a plea deal down to a single count of misdemeanor battery, dropping the two counts of domestic battery. Nunn’s conviction will be expunged from his record if he completes 18 months of court supervision, 100 hours of community service and completes a partner-abuse intervention program.

During testimony, Nunn reportedly admitted to hitting the woman. But Nunn and Kampe both say the public doesn’t know the whole story surrounding the incident -- though neither provided those details.

“It’s a lot of things that have been going around and in the police report,” Nunn said. “There’s still a lot of things going around that aren’t true. But I don’t pick and choose the bad relationships I have. I have good relationships with everybody. I still continue to have good relationships with everybody.”

Said Melvin Nunn: "I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened. Only the two people knew what happened. I say that ain't Kendrick though. Kendrick don't snap like that. ... I think there was something tricky about that day that happened. But nobody's going to believe anything but the (police) report."

Whatever the details, assaulting a woman was a red line for Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman. He and then-coach John Groce said in a mutual statement that Nunn's dismissal was a move “to reaffirm our core values of trust and respect, to send a strong message about what is acceptable behavior for our student-athletes at the University of Illinois.”

Said Kendrick Nunn: “It was a tough conversation with Coach Groce. Of course, it was my senior year, and he didn’t want me to leave things like that. It was a tough conversation. I was definitely angry at myself, most importantly. I don’t want to put it on anybody else.”

Kampe said he did his “due diligence” before he accepted Nunn into his program. He talked with the Champaign police, the lawyers involved in the case, Nunn’s probation officer and Groce.

“I wanted to find out the truth of what really happened,” Kampe said. “The thing is I believe I know what happened that day, and I don’t think the mass public does. I don’t think fans of other teams do. Only Kendrick and the young lady know, but I believe I’ve heard enough from so many different sources that I know what happened that day. As I said, no matter what anyone else says, I have no problem in putting Kendrick with an ‘Oakland’ on his jersey and him representing me throughout this country. I think if you look at my career, I’ve been at Oakland for 30 years and this place is special and meant a lot to me. For me to put my reputation and Oakland’s reputation on the line, obviously I believe strongly in him.”


‘I’ve moved on from that’

Champaign was supposed to be “Kendrick’s Kingdom.” That’s what some pitched to the top-50 recruit out of Chicago Simeon while he was courted by Groce and his new staff, fresh off a fun Sweet 16 run at Ohio.

Nunn was Groce’s first landmark addition. Malcolm Hill had already committed to Bruce Weber’s Illinois staff and quickly reaffirmed for Groce. But Nunn was a Chicago star, Jabari Parker’s sidekick at state powerhouse Simeon. The Illini hoped he’d be the pied piper to attract a flow of talent into Champaign.

In the end, Nunn was one of just three consensus top-60 recruits (according to signed by Groce’s staff, along with Memphis forward Leron Black and Indianapolis guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (who since has transferred to DePaul).

Nunn’s career started slowly. He didn’t break out until Game 24 of his freshman season, when he poured in 19 points (his first double-digit scoring game) in a key 60-55 road win at Penn State. That was the first of seven double-digit scoring performances during the last 10 Big Ten games, finishing the season with a 6.2 scoring average. A young Illini team missed out on the NCAA Tournament though by just a win or two and settled for an NIT berth.

As a sophomore, he elevated to 11.1 points per game. But Nunn and the Illini faltered down the stretch, losing five of the last seven games before Selection Sunday to yet again miss on the NCAA Tournament by a game or two. During those final seven games, Nunn averaged 8.2 points and shot 16.2 percent from three. The Illini then were run off the floor by Alabama 79-58 in their lone NIT game. They looked like they didn’t want to be there.

Nunn’s junior season started off rocky, missing the first five games with a thumb injury. He also missed a game, a 79-54 loss at Michigan State, to witness the birth of his first son, Kason Lee. He took another huge scoring jump as a junior, averaging 15.5 points, but his injury-depleted team again missed the NCAA Tournament, finishing 15-19 overall.

Nunn finished his career as one of 48 players in program history to finish with 1,000 career points. But without an NCAA Tournament berth or a senior season, that seems like a lot of empty calories.

As he sat out last season at Oakland due to NCAA transfer rules, Nunn watched as his classmates, especially Hill (now the Illini’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer) and former Simeon and Illini teammate Jaylon Tate become the first Illini group of seniors since the 1970s to never make an NCAA Tournament during their college careers. Without a consistent No. 2 scoring threat to go along with Hill, Illinois (20-15) again finished a win or two short of the NCAA Tournament and settled for another NIT bid. Whitman dismissed Groce before the postseason began.

“It was difficult because I wanted the seniors to have a better year than they had,” Nunn said. “I felt like I could’ve helped them a lot more to go where they wanted to go. They had a pretty good year. Malcolm had a pretty decent season.”

Asked if he felt guilty for the Illini’s shortcomings last season, Nunn said: “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t put that much pressure on myself. They had a bunch of good players there as well to keep the thing going.”

Nunn produced points at Illinois, but he and the Illini never produced the wins he and others imagined. Illinois has moved on, hiring highly successful former Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood -- who Nunn thinks will bring an exciting style to Illinois -- and Nunn is trying to put the Illini chapter of his life behind him too.

Asked how much he still thinks of himself as an Illini, Nunn said: “Not that much, to be honest. I’ve moved on from that. I’ve been focused on here.”

Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

‘Good basketball culture’

Melvin Nunn said his son needed to get away from the big-campus environment at Illinois. The prestigious university is a bustling hub of 44,000-plus students -- most between the ages of 18- and 23-years-old. The university also boasts the largest amount of fraternities and sororities in the country, and the busiest blocks on campus are packed with bars that allow patrons 19 years and older.

Oakland provided the slower pace and singular focus that Kendrick needed at this point in his life, Melvin Nunn said.

"Now, you got two things to do and pretty much that's it at Oakland," Melvin Nunn said. "That's play basketball and go to school because everything else is not around you."

Kampe, who has led the Golden Grizzlies program for 33 years (since he was 28 years old), has some cache in the coaching community. Only two coaches have served at their current post longer than 1,000 games: Kampe and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. Kampe, 61, has led Oakland through transitions from Division II to Division I and from the Summit League to the top of the Horizon League. He recently was elected to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

Still, Kampe experienced some blowback at the thought of taking Nunn. But he has sway at Oakland, whose enrollment has increased from 9,000 to 20,000 since Kampe took over in 1984. But Kampe, not one known to bite his tongue, pretty quickly set the tone with Nunn.

"I laid it on the line," Kampe said. "I said, ‘I’ll take you, but this is what’s going to happen and these are the things you’re going to have to do. We can’t worry about basketball right now. What we have to do is worry about the future and put you in a position where socially you can have the perfect life, academically you can get your degree and basketball-wise you can flourish. You’re a tremendous talent, but there are a lot of tremendous talents that are not playing in the NBA and are not playing anywhere.'" Kendrick Nunn was one of three Illini arrested within a month during the spring of 2016. Black plead guilty to misdemeanor aggravated assault for pulling a knife on a bouncer at a campus club. Illinois suspended Black for two exhibition games and four regular season games. A domestic battery charge against Tate was dropped. During the 2014-15 season, two other players -- Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby -- were suspended three games for an unspecified violation of team rules. 

Objectively, Groce had a discipline issue in his program. But Whitman ignored calls to fire Groce after the tumultuous spring and backed his coach. A year later, he fired Groce for a lack of winning -- which came in part due to the turmoil off the court.

Melvin Nunn said that won't be an issue under Kampe.

"Outside looking in and even Kendrick telling me, discipline I believe was a big issue (at Illinois)," Melvin Nunn said. "It was just the way they approached their players. Kendrick said Kampe chews people out. He makes a presence and people know if you can't walk that straight line, you're going to wind up going in Coach Kampe's office. Coach Groce, he's kind of soft. That's him. I can't knock him for who he is, but that's the kind of coach he is. He's a soft, calm, ain't a yeller. He's basically just a mild motivator. But some kids need a little a**-kicking, some Bob Huggins-type coaching."

Said Kendrick Nunn: “Coach Kampe, he’s the guy I wanted to play for because he’s a real dude. He’s straight-forward with you with everything. He’s a great coach. He has the type of system that players like me love to play in. ...It’s just a good basketball culture here. Kampe being the coach, he’s a legend. It’s just great playing under him as a player. He’s also had great players playing under him, so I just wanted to be the next one."

Kampe called Nunn "an entitled young man who got punched in the stomach." He said Nunn was the product of young stardom, that those around him bent the rules for Nunn due to his talent.

The change of scenery didn't immediately change everything for Nunn. Kampe said Nunn "screwed up early (after his arrival at Oakland), like any young man," so he still has some work to do.

"Once he found out that I ain’t playin’ he figured out this is it for him," Kampe said. "This is his last chance if you’re going to do it. He knows right from wrong. You got to be in the culture, and I’m not saying Illinois’ culture is not that, but he was entitled his whole life. From the time he was this high, people thought he was going to make a lot of money, so people latch on to that. When that happens, you get a different sense of yourself -- and they let you do things they shouldn’t let you do. That ain’t happening here."

‘I just want to win’

Kendrick Nunn has never had such a long basketball hiatus. NCAA rules required he sit out a season before he play his first and only season at Oakland.

“Man, it was tough, to be honest with you,” Nunn said. “It was rough just sitting here and watching the guys play. I learned a lot though just sitting here on the sideline watching basketball all year long. I got very wise on the court, making plays and things like that. Just sitting and watching made me a better play.”

Nunn watched a good program continue to be good. The Golden Grizzlies went 25-9 last season and won their first Horizon League regular season championship with a 14-4 record. But Oakland lost to Youngstown State in the Horizon League quarterfinals and missed the NCAA Tournament.

The Golden Grizzlies lose just one key player from last season’s team: 6-foot-4 guard Sherron Dorsey-Walker, who averaged 13.4 points per game. Returning are the team’s top two players: 6-foot-6 senior wing Martez Walker (17.8 points) and 6-foot-7 forward Jalen Hayes (15.9 points, 8.0 rebounds).

“We’ve won a lot of games,” Kampe said. "We want (Nunn) to help us continue that tradition basketball-wise and be the next NBA player and be the next guy who leads us to a championship. He’s walking onto a team that won the championship last year and we have everybody back but one. ...He’s walked into a situation where there’s probably as much talent here as there was at Illinois one through six or seven. Now, one through 12 probably not but one through six, one through seven, we probably have as much talent. Tom Izzo would probably tell you we have as much talent as 10 or 11 of the Big Ten teams in our top-six or -seven players. Where we fall down is the depth of that. I think he was surprised by that.”

Of course, Nunn wouldn’t be at Oakland if he weren’t talented. This certainly is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Nunn has his eyes on a pro career, and Oakland has produced two second-round NBA Draft picks since 2011: center Keith Benson (48th overall to Atlanta in 2011) and guard Kay Felder (54th overall to Cleveland in 2016).

Meanwhile, Nunn should be one of the Horizon League’s most talented players and further elevate Kampe’s Oakland program, which has been to the NCAA Tournament three times since becoming a Division I program in 1997.

“That’s the criticism I’ll get is, ‘Oh, you’ll do anything to win championships,’” Kampe said. “Well, we’ve won a lot of championships. We didn’t need Kendrick Nunn here to win more championships. What we wanted to do was help Kendrick Nunn grow up, get into our culture and be part of our culture. And then make him blossom as a player and have the best chance to have a very successful life because basketball is a God-given gift that he has that he can make money off of.”

A positive sign, Kampe said, is that the Oakland players have embraced Nunn.

“Kendrick’s a really good kid," Kampe said. "He’s competitive and wants to win, and on top of that he’s not an a*******. The players who were here, they wrapped their arms around him because they like him, and he fits in, and they know he can help us win. When we’ve had transfers that were a*******s, they kind of pushed those kids aside. I think the fact that he is a good kid and he’s respectable and he’s on time. He’s a ‘yes, sir’ guy. Those types of things, I think the players have embraced him with open arms.” 

Kampe is preparing Nunn -- who played off the ball at Illinois -- to play more of a lead guard role. Nunn has practiced more often at point guard, a role he’ll play at Oakland -- and a role the 6-foot-3 guard likely will need to play to have a shot at the NBA. And all Illinois fans know Nunn, a lefty shooter, must improve his right-hand dribble.

“I believe his future in the NBA is at the point,” Kampe said. “Now, he’s not a true point. He’s never going to be a pure point, but if we can turn him into a combo where we can play him at the point for stretches of time, that will make his value much more at the next level. We’re going to put the ball in his hands and let him come off ball screens a lot. We’re going to do those things not only to help him but it will help our team too.”

Nunn hopes his final season of college basketball will change his legacy.

“I just want to win, to be honest,” Nunn said. “I want to go a long way in the tournament. I haven’t experienced that yet. That’s really the goal. ...I want people to say that I had a great college career, went far. Hopefully, I’ll be in the pros by then. I just want people to talk about how much of a winner I am.”


‘Still got a year to go’

After playing in the Big Ten for three seasons, Kendrick Nunn knows hostile crowds. But after his arrest for hitting a woman, he should expect more hostility on the road. Kampe is trying to prepare him for the possible chants and taunts.

“When something like that is in your background, you’re never going to fix your reputation,” Kampe said. “You’re never going to fix it because there are always going to be people that don’t really know what happened that will say what they want to say.”

Kampe said he hopes he can praise Nunn on Senior Night near the end of the 2017-18 season. He’s not yet certain if he will.

“We still got a year to go,” Kampe said. “He’s only been here a year. But he’s done everything I’ve wanted him to do. I’m very pleased with it. I have no problem with him putting ‘Oakland’ on his shirt and going out and representing me. I wouldn’t have taken him if I didn’t believe in him. Oakland’s reputation and my career’s on the line if I didn’t believe him when I took him. I still think he’s a work in progress, like all my players are."

Nunn's father's advice?

"You don't want to be seen or heard," Melvin Nunn said. "You just want to stay out of peoples' way."

Kendrick Nunn, now the father of two young children-- a 16-month-old and a 3-month-old -- said he’s “changed a lot” since March 16, 2016.

“I’ve grown up as a man and became a man since then," Kendrick Nunn said. "I do things differently, take every day differently. I’m more of a student every day and learning and ready to go.

“I’ve just been focused on bettering myself. I’ve just been taking every day, every step and getting better. I think the incident that happened might have put me a step back. I’ve just been working to get back.”

Kendrick Nunn still needs to prove he deserves cheers. He still needs to prove he doesn’t deserve jeers. His year ahead at Oakland is just the start of answering the question of whether March 16, 2016, was just a bad day or just a bad guy.

“It’s something that’s a life-altering, life-changing experience and how he handles that will be how the life changes,” Kampe said. “It’s not done. He still has to go into arenas and he’s going to hear people yelling at him. He’s still going to be out and females are going to be around and questioning him and things like that. It’s something that will be with him the rest of his life. The rest of his athletic life, it’s going to be there. It’s something he has to mature, grow up and handle. So far, I think he’s on that path.”

Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

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