Where are they now? Basketball player Kent Culuko of Mahwah
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
"My wife said to me, ‘You teach basketball all day long, coach it, play in a men’s league, and then come home and put on a basketball game to watch on TV,’ " Culuko said. "She doesn’t understand. She said, ‘How do you not get tired of it?’ ’’
While his wife, Jill, may not understand, she has gotten used to the fact that their life is accompanied by the sound of a bouncing ball. Their 7-year-old son, Karson, already has put in time on the court. Jill, 8 1/2 months pregnant with the family’s second son, expects the next son to be a basketball lifer, too.
It’s how it always has been for Culuko. His father, Cliff, was a standout player, starring for Long Island University before coaching at Bergenfield High School. Kent and his younger brother, Craig, were the next in line.
"Me and my brother grew up in the gym," Kent Culuko said. "That’s what we knew."
It’s what he knew and what he’s passing on to others. Culuko starred at Mahwah High School, amassing 2,780 points — the second-highest total in Bergen County history — then moved on to James Madison University, where he etched his way into the record book. He’s still ranked among the leaders in points and three-point field goals.
He provided one of the most storied moments in school history, one that’s easily found on YouTube. He swished a last-second three-pointer to send JMU into the 1994 NCAA tournament, the school’s first berth in 11 years.
From there, his career took a bumpy road — facing the same obstacles that so many players on the fringe of the NBA also face, and then some. His dream of playing in the league was so close, but never quite in his grasp.
"I tried out with the Nets in ’96 and ’98," he recalled, having also been invited to try out for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I knew I could play at that level, and when I didn’t make it it was a real big disappointment.
"I had veteran players on the Nets, Kevin Edwards and Michael Cage, telling me, ‘You’re going to play at this level.’ … Not that I’d be a starter, but I could have been an 11th, 12th man, a guy who could help a team."
He played professionally in Bulgaria, Germany, Finland and Argentina, clinging to his dream of making the NBA. Those dreams fell apart when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, at Jayson Williams’ home, when the former Nets star shot and killed his limousine driver. Williams was convicted of aggravated assault.
But basketball didn’t disappear. Culuko always had worked with younger kids when he was in college and on his stops home between stints around the globe.
"I started training kids when I’d come home, local kids from Mahwah, in my driveway," he said. "It started then, and when I got out of college and played overseas, it grew and grew.
"I had to make a decision — am I going to play or do this? It started rolling and I still wanted to play. I wanted to play pro ball. I loved training the kids, but my heart was with playing. … But I grew passionate and it grew on me."
Those one-on-one lessons have expanded. He still gives lessons and trains elite players such as St. Anthony’s UCLA-bound Kyle Anderson. But he also runs camps and clinics that over the course of a year, he estimates, attract 2,000 to 3,000 kids. While he runs camps through his IYBasketball.com flagship, he also has a non-profit project (blazebasketballclub.com) that runs AAU teams. Now living with his family in Pequannock, he is searching for a permanent home for the programs.
"I rent out about five different facilities now," Culuko said. " … We need people to know where we are and they want a schedule of what’s going on for the next three months. We think the business can grow when we do that."