By Marty Farmer
In 2003, the Brooks Middle School basketball team featured two prodigious talents, Iman Shumpert and Evan Turner, who are currently burgeoning stars in the NBA for the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively.
A decade later, however, arguably the most interesting — and certainly most inspirational story — from that legendary squad is about a guy who didn't even make the team.
Welcome to the curious case of Khirey Floyd, a player who despite numerous disappointments and setbacks, is getting better with age. On Aug. 21, the former Oak Park and River Forest High School basketball player (who enjoyed sparse playing time with the Huskies) will board a plane bound for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to play professional basketball for the Tallinn Kalev basketball club. While that's not exactly the Celtics or Lakers, it's a foot in the door for Floyd.
Prior to signing his first pro contract, Floyd's basketball odyssey included being cut twice from the aforementioned Brooks team, high school stops at Providence St. Mel and OPRF, followed by hoops stints playing for Riverland Community College in Southern Minnesota, the University of Iowa and Concordia University Chicago in River Forest.
By comparison, his childhood friend Shumpert traveled the decidedly more glamorous route of McDonald's All-American preps player, star guard at Georgia Tech and New York Knicks' fan favorite playing in front of Spike Lee, Woody Allen and assorted other glitterati at Madison Square Garden.
Forget the road less traveled. Floyd's circuitous route to cracking the pro hoops scene wasn't even on the map. Through the trials and tribulations, Floyd's compass has been an ardent love for the game of basketball, bolstered by belief in his abilities and the support of his dad, Larry; his mom, Cheryl; and his brother, Jelani.
"I remember being a new student in seventh grade at Brooks and trying out for the basketball team," Floyd said. "I played as hard as I could, and I thought I did well. When they posted the 15 names on the board of who made the team, I didn't see mine. I kept thinking this must be a mistake and re-read the list. I went home and just cried, but my dad told me, 'Hey, what can do you do but use this year to get better as a player and try out again.'"
In 2004, Floyd tried out for Brooks basketball again but again failed (a relative term in his determined eyes) to make the cut. He was so distraught over not making the team, he chose to attend Providence-St. Mel High School for three years as a needed change of scenery from Oak Park. Although he flourished academically and athletically with the Knights, he missed his friends and the excellent educational and basketball opportunities at OPRF.
Ironically, Shumpert lobbied with then-Huskies head coach Al Allen to give Floyd a look. But with stellar swingmen Shumpert and Dan Barnes (who played at UIC), along with post player Adam Taylor and a deep bench at Allen's disposal, there just wasn't much playing time available for the Huskies' newcomer.
"I was always leery of taking on players from other programs because I wasn't sure if they fit into our system," Allen said. "Unfortunately, Khirey didn't get a lot of playing time with us, but I could see that he was a very skilled, athletic player. He worked his tail off every day in practice, had a great attitude and did whatever he could to help the team. It just seems like he was always the kid who was maybe at the wrong place at the wrong time."
After playing well at the community college level, Floyd's career finally appeared on track when he was slated to join the University of Iowa basketball team as a preferred walk-on after drawing interest from the Hawkeyes' head coach Todd Lickliter. When Iowa relieved Lickliter of his coaching duties to hire Fran McCaffery, Floyd was left out in the cold again, continuing his basketball sojourn pattern.
"I loved the campus and I kept my grades up at Iowa," he said, "but I was depressed because the new coaching staff didn't even really give me a chance to show them what I could do.
"I had already learned though about the importance of not giving up, based on my experience at Brooks. So I went to back to the drawing board and went to work in the gym. My mom has always instilled in me the importance of believing in yourself and having faith in God."
Floyd's next stop post-Iowa City took a decidedly local turn. He enrolled at Concordia University Chicago to finish his college degree with a major in political science and roll the dice on another fresh start.
After a decent junior campaign in which Floyd averaged eight points per game, his minutes were surprisingly cut at first this past season, as coach Tyler Jones played several younger players. Ever the model of perseverance, however, Floyd earned substantial playing time and caught fire offensively down the stretch of the season. His senior year, he averaged 12.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
"Things just kind of fell in my favor at the end of the season," he said. "I was scoring a lot of points, and we were winning games. I really thought the way things were going for me earlier this season, Concordia might be the last stop for me in terms of basketball."
Floyd capped off his amateur career in style, scoring 29 points in the Cougars' regular season finale.
After graduating from college in May, he visited his brother, a former Division I college basketball player, in Germany. Jelani counseled Khirey about the European basketball scene.
"Khirey is definitely a late-bloomer," Jelani said. "When we were kids, I would play basketball at the park and he would watch Dragon Ball Z [Japanese animated TV series] or play video games. He has a real passion for the game [now] and he's a big point guard who can really shoot the basketball."
After sending out basketball audition tapes and You Tube clips to well over 100 prospective European basketball employers, Floyd found a home in Estonia.
"I'm both nervous and excited about the opportunity to play professional basketball," he said. "It's a little scary going to a foreign country, but following my dream is too good an opportunity to pass up. I don't want to be 35 and look back with regrets about why I didn't give this a try."
Off the court, Floyd is making an impact with his brother as well. Khirey and Jelani founded Atypical Sports & Learning Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization geared toward exposing inner-city youth to "atypical" sports as a vehicle to increasing academic achievement and graduation rates through sports participation.
"You always read about athletes who are superstars," Floyd said. "I know when I was a kid, I always thought, 'Where are the stories about guys who get cut from their basketball team or who continually face adversity and don't give up?'
"The purpose of our non-profit is to encourage kids to develop a love of sports, and more importantly, develop self-confidence. I hope my story inspires some younger kids to follow their dreams."
Recently, Floyd and Allen had a chance meeting at Concordia. Allen was teaching a course there while Floyd was finishing up school.
"Khirey just gave me this outpouring of thanks about how much he appreciated being part of OPRF basketball," Allen said. "It was so genuine. You don't see that a lot with kids these days. When I got home, I called all [the OPRF] coaches because it was such a nice moment. Khirey is a great kid, and I'm thrilled that he's getting a chance to play basketball overseas."