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Pacers’ Sykes carries late father’s memory on improbable journey to NBA

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — At one point in time, all Keifer Sykes wanted was a 50-minute train ride, by himself, from a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to a gymnasium on the city’s far west side.

This gym belongs to the John Marshall High School Commandos, a city prep basketball powerhouse dating back to a pair of IHSAA state championships in the late 1950s.

In 1994, the Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary ‘Hoop Dreams’ followed two John Marshall players, and the program’s legacy was later carried forward by two future professionals, WNBA All-Star Cappie Pondexter and tenacious NBA point guard Patrick Beverley.

“I was lost for a while.”

Sykes, at just 13-years-old, enrolled at John Marshall and began the 50-minute commute each way, every school day, for four years.

“My brother went there and I wanted to go there bad,” Sykes said. “Seeing all their battles, knowing they were a powerhouse, knowing I had to go to this school to get recruited, to get out of my situation. To get out of poverty. I was in the mindset, already at 13-years old, I am going to do whatever it takes.”

As promised, Sykes made the most of the long rides to and from school earning Chicago Sun-Times All-Public League Second Team honors in addition to being a McDonald’s All-American nominee.

“My parents had a lot of trust in me, I knew I had to make them proud so I wasn’t going to get distracted by anything, or do anything wrong. Having street smarts, just growing in Chicago, that still helps me today. That responsibility helped mold me.”

As a savvy 17 year old, Sykes took the best college basketball option he had, a scholarship to UW-Green Bay, and his impact was instant.

The fiery guard listed at just 6-foot upped his scoring per game from 11.2 to 15.9 and finally 20.3 points per game in three seasons with the Phoenix. As a junior, Sykes was named Horizon League Player of the Year.

Keifer Sykes, his son Keifer Jr. and father James. (Provided Photo/Keifer Sykes)

Behind the scenes, there was much more than basketball on his mind.

At 16, Sykes had a son, Keifer Jr. who became the center of his life off the floor. At 17, after his freshman season, a call came from back home. James Sykes, Keifer’s father, was gone.

A heart attack.

“I remember making that three-hour drive home from college, turning down my block, and just bursting out in tears,” Sykes said. “I will never forget that because all of those moments became real.

“To be honest, I had insomnia, for a year or two. Just couldn’t sleep. I was lost for a while. “

Sykes’ mother, Lisa, became the MVP behind the scenes, now a single mother caring for her own five children in addition to Keifer Jr.

Sykes pressed on with his basketball dream, earning a summer league spot with the San Antonio Spurs before being cut ahead of training camp.  Now come the long rides. Not 50 minutes across Chicago by train. How about six years around the world? Plane, car, bus, taxi — you name it.

For six seasons, Sykes essentially crisscrossed the globe, playing in the top professional leagues in South Korea, Turkey, Italy, China, Greece, and Australia.

Six years, four continents, six countries. Still no call from the NBA. 

That changed this past summer, when Sykes nailed the game-winning bucket in the winner-take-all $1 million nationally-televised TBT tournament. Circles across the basketball community celebrated this moment with Sykes, as his work ethic and dedication long ago earned respect far beyond just being labeled a ‘pro’.

That evening, the Pacers signed Sykes to a deal, giving him a chance to compete for a roster spot in the preseason.  Sykes impressed during the preseason, winning over new Indiana Head Coach Rick Carlise, but ultimately no roster spot. It was off to the G-League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, with the hope that the long-awaited call was one step closer. Sykes averaged 13 points and a league-best 8.5 assists in G-League play, and then two days after Christmas, that call finally arrived. Sykes was needed on a Pacers team battered by injuries and COVID issues. 

A 28-year-old NBA rookie was on his way to Indianapolis. 

“I think every step of the way was necessary,” Sykes said. “People said I was small, and people didn’t know my intangibles. I had to continue to prove myself.  It was a long road, but I am grateful for it… Now to be here, I see things, so much differently than guys who have had this since they got out of high school.”

It turns out this wasn’t just a call-up to keep a seat on the end of the bench warm.  With no healthy point guards available, Sykes was inserted into the Pacers starting lineup on his third night in the league, scoring 10 points with 5 assists at Cleveland.

Two nights later, another start against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Jitters at the world’s most famous arena?

Not Keifer Sykes.

Sykes dropped a career-best 22 points on New York to go with 6 assists. The next night, his first start as a Pacer in Indianapolis, 18 points and 5 assists battling Kyrie Irving and the Nets.  By this point, Pacers management had seen enough.

On Jan. 7, Keifer Sykes officially unpacked his suitcase after nearly seven long years on the road. He was signing a new deal with the Pacers, a guaranteed contract, for the remainder of the 2021-2022 season.   In an emotional post-practice interview, Sykes singled out his mom Lisa for helping care for his two children, and ultimately keeping one of the most ambitious NBA stories ever told — alive. 

Since the welcomed job security, Sykes continues to contribute in Indiana in a variety of ways.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – JANUARY 14: Keifer Sykes #28 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball while being guarded by Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns in the third quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 14, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

In the middle of a brutal five-game western conference road trip, Sykes’ scoring jolt in overtime gave the Pacers, playing without all five starters, a remarkable victory over Steph Curry and Golden State. Then there are the subtle moments when you can watch Sykes, catching himself in what feels like a dream.

Wednesday night against the Hornets at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the Pacers halftime shootaround is underway and a short video of Sykes’ life story is playing for the crowd.  There is the point guard in his warmup gear, gazing at the jumbotron, smiling and pointing to his chest then the sky upon the completion of the video. 

“To see it up on the jumbotron, all of those things to me are amazing,” Sykes said. “I have been absorbing everything. My motto these past few weeks has been ‘absorb and elevate.’” 

“I have seen Russell Westbrook, LeBron (James), and then I got to play against Steph Curry on TNT, get a big win. After that, we play Chris Paul, and he gave me a nice lesson.” 

There is a question that lingers in the back of Sykes’ mind.

The dream on those long train rides came true, but dad isn’t here to see it.

“It was difficult, it is something I am still dealing with to this day. I want to see him in the gym, me going against Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, starting and playing against our hometown Chicago Bulls.” 

“My dad, he was always crying when he was proud. He would definitely be soaking it in because he was a super father.”

Forget even long-shot odds. Outside of mom and dad’s minds, they didn’t even exist.

Keifer Sykes, somehow, still found a way to the NBA.