Jensen: A mother's sacrifice benefits Villanova

Kris Jenkins is averaging 17 points a game in the postseason. When he was in middle school, to ensure he stayed on the straight and narrow, his mother sent him to live with another family. The two families are now close.
Kris Jenkins is averaging 17 points a game in the postseason. When he was in middle school, to ensure he stayed on the straight and narrow, his mother sent him to live with another family. The two families are now close. (STEVEN M. FALK)
Posted: March 31, 2016

The only times Felicia Jenkins could rush to her phone Saturday night came during breaks. She had to work at an Amazon distribution center in Columbia, S.C. Her sister, who had driven from Baltimore to Louisville to see Felicia's son, Kris, play for Villanova in the NCAA tournament, kept texting Felicia play-by-play. There was no TV, and Felicia wasn't allowed to have her phone with her except during those breaks that weren't getting there fast enough.

"I'm making plays in my head, the same plays that he would make in his mind," Felicia Jenkins said over the phone Tuesday.

Maybe she saw it like it really happened, Villanova up one on Kansas, 14 seconds left, her son walking to the foul line, knocking down two free throws.

Each break, she ran to her phone.

"The last time, about 11 o'clock, the text said, 'Can you get tickets to Houston?' " Jenkins said. "I ran through the place like I owned it. That's when everyone at my job found out my son played for Villanova."

They don't know the half of it. How Jenkins herself, a former college basketball coach as recently as two years ago, had taught her son the skills that have been so instrumental in pushing Villanova through March Madness. This postseason, Jenkins is averaging 17 points a game. His matchup is often the toughest for opponents.

Felicia Jenkins made the single toughest decision of her life, which put Jenkins on a different path that now includes a second family, all listed in the personal section for Kris in Villanova's media guide: "Parents are Felicia Jenkins and Kelvin Jenkins. Guardians are Nate and Melody Britt. Siblings include Kaiya and Kelci Jenkins along with Nate Britt Jr. and Natalya Britt."

Nate Britt Jr. is the same Nate Britt Jr. who comes off the bench for the University of North Carolina and also will be playing at the Final Four. That's the rest of the story, that Jenkins sat right behind North Carolina's bench Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center rooting like crazy for the guy he fully considers his brother.

Go to earlier days in South Carolina: Kris was a ballplayer from a young age. His mother was a ballplayer. She had been all-conference twice at Division II Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., later was an assistant at Claflin, head coach for seven years at Division II Benedict in Columbia, and most recently an assistant for a couple of seasons, until 2014, at Division I Jackson State.

Kris may be her lasting hoops legacy. Where does Villanova's top long-range shooter's form come from? His mother wouldn't let him take three-pointers as a little guy. Work it out closer to the hoop first.

"Cardinal rule No. 1," she said. "If you can't make a consistent mid-range jumper, you can't make a three-pointer."

That led to now.

"He has almost like an old-school, old-soul game," his mother said, mentioning role models such as Antoine Walker and Charles Barkley. "You're not going to see him shake and bake. He's going to get right to it."

Kris was in middle school, she explained, already playing on the AAU circuit, when the move that changed lives was made. His parents had separated. There were some moves, including a time with her sister in Baltimore, then back to Columbia, where Kris started middle school.

"I just didn't think he was making right decisions in allowing the right people in his circle," Felicia said of her son. "He's such a verbally personable guy, and a lot of people can hide in your circle without people knowing what they're all about."

She decided, she said, that if she didn't get control of this quickly, it could go bad for Kris in a hurry.

The last straw for her, Felicia Jenkins said, was when a hall monitor at the middle school saw Kris on his cell phone and asked for him to hand it over. He refused.

"Way out of his character," his mother said, but she understood peer pressure, the need to act tough. "And he wasn't making all A's and B's like he's doing now."

Her next move took tremendous courage. Felicia and Kelvin Jenkins had seen this man on the AAU circuit coaching his own son and their group from the Washington area. They watched how that whole team went about its business. "I looked at the character of each kid that played for Coach Nate. Those kids just possessed a different personality. Their character was cut from a different edge. Nate always made sure the guys were in line, including his son."

So she called Nate Sr., a former 25-year police officer.

"Look, my big guy down here, this is what's going on," she remembers telling Nate Britt Sr. "He needs to be around better people so he can start understanding what better decision-making is about."

Kris' father signed off on it. Melody Britt had natural concerns, Felicia Jenkins said, asking the right questions, how to do the right thing collectively for Kris.

Felicia remembers Melody saying, "We're not going to bounce this kid around. We're going to give him a solid foundation. We're going to do this until he graduates from high school."

Felicia remembers her own response: "I said, 'Thank you, Jesus.' "

"I definitely have two great families," Kris Jenkins said. "I consider myself to be very, very lucky and blessed and fortunate to have two great families to take care of me and guide me and keep me in the right place."

The whole thing was his parents' call, Kris said. "I had no say-so in the situation."

Did he ever find himself imagining an alternative scenario, as if he had stayed in South Carolina? "No, I never did. I was fine. Of course, at first nobody wants to leave their parents, but it turned out to be the best decision to ever happen to me."

Jenkins went on to be the Washington Post's all-Met player of the year at Gonzaga College High School.

Just don't think it was ever easy on his mother.

"Days and nights, I cried to myself. I couldn't allow him to see it," she said. "Making that decision . . . For six years it was just me and Kris and his dad. Before his sisters, it was just us. We developed such a tight-knit bond. He was my baby."

But it was as if she also added family with the Britts. "When we all got together, the love and the laughter, we should have filmed it because we had such a good time," she said. They spent some holidays together as one family. If Felicia got up there and nobody was home, they'd have the key hidden for her.

She'll be in Houston on Saturday, she said, with a rooting interest in both games, Villanova against Oklahoma, followed by North Carolina against Syracuse.

Would it be hard, Kris Jenkins was asked this week, if he ended up playing Nate for the national title?

"It wouldn't be hard at all," Kris said. "We've worked hard to get where we are. It would just be a real special moment."

Don't worry, 'Nova fans, Jenkins immediately talked about how there was a lot of work to be done against Oklahoma first.

And the truth is, the story already is special. When Felicia Jenkins answered her phone Tuesday, she was asked if she had time to talk about her son.

The first thing she said: "Anything for my big fella."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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