Kendrick Warren, the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Thomas Jefferson High School, faces his share of challenges on the sidelines.
But Warren brings decades of understanding on how to approach the long game for high school athletics and build a unified team. Warren’s coaching philosophy emphasizes playing hard, “leaving it all on the pitch” and trusting yourself. “You have to trust your teammate,” he said.
For Warren, that confidence is built through daily practice.
“You have to have my back on the court, that’s how you build it,” Warren said. “You do exercises. You have to make sure this man will be there. This player is going to be in this location.
Warren, who grew up in Richmond, started playing high school basketball as a ninth grader at the same Richmond Public Schools gymnasium where he now coaches. As a student, he racked up accomplishments, being named a four-time All-Metro player, three-time All-State player, 1990 McDonald’s All-American, 1990 Parade All-American, and 1990 Street & Smith All American. His accomplishments took him to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he finished his career with 1,858 points – the most in school history at that time. (Eric Maynor, career total of 1,953 points, and Treveon Graham, career total of 1,882 points, have since passed Warren.)
“Kendrick is easily one of the greatest players to have participated in this program,” said Chris Kowalczyk, assistant business manager for sports communications at VCU. “Kendrick was one of the top five prospects in the country when he came here. And it was really a recruiting coup. It was a seismic event as far as college basketball goes, because at that , the program was really not at the top. They were lucky that Kendrick decided to stay here.
Kowalczyk described Warren as a dominant player from the time he started playing VCU until he was done. His No. 23 jersey is one of only six on the program to be retired, and Warren was inducted into the VCU Hall of Fame in 2005.
“He’s probably one of the top five players to ever don a VCU uniform,” Kowalczyk said. “He was almost violent in the way he dunked the ball. He had such power and strength and was a dynamic athlete who was adept at reaching the rim.
A game changer at VCU
Art Mills, who was a sports editor at the student newspaper The Commonwealth Times at the time of Warren’s arrival at VCU, recalls how quickly the program changed due to the impact of the star striker.
“When he arrived, the mood for basketball, for sports coverage became a lot more fun,” said Mills, who now lives in Minnesota. “You have to see that from the moment he walked onto campus that was clearly an athletic ability that was beyond what we had seen previously. The atmosphere was great. The hype around him was big and watching him play – the strength, the explosiveness – you just knew you had a player who was different for that era at that school.
“He dove, and he was a one-handed, right-handed slasher,” Mills recalled. “He was so much more athletic than anyone he faced. He just dominated with his ability. It was astounding. He was the undisputed leader of this team.
Mills also recalled, in contrast to Warren’s explosive quality on the court, the athlete’s extremely laid-back, calm, composed and almost shy personality. This was reflected in the way Warren worked with his teammates rather than monopolizing the ball and the spotlight.
“He would get these beautiful, glorious dunks on a free break, just flying through the air,” Mills said. “Warren transformed this program and made it something unique, different and special.”
Warren’s former VCU coach Sonny Smith praised his former star player in a phone interview from Auburn, Alabama, where the 85-year-old is a color analyst.
“He was one of the best players to play for me, and I had Charles Barkley,” said Smith, who coached the Rams in Sun Belt, Metro and CAA conferences. “He was fast as a cat, jumped like a deer. Ran fast. Every game had a highlight for Kendrick. He could outrun everyone and block shots.
Smith recalled when Warren took over the final five minutes of a game against high-ranking Louisville.
“We beat them, and it was a Kendrick Warren win,” Smith said.
The 1993 game against Long Beach State at the Richmond Coliseum is a fond memory for Brian French, who was a sportswriter for the Commonwealth Times and is now editor of the Washington Post. A visiting California sportswriter asked French who VCU’s best player was.
“I’m like, ‘We’ve got this kid, Kendrick Warren,'” French told the reporter. “He’s like, ‘Who is he?’ I said to him, ‘Number 23, but don’t worry. You won’t have any trouble finding it for very long. It will become clear very quickly who Kendrick Warren was. And of course, [Warren] was explosive. Block one end of the court, dunk the other end, the fans go crazy. VCU beat them 95-61. It was delirium from top to bottom. Everybody was happy. This was by far the best game I have ever seen VCU play.
A structured student
As a VCU student athlete, Warren, who majored in criminal justice, remembers a regimented life.
“We had to put a lot into it, traveling, being on the road a lot, going to class, having dinner, studying most nights. So you hardly have time for yourself because we were always in the study hall.
The bond between Warren and his teammates from those years remains. Rodney Ashby played forward and center for the Rams from 1990 to 1994 with Warren. One day he asked a coach where he should play on the pitch. The answer, “Where Warren is not.”
“He was an incredible athlete,” Ashby said. “He was doing stuff every day in training and in every game that we saw as a sporting miracle, whether it was diving on someone, getting a flight that nobody thought they could achieve or block a shot that no one thought he had a chance of blocking. It was amazing to be able to play with him.
Ashby said Warren’s electric play on the court made him popular.
“Everyone wanted him to succeed. He was a local legend, in the community, on campus, everyone wanted to say hello to him,” Ashby said. Still, Ashby said Warren was a pretty quiet student except around him. “It was an absolute contrast. Between the lines of the pitch he was very aggressive and he did things with such ease. He didn’t want to lose. He was very competitive.”
College was a stepping stone to opportunities to play basketball professionally. Warren played in the Continental Basketball Association before playing overseas in France, Sweden and England, among others.
The path was exciting but also exhausting and difficult. His wife, Melanie Reid, remained in Richmond. Playing basketball overseas doesn’t have to be glamorous when meals on the road consist of fast food, Warren said.
A return to basics
In 2009, Warren accepted the coaching position at Thomas Jefferson High School.
“TJ is what started me in my career. My coach here taught me a lot, he just made me a great young man on and off the pitch,” Warren said. people, being respectful is one of the main things he taught us, making positive decisions.”
Warren describes his own basketball coaching style as focusing on a fast-paced style of play, using transition basketball on offense to create easy runs. On defense, Warren’s players create turnovers and play solid defense.
At TJ, Warren’s players respect his insight as a student athlete who ran on the same field, his commitment and the high expectations he sets. The banners on the gym walls that their coach won and having a McDonald’s All-American as a coach inspires the athletes.
But Warren doesn’t just coach his players in on-field tactics. He explains that basketball is an opportunity to access higher education, scholarships and social skills. Even though Warren has come a long way, he gives his players no illusions of being able to achieve the highest levels of achievement in the sport.
“I just try to encourage them to get their books first and the basketball after,” Warren said. “Not everyone can be good, but you can push yourself to be good. You just have to put those pounds first because a lot of people don’t succeed in basketball. Basketball opportunities have dwindled. They don’t have all these leagues like they used to.
Sophomore Carmell McCloud didn’t know about Warren’s celebrity status at TJ or VCU until recently.
“If you go anywhere, people respect it,” McCloud said during a winter training break. “We experienced this when we went to the restaurant. It was surreal to see that my trainer is a superstar here.
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