By: Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
PHILADELPHIA – Mark Heimerdinger forced his team to run the drill every day in practice. The Cardinal Dougherty High School head coach wanted each player to understand that eventually they were going to come across players who were going to be bigger and stronger, and if they wanted to slow them down they were going to work on forcing offensive fouls. So each practice, he had one player drive at another, forcing the defender to sacrifice his body and get them into the habit of drawing charges.
In the Philadelphia Catholic League, with some of the most athletic and skilled players in Pa., it’s a drill that made sense for players to become accustomed to. One afternoon, his star point guard challenged him on why he had to go through it. With 20-plus years of coaching experience in the Philadelphia Catholic League at the time, Heimerdinger was surprised by the contention. The player was Kyle Lowry.
Lowry had already committed to Jay Wright and Villanova University, and believed so strongly in his ability. Heimerdinger had seen Lowry blossom into one of the top players in the state but he knew there was still mentoring he needed to do with his point guard.
He had to explain to Lowry that things were going to change when he got a college court.
“Kyle said, ‘Coach, why am I doing this? I can block anybody’s shot here,’” Heimerdinger recalled. “I said, ‘Kyle, the only problem is that next year a 6-7 kid from Georgetown is going to come down the lane and you’re not blocking his shot so you better learn.’ I think he demonstrates that when you see him play and his willingness to give his body up by either taking a charge or diving for a loose ball. Those are the little things that differentiate him from somebody that may, in fact, be more talented.”
At the time, Lowry was 5-11 and what he learned from Heimerdinger would eventually become a staple of his game. He used to draw charges in the gym on N 2nd Street and on June 13 he finished the postseason with 16 charges drawn and his first National Basketball Association championship as a member of the Toronto Raptors. Those 16 charges drawn were the most in the playoffs by one player and he capped a memorable season with 26 points and 10 assists in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Still, the long road to helping the Raptors claim their first title did not come easy for Lowry. It all started in Northeast Philadelphia. Lowry and one of his closest friends, Shane Clark, who followed the point guard to Villanova, began their careers at Northeast High School. Clark only played one year there before transferring. Lowry played his first two high school seasons there, leading the Vikings to the Philadelphia Public League title game in 2002. He posted 20 points and four steals in a loss to Strawberry Mansion.
After the season, Lowry followed Clark to Dougherty and Heimerdinger was tasked with not only bringing out the raw talent he had but also helping him grow into the leader who would one day lead a team to an NBA title over Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
“What I like to make the analogy to is he was trying to break like a wild stallion,” Heimerdinger said. “He had the talent but he didn’t have the discipline and understanding he needed to maximize his basketball ability. With that being said, I’ve seen a lot of basketball over 40-plus years of coaching and he’s not the most talented person to have gotten to the NBA. I know that there are kids who are two to four inches bigger than him or have more explosiveness and athleticism but never had the work ethic, drive and desire to become successful.”
With Lowry at the point, the Cardinals went 28-0 in Catholic League play over two seasons along with two consecutive trips to the title game. Lowry was a two-time First Team All-Catholic which included being named Northern Division MVP in 2003. Playing alongside Clark, DeSean White, who was a Providence commit, Bilal Benn, who played at Villanova before transferring to Niagara, and Isaac Greer, who played at Chestnut Hill College, Lowry averaged 17.4 points per game over those two years.
His story to stardom is significant, not only from a national perspective but what it means to players in the Philadelphia Catholic League, especially a two-time league MVP in Isaiah Wong. The Miami (Fl.) commit transferred in from Notre Dame (N.J.) and burst onto the scene, leading Bonner-Prendergast to a Catholic League title game appearance in 2018 and scoring 1,281 points in two seasons.
The similarity in paths traveled resonates with Wong.
“It feels great to see I’m on the right path to becoming one of the top players to come out of the Catholic League,” Wong said. “It’s as if I’m emulating Kyle especially since I didn’t previously know he played in the Catholic League. Right now, it’s a great honor to be in the same position as he was. He went to two league finals and I played in one.”
Isaiah Wong (Miami), 2019 Philadelphia Catholic League MVP, point guard for Bonner-Prendergast - PSD Photo by Chip Frenette
Seeing someone like Lowry from the league Wong starred in win an NBA title is the apex of basketball for so many young players. Wong is following a similar path but the connection from having grown up in the same neighborhood as Lowry is something former Father Judge standout Marc Rodriguez can relate to.
Rodriguez, now playing at East Stroudsburg, was the first 1,000-point scorer in Father Judge history and a First Team All-Catholic in 2017.
He was a starter for the Crusaders since his freshman year and that local connection with Lowry has embodied the player Rodriguez has striven to be.
“It’s just eye-opening and gives me a huge boost of confidence,” Rodriguez said. “I live right down the street from Northeast High School and he started there. It’s eye-opening to see somebody that is from the neighborhood and has traveled from a similar high school and become an NBA champion while being a key part of the team.”
#14 Marc Rodriguez (East Stroudsburg), the first 1,000pt scorer in Father Judge history, is guarded by former stand-out Roman Catholic guard #2 Allen Betrand (Towson) - PSD Photo by Kevin Murphy
The success Lowry has had and seeing him reach the mountaintop in the way that he did had a great deal to do with the tutelage he received from Heimerdinger but even the coach who patrolled the sideline for the Cardinals from 1983-2009 admits Wright and the Wildcats staff helped there. “The best thing that happened to Kyle was attending Villanova University,” as Heimerdinger said.
Lowry chose Villanova over offers from Arkansas, UConn and Florida State. While it was a surprising move not choosing the Huskies a year after winning the 2004 national championship, he chose to stay close to home and helped catapult the Wildcats into the national spotlight. Along with Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Mike Nardi, Lowry, then a freshman, was part of the inception of the four-guard offense under Wright that helped Villanova reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.
Nardi, who just completed his first season as an assistant coach on Wright’s staff, was a sophomore when Lowry came into the program but he and players like Ray and Foye could already see the potential he had.
(Video above shows Lowry hitting a three vs. the Warriors during the 2019 NBA Finals)
“I think obviously early on we could tell how talented Kyle was as a basketball player,” Nardi said. “That was at a point in time when Coach Wright was just getting the program started and he needed to get some guys who were talented enough but also competitive enough to want to be good. That was the foundation of who Kyle was as a player. Early on in his career, he just needed to learn how to become part of a team with other really good players. His competitiveness really brought that out of everybody else.”
During his freshman campaign, Lowry started only three games and only made five three-pointers all season. One of those games he started came in the Sweet 16 against eventual champion, North Carolina. He scored 18 points which included drilling a triple with 2.6 seconds left to cut the deficit to 67-66. On the ensuing defensive possession, he chased down an errant pass and had a last-second heave to potentially win the game.
The buzzer sounded just before it left his hand but it was a performance like that where Nardi saw both the former Northern Division MVP’s vast skillset and hidden leadership qualities.
“The year before Kyle came to Villanova, Randy and I were playing the point most of the time,” Nardi said. “When Kyle came, it took a lot of pressure off of us to not handle the ball as much and make decisions for others. Basically, teams had to make a choice in that were they going to collapse and allow him to kick out for threes or were they going to guard him one-on-one and see if they could contain him.”
His sophomore season saw him advance as a leader by being named Second Team All-Big East after starting 31 games while leading the conference in steals (2.33 per game). Unfortunately, the Wildcats season ended at the hands of the eventual national champion once again, this time it was the Florida Gators.
When Heimerdinger was overseeing Lowry at Dougherty, his point guard was one of top players in the Philadelphia Catholic but he was not the leader that many saw calling out plays in the NBA Finals. Wright showed him what it meant to be a leader. Being vocal was a major part but it also coincides with drawing charges and sacrificing his body to help his team win.
Heimerdinger attributes these attributes as crucial aspects of what Lowry needed to learn to make the leap to the NBA.
“That was something that was taught to him by Coach Wright and his staff and it was something that he absorbed and realized was going to a necessary component if he was going to move onto the next level,” Heimerdinger said.
He was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft. Despite forgoing his final two years at Villanova, Lowry immediately found a role, playing in all 82 games for the Grizzlies in his second full season. What he accomplished expands well beyond the basketball court, especially for current players in the Philadelphia Catholic League. Rahsool Diggins was a First Team All-Catholic as a sophomore and helped lead Archbishop Wood to the PIAA Class 5A title game last season.
Seeing a fellow point guard and former Philadelphia Catholic League standout reach the NBA means so much to Diggins, who avg. 17.6 ppg in his second year as starter taking over for another Villanova point guard in Collin Gillespie.
“I think it’s surreal since he came from North Philly just like me,” Diggins said. “He played in the chip two times in the PCL and I’m hoping to do that this year and the following year. It makes me work harder because he came from nothing and became an NBA champion. People thought that he shouldn’t be an All-Star or he’s too small but he’s worked hard to get where he is. It says that I can be who I want to be, just like him.”
#1 Rahsool Diggins, is a rising junior point-guard at Archbishop Wood - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister
Lowry accomplished something that previous Philadelphia Catholic League stars like Eddie Griffin, who played at Roman Catholic and was drafted in the first round of the 2001 draft, and Cuttino Mobley, the 1992 Northern Division MVP at Dougherty who was taken by the Houston Rockets in the 1998 draft, had done before him. He wasn’t a transcendent player during his time at Dougherty but he was a homegrown product and that remains a sole part of who he is. Accolades such as being a five-time NBA All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist in 2016 and now an NBA champion are impressive but giving back to where he came from has meant more to him.
He and his wife, Ayahna Cornish-Lowry, donated $1 million to Villanova in January 2018 to benefit the university’s “For the Greater Great: The Villanova Campaign to Ignite Change.” The donation helped with the renovations of the William B. Finneran Pavilion and for his contribution they renamed the locker room “Kyle Lowry Men's Basketball Locker Room.”
(Video above shows Lowry receiving the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association "Native Son" Award in 2018, giving a tour of his Philadelphia home as well as being accoladed by Villanova Athletics on behalf of his donation to the renovation of the William B. Finnegan Pavilion before playing the Philadelphia 76ers in Jan. 2018.)
That merely scratches the surface of what Lowry has done to make things improve things in the area.
In 2013, he and Ayahna founded the Lowry Love Foundation to benefit underprivileged families and youth in both Philadelphia and Toronto. Events such as basketball clinics, a turkey drive before Thanksgiving and toy drives during the holiday season have been implemented to help develop a sense of community and bring families together.
A pivotal message that Wright shares with all of his players is the idea of “community” and using the platform of basketball to help give back. Nardi knows Lowry has put that message into action and knows it will continue for years to come.
“Coach Wright’s vision and what he wants for his guys is to be a part of the Villanova community,” Nardi said. “You don’t just come here and you’re a basketball player. He wants all of our guys to be impactful in the community. We appreciate that and that’s one thing about Kyle and his foundation. He genuinely wants to give back. He doesn’t do it for any other reasons. He wants to be there for the kids and he wants them to have some of the opportunities that he didn’t have growing up.”
Heimerdinger took a young, scrappy but skilled point guard and laid the foundation for the type of player and person Lowry would become. At the time, NBA champion might not have been in the cards but hard worker and competitor were evident. Lowry has applied those same principles into how he gives back with his foundation. Despite of all of the success, Lowry is willing to help others get the opportunities he didn’t have and Heimerdinger has seen his former pupil do just that.
“The other thing that sticks out about Kyle is his understanding of where he came from and how hard he had to work with love and support from his family and his coaching,” Heimerdinger said. “He has a foundation that actually deals in the monetary aspect of things and that speaks volumes about him.”