Before Georgia Tech guard Kyle Sturdivant’s game ignited and helped set in motion the Yellow Jackets’ unlikely finish to the regular season, he already stood apart.
Near the end of Tech’s nine-game losing streak, as the Jackets were consistently getting throttled, coach Josh Pastner brought the team together and named Sturdivant the team captain and, by virtue of that distinction, the template. As the team’s fortunes for the season sank, he wasn’t sulking, but continuing to practice with energy and maintaining his pre- and post-practice routines.
“It wasn’t because he was playing better than anybody else,” Tech associate head coach Anthony Wilkins said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was just the consistency, the dependability. Win, lose or draw, he was just going to be the same guy, bring great effort, and that’s been very stabilizing for us.”
In short, he was being the young man that Gary Sturdivant raised him to be. Gary Sturdivant died three years ago at the age of 49, depriving his only child of the man he calls his hero. However, in the time since, Kyle Sturdivant has lived a life that his father would surely have been proud of.
“It’s like a prophecy,” said Erskins Robinson, a close friend of Gary Sturdivant’s who has kept close tabs on Kyle. “You already know how it’s going to turn out. It’s just about the journey of getting there more than the outcome. So that’s all it is. Kyle is just doing the work that his father instilled into him. And now it’s just coming to be real.”
Gary Sturdivant preached a message of excellence to his son.
“He was like, Man, you’ve got to be a great kid, you’ve got to be great in school,” Kyle Sturdivant said. “It’s not going to be just basketball. You’re going to be great in everything.”
They called each other “Champ.” Gary called his son by that nickname and then Kyle picked it up in response. He read to Kyle nightly when he was a boy. He taught him about stocks and bonds when Kyle was four, Kyle’s mother Madelyn Terry said. Father (and mother) made sure that his Christian faith and service to others were central in his life. He taught him basketball and helped him develop his game.
“I gave birth to him,” Madelyn Terry said, “but I think his father gave birth to him in a whole different way.”
Credit: Kyle Sturdivant photo
Credit: Kyle Sturdivant photo
Father and son’s tight bond at USC
When Sturdivant graduated from Norcross High and enrolled at Southern California, his dad went with him. It caught the notice of his Trojans teammates.
“That’s kind of why it was special,” Sturdivant said. “‘Man, your dad really, like, loves you.’ I was like, Yeah.”
After he died in February 2020 – Sturdivant chose to keep private the circumstances of his passing; a Los Angeles Times report from the time referred to it as “a tragic accident” – Sturdivant transferred to Tech to be close to his family, including his mother, stepfather and grandparents. They have provided comfort and spurred him to earn his business degree, which he is on track to earn.
“Family’s everything to me,” Sturdivant said.
At Tech, he joined a tight group that was on the ascent, spurred by the ferocity of guard Jose Alvarado.
“Every day (at practice) was a war,” Sturdivant said. “I just remember coming to practice, you’re thinking, like, Man, every day it’s going to be a fight in here.”
That tension and drive were catalyzing forces for Tech’s first ACC championship since 1993 and its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Sturdivant backed up Alvarado at the point.
As a junior, with Alvarado in the NBA, Sturdivant ascended to the starting job. He started 28 of Tech’s 32 games, averaging 7.6 points per game with a 73/38 assist/turnover ratio on a team whose primary focus was on Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher. As he continued to grapple with his father’s death, he often leaned on Wilkins, who encouraged him to channel his pain into his basketball craft.
“That’s just kind of how I dealt with it,” Sturdivant said. “It’s a battle daily, honestly, but when I come out and play with my teammates, that’s when my mind is free.”
Slow start to senior season
His senior season did not begin the way he might have hoped. He started the first five games, but then only four of the next 16 as Pastner tweaked the lineup. His minutes fluctuated and he was sometimes uncharacteristically loose with the ball. And, worst, the team did not perform, losing nine ACC games in a row to drop to 8-15.
Sturdivant responded with maturity.
“I feel like whenever people are at that point, that’s when you really have to go even harder,” Sturdivant said. “Because that’s when true champions are made.”
The coaches noticed.
“As coach (Pastner) was trying to figure out what combinations were going to work the best and trying to find a group that can be cohesive enough to play and all the mitigating factors that go into a coach’s decisions with that, Kyle has just been very steadfast and been very process-oriented,” Wilkins said.
It has been the sort of response that his parents taught their only child. Terry, Sturdivant’s mother, shared how she and Gary stressed to Kyle his responsibility to serve others.
“So no matter when he was playing or not, even when he’s sitting on the bench, you have to make sure that you’re trying to encourage everyone else around you,” she said. “And they’re going to follow your walk more than your talk.”
Sturdivant said he tried to elevate his leadership, raising the intensity level and accountability in practice as Alvarado had done.
“We started competing more and I saw guys take it personally,” Sturdivant said. “I was like, This is what it felt like my sophomore year. This is how we play. It’s not cute or anything like that. Like, we’re going to make sure you know who we are. That’s kind of where I felt the shift.”
Sturdivant’s hard work, consistency rewarded
Pastner recognized Sturdivant’s role in that transition, leading to his decision to appoint him captain prior to the game at N.C. State Feb. 4. While the Jackets lost that game 72-64, Sturdivant’s second back in the starting lineup, their improved play signaled their turnaround. Pastner said he did it to give the team a rallying point, basing it on “how he’s worked, his character, what he’s done every single day, his dependability, even during tough times.”
Starting with the Louisville game Feb. 1, Sturdivant has been a different player. He is averaging 32.2 minutes per game and has played 38 minutes or more six times, indicating Pastner’s reliance and trust on his point guard. Over those 10 games, he has contributed 12.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists against 1.6 turnovers per game with a 43.6% field-goal percentage. Until that point, through the Jackets’ first 21 games, he was averaging 18.7 minutes, 6.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists against 1.6 turnovers while shooting 36.5% from field.
“I would tell you right now, Kyle is playing the best he’s ever played in his life,” Pastner said. “As I’ve said, he’s one of the best guards in the United States of America right now. Over these last couple weeks, he’s just been outstanding.”
His confidence is soaring. In the Jackets’ 96-76 win at Syracuse last Tuesday, when he scored a career-high 20 points with six rebounds and three assists, he raised up for a 3-pointer late in the first half perhaps five feet behind the 3-point arc, his feet next to the JMA Wireless Dome floor logo. If he missed, he knew the four words that would be coming out of Pastner’s mouth, perhaps along with an invitation to sit on the bench: “What are you doing?”
He took it anyway, and the shot rattled in.
“I knew (it was going in),” Sturdivant said. “I felt it. As soon as it went off my hands, I was like, That’s good.”
In the final minute at Boston College Saturday, the Jackets led 66-63 with the ball. As the shot clock wound down, Sturdivant dribbled near midcourt, isolated against Eagles guard Makai Ashton-Langford. He dribbled hard to his right, pulling up outside the arc with Ashton-Langford’s right hand challenging. The shot banged in off the back rim, a dagger 3-pointer.
“Just put ‘em away,” Sturdivant said. “Hit ‘em with a kill shot.”
The journey continues to Greensboro, N.C., where the Jackets play in the first round of the ACC Tournament against Florida State. Since the nine-game losing streak, Tech won six of the final eight games of the regular season. While Tech is the 13th seed, aspirations are high, in no small part because of its captain.
“We reference (Eagles quarterback) Jalen Hurts a lot, and he was kind of a case study for us this year about how going through hard things prepares you for your future glory,” Wilkins said. “Hopefully, it can be this week; it can be a cherry on top of that. But even if it’s not, I believe in Kyle Sturdivant. I believe in who he’s going to become, and I’m excited about continuing to watch him grow.”