Whittington overcomes lack of confidence, early failures in journey to Kent State

Philip Whittington shoots inside during a ninth grade game for the AAU Hornets. 

Philip Whittington’s basketball career started as a toddler accompanying his dad, Kindell Whittington, to a local Los Angeles gym. 

With a diaper bag in hand, the two spent countless hours on the court. Whittington watched as his father dunked and beat almost everyone down the floor during each possession. 

“I remember watching my dad, and he was extremely athletic,” Whittington said. “I didn’t get my athleticism from him at all. I have my mom’s athleticism.”

Growing up, when Whittington’s father was not serving a tour in the military, the two played every Saturday. 

By the age of 10, Whittington blossomed into a star player. But two years later, Whittington’s height stunted, as did his confidence. 

“I was like, ‘Forget this; maybe basketball isn’t for me,’” Whittington said. “I thought I was going to be one of those kids who was going to relive their glory days from when I was younger, and that would be it.” 

He struggled as everyone passed him. He went from the star to a forgettable role player.

During that time his family moved to Georgia because of his father’s job in the military.

By the age of 15, he had been cut from two high school teams. During the most recent cut, Whittington experienced a new low in his self-confidence. 

An assistant coach at Northside High School told him he should quit trying to play basketball, saying there was no way he’d ever develop into a player able to contribute on the court.  

Whittington was an honor student in high school, but he also enjoyed basketball. After the conversation with his coach, he went home and spent most of that evening after tryouts with his head down saying less than usual. His mother asked what happened, and he told her what the coach said.

She placed her hands on his cheeks.

“You don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do. Do you want to stop playing basketball?” she asked.

“Yeah, I want to stop,” he said.

“Are you gonna be a quitter?” she asked.

Over the next months, Whittington mulled over his mother’s question. 

Growth spurt

In 10th grade he grew from 6-foot-1-inch to 6-foot-5-inches. His confidence grew along with his height.

He made the Northside High School team as a junior, and later that year, he received a scholarship offer from Troy University in Alabama, his first Division I offer. He finished his junior season averaging 14.3 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game and 2.8 blocks per game.

Soon after, Whittington’s mailbox was flooded with letters and offers from mid-major Division I programs from across the country.  

But in the offseason, Whittington felt like he could be better. So he accompanied his father, who had returned from another tour in the Army, to play basketball every day against his friends. Playing against grown men helped Whittington not only develop his game, but his confidence as well. 

“Before, if somebody would come over to me and talk trash, I would listen and just not get into that kind of stuff,” Whittington said. “But eventually, you have to adapt to your environment.”

Whittington’s hard work paid off, and one school took considerable notice. He received an offer from the University of South Carolina Upstate with one of its scouts becoming a regular fixture in the stands during his games. Ultimately, the school’s confidence in him was what led him to choose them over other schools in November of his senior season.

Whittington finished his senior season averaging 17.9 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 3.6 bpg. 

Early College Career

A few months later, Whittington, now 6-foot-8-inches, left for Upstate. His first day there, he met an incoming freshman guard named Tanner Castora. The two were roommates and quickly jelled. Whittington found someone he could work out with and confide in during the transition to college. 

However, he still struggled— both physically and mentally. 

“He was pretty weak,” said Castora, who is now a senior journalism student at Kent State. “I remember the first day we got in the weight room as freshmen. He couldn’t bench 135 pounds. I was a 175-pound guard and I could do it 10, 12 times. He couldn’t do it once.”

Whittington struggled to appease the coaching staff. He finished his freshman season averaging 6.2 ppg and 4.5 rpg, playing 13 minutes per game. 

Castora, unhappy with his own role, transferred to Kent State in the offseason. Before he left, Castora pleaded with Whittington to come with him to no avail.  Whittington decided he would wait and see how his sophomore season went. 

He finished his sophomore season with a slight increase in production, averaging 8.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg in 18 minutes played per game, but he wanted more.

Transfer to Kent State

In the offseason, Whittington started listening to Castora’s calls.

“I saw the differences between Upstate and Kent State, and I realized that this was a place where Phil could really flourish,” Castora said. “It was a complete 180 from what we had at Upstate.”

One month later, Whittington decided to transfer to Kent State. Ultimately, Castora and the construction management major offered at Kent State swayed Whittington to the university.

After transferring, Whittington had to redshirt his junior year thanks to the NCAA transfer rules. While his teammates made a run into the second round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Whittington sat on the bench in warm-ups.  

He transferred into an unsure situation. The Kent State roster consisted of several big men— Adonis De La Rosa (11.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Danny Pippen (8.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Akiean Frederick (2.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg).

During Whittington’s redshirt season, Castora quit the team to focus on broadcast journalism. With the subtraction of Castora and Whittington’s parents over eight hours away in North Carolina, Whittington was alone. 

On top of that, he felt unrecognized because he could not play in games. 

His mother reassured him the coaches couldn’t focus on him because he wouldn’t be playing that season. 

Whittington lived by himself with no friends when he first came to Kent. His mother stayed with him for two months as he got acclimated to his new surroundings. 

Eventually, after much reassurance from his mother, Whittington adjusted and made friends. He started hanging out with more players on the team and getting out of his apartment more often.

On the court, Whittington adapted as well.

During one of his first practices, Whittington went up for a weak hook shot. De La Rosa blocked it out of bounds.

“Get that shit out of here!” De La Rosa yelled in his face.

 Whittington knew he would have to show even more confidence in himself to have any chance of succeeding at Kent State. 

“At Upstate, we weren’t cussing or anything like that,” Whittington said. “When I first got here, I told myself I had to up my intensity. There was no more being passive. Everybody here is way different than at Upstate. There’s a certain level of competitive spirit here at Kent State.”

In the summer of 2018, De La Rosa transferred to Illinois after tearing his ACL in his final game at Kent State. Pippen also suffered a season-ending knee injury. That preseason, Whittington beat out Frederick for the starting center spot.

“I don’t think coach [Senderoff] expected me to fill that role,” Whittington said. “I told myself that was the opportunity I was waiting for.”

During his junior season, Whittington averaged 11.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 1.2 bpg, leading the team in both rebounds and blocks. He finished tied for third on the team in scoring. He also benched 135 pounds 16 times, a school record. 

Entering his senior season, Whittington became one of the go-to players.

Kent State coach Rob Senderoff stressed the team’s focus on getting the ball inside to Whittington this season during the preseason press conference on Oct. 16. 

“We’ve added some more size on the roster,” Senderoff said. “We feel like we’re probably going to pound the ball more inside [with Whittington].”

Whittington understands his performance last season led to raised expectations by the fans and coaching staff alike, resulting in him being named to the All-MAC preseason team. 

He has struggled to string together consecutive effective games this season. He got the flu, which limited him for three games. He did not score in double digits for five straight games. 

He broke that streak on Jan. 30 in a 68-67 win over Akron. He made the game-winning layup with 20 seconds left after sitting on the bench for nearly six minutes.He currently averages 10.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 24.6 minutes per game. 

His confidence to come into the game after sitting for several minutes, and make the game-winning play, sets him apart from earlier in his career. 

He is able to cope with the ups and downs much better than he did growing up. 

“During my redshirt junior year, I was putting everything into basketball,” Whittington said. “I was letting other things suffer a little bit in my life. My early experience with basketball allowed me to realize that I wanted to be known for something other than just being a good player.” 

Whittington focuses on pursuing his degree in construction management. He needs 450 internship hours to graduate in the spring. He kept his post-graduation options noncommital. 

Ultimately, he wants his legacy to be more than a basketball player who struggled with self-confidence. 

“At the end of the day, it’s just a game,” Whittington said. “Once I get my degree, it’ll be nice to drive by a hospital at some point and say that I helped build it and that I’m able to help people.”

Contact Ian Kreider at [email protected].