By Dan Koob. CREATED Dec 21, 2013
Keifer Sykes came to Green Bay, in part, because he could wear his last name on his jersey.
Born in South Chicago, Sykes was raised to cherish the name and everything that comes with it.
"I saw the situation we grew up in, my brothers struggling and sisters struggling. No one succeeding. And I wanted to make my parents proud," said Sykes.
"The first time I ever met his dad, James Sykes, he was at a game," says Brian Wardle, Green Bay's head basketball coach. "He'd be yelling, 'Man up Keif! Man up Keifer!' He didn't baby him at all, you could tell there was accountability, there was discipline."
James Sykes knew his son would get a college degree if he went to Green Bay to prepare him for life after basketball.
As a 17 year old freshman, Sykes averaged 11 points and 3 assists per game as the nation's youngest starter.
"When I'm off the court, there's a whole different mentality going through my head," said Sykes. "So that's why basketball means so much to me."
He would soon deal with life head on.
The summer after his freshman year Sykes' father died of a heart attack, leaving the youngest of 9 brothers and sisters on his own in Green Bay.
I don't remember what was going through my head at that time," admitted Sykes. "My dad was the only one I could open up to. That was the biggest thing I took from this, now I have no one I'm open to."
"I don't think I reached out to anyone about it."
"[The] hardest thing I've ever gone through as a head coach was getting that phone call that day," said Wardle. "I'll never forget it."
"Coach Wardle told me what happened and all could do was sit next to [Sykes] and be a brother to him," said Alfonzo McKinnie, Sykes teammate at Green Bay and Marshall, where the two attended high school.
Even with McKinnie transferring to Green Bay to play alongside him, Sykes stayed closed off after his father's death. Turning to pen and paper, he'd write to his father when times get tough and emotions too raw.
"How my families doing, how I'm doing, how school is going. Everything I talked about with him from day one."
"I try to do it right before a game so I'm feeling good so it won't be too bad for me emotionally," said Sykes.
His own healing process led him to changes. Taking on more leadership with the team and spending more time talking and watching film with his head coach.
"I always tell him, if you want a coach that's going to stroke you every day, I'm not the guy. [Keifer] laughs and says, 'I know coach'," smiled Wardle. "Because he hasn't gotten to where he is today by being babied. He's never had someone like that, his parents pushed him."
He's learned to embrace his teammates as more than players in the process.
"I call his mother my mom, he calls my mom his mom," said McKinnie. "It was like we were meant to be brothers."
"He's helped me a lot to get through the process and get through college," Sykes said. "It's just weird like it was meant to be or something like that."
"I love him to death," laughed McKinnie.
Once a burden, Sykes now carries his father's life lessons on and off the court.
"If you think about James Sykes and what he stood for, the first thing he'd probably say is 'Keifer, you need to man up now' and that young man really did," said Wardle.