PHILADELPHIA — It’s a selfie in the City of Brotherly Love that Villanova’s Kris Jenkins and North Carolina’s Nate Britt won’t ever forget. There’s a chance for an even better photo if the brothers both reach the NCAA championship game next Monday.
After the Tar Heels punched their ticket to the Final Four on Sunday night, Britt went to the stands and found Jenkins to celebrate. A day earlier, Jenkins became the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player for Villanova and surprised his brother by attending the Tar Heels’ game.
Britt and Jenkins couldn’t stop smiling as they hugged and snapped pictures. For years, they dreamed of playing each other in the NCAA Tournament, ever since Britt’s parents became Jenkins’ legal guardians in 2007. They’re two wins away from that happening on the ultimate stage and giving the NCAA Tournament its own Harbaugh Bowl.
“It’s a dream come true if it happens,” Jenkins said. “As kids, we used to watch this growing up, so to be a part of it and be two games away to play for the national championship, it’s something special.”
Nate Britt and Kris Jenkins, brothers, so so close to facing each other in the national championship game pic.twitter.com/Eld4BaJ82B
— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 28, 2016
Jenkins and Britt, both juniors, came into each other’s lives ironically enough at a final four. They met in the semifinals of a 10-and-under AAU semifinal game at a tournament in Florida. Britt played for D.C. Assault, a prominent AAU team coached by his father Nate Sr., and beat Jenkins’ team from South Carolina.
Nate Sr. said nine months later he got a call from Jenkins’ father Kelvin, who had been trying unsuccessfully for a while to get Nate Sr.’s phone number. Jenkins’ family was traveling from South Carolina to a hospital in Maryland for several months because their daughter was sick and wanted Jenkins to work out with Nate Sr.
“His dad said, ‘I have a son named Kris and you might not know him, but I want him to work out with you,’” Nate Sr. said. “I said, ‘I know exactly who your son is.’ Every player knows a player.”
After Jenkins worked out with Nate Sr., the visits soon became more frequent and the requests became greater.
“Then (Jenkins’ mother Felicia) asked if he could play on our AAU team so he did,” said Melody Britt, Nate’s mother. “Then she asked if he could stay for the summer so he did. Then they came back up and said they were going to move into the area and could we just keep Kris, and we’re like, sure, we’ll keep him. And then they came up again and plans on their side weren’t working well and could we keep him a little bit longer, and we did. Then she called back to say, ‘I need you guys to take care of him. I need you guys to have him.’”
Melody said Jenkins’ family had “private issues” they were dealing with at the time. Jenkins said his mother believed he would be better off academically and athletically by living with the Britts in Maryland than staying in South Carolina.
According to a 2013 article in The Washington Post, Felicia Jenkins was an assistant basketball coach at Claflin University in South Carolina and used to run Jenkins through repeated basketball drills.
“Anything he didn’t like as a kid, I gave him a lot of it,” Felicia told The Post. “He didn’t like to run and do push-ups, so I made him do push-ups and run. He hated shooting bank shots because they didn’t look cool, so I made him shoot 500 bank shots a day.”
In addition to helping Jenkins in basketball, Nate Sr. said he told Jenkins’ parents he could help their son develop a plan academically to get a college scholarship.
“When somebody reaches out to you and they want to give you their child, they’re crying out for help for something,” said Nate Sr., who recently retired as a Washington D.C. police officer. “The way I looked at it, at that point, I couldn’t say no. We had to try to work it out.”
Jenkins, who said he still talks to his parents every day, figured his mother would eventually change her mind. That never happened and the Britts became Jenkins’ legal guardian.
“It was tough at first, but as a young kid you don’t understand anything until you grow up and look back on it,” Jenkins said. “The Britts and the whole entire family, they accepted me as one of their own. It’s something that affected my life in a positive way and I’ll always be thankful for it.”
Britt, a reserve guard for the Tar Heels, tells people he has both a sister and a brother. “Most people didn’t know Kris is my brother,” Britt said. “Well, he’s my god-brother technically, but he’s my brother. We’ve created a bond that’s pretty much unbreakable. … I don’t think I’ve played against him (five-on-five) since I was 10 or 11. When we play pick-up, we’re always on the same team because we have this chemistry together.”
When Britt and Jenkins were committed to their respective colleges as high school seniors, North Carolina defeated Villanova in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The house was so divided that Melody Britt had to go upstairs as the boys watched.
“At that point they knew there could always be a possibility they meet up in the tournament,” Melody said. “They kept foreseeing that maybe it could happen, maybe it could happen. Every year we thought maybe they’d meet up, hoping they wouldn’t meet up until the end.”
As their teams advanced this NCAA Tournament, Britt and Jenkins talked almost every day. When North Carolina played a day earlier than Villanova in the first two rounds, the pressure was on Jenkins to match Britt. The pressure reversed to Britt for the regional rounds with North Carolina playing a day after Villanova.
The daily game schedule allowed for an insane travel itinerary for Melody and Nate Sr., who went back and forth between Philadelphia and Louisville to see both kids play a total of four Sweet 16/Elite Eight games.
Wednesday: Fly from Baltimore to Louisville.
Thursday: Watch Villanova’s win over Miami as Jenkins scores 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting — including a ridiculous 40-foot shot — and grabs nine rebounds.
Friday: Fly from Louisville to Baltimore, pick up the car at the airport and drive to Philadelphia. Watch North Carolina beat Indiana as Britt collects seven points, four rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes.
Saturday: Get up early and drive 10 hours to Louisville. Arrive shortly before the tip-off and watch Villanova win the South region as Jenkins scores 13 points and helps hold Kansas star Perry Ellis to four points.
Sunday: Get up early and drive 10 hours back to Philadelphia. Watch North Carolina win the East region with Jenkins, who flew home with the Villanova team, as Britt scores four points in 13 minutes. Nod your head knowingly as another North Carolina mother says, “Get some sleep,” following 20-plus hours in the car over two days.
“It cost too much,” Melody said, shaking her head and looking bleary-eyed. “We’re totally broke! That’s why we had to drive instead of fly! It’s a stretch when you’re trying to see two different kids in two different areas.”
The costs will still be high this week, but at least the travel itinerary gets easier. Everyone plans to be in Houston for the Final Four for a big family affair, including Jenkins’ parents.
“I’m speechless. It’s just the coolest thing,” Nate Sr. said. “This is something the kids talked about when they were younger, when I was waking them up going to the gym at 5:30 Saturday morning, Sunday morning working them out, and I’m telling them this is what it takes. We’d always watch March Madness and they’d always talk about, ‘What if we met?’”
Now these basketball players and brothers are two games away from the mother of all NCAA Tournament selfies.
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