Northwest Missouri State junior Justin Pitts was named the NCAA Division II Player of the Year this week by Basketball Times magazine. He’s a 5-foot-9-inch point guard from Blue Springs South High School.
But he faced a difficult choice when his family moved between his junior and senior years of high school.
Because he isn’t tall and bulky, Justin Pitts didn’t grab much attention from college recruiters while in high school. So he ended up at Northwest Missouri with only a partial basketball scholarship to begin with and redshirted his first year.
When Pitts finally got a chance to play, he made an impression right away. Pitts was the team’s leading scorer (17.2 points per game) and became the MIAA Conference Freshman of the Year. In each of his two seasons since, he’s been the conference Player of the Year and, with one year to go, has already become the Bearcats all-time scoring leader.
But Justin Pitts’ best Bearcats moments might not have happened if he hadn’t faced a tough decision. His father, Reggie Pitts, was working at the Folgers coffee plant in downtown Kansas City. One morning there was an emergency plant meeting.
“They told us what was going on with the plant and how they would save $60 million to consolidate everything to New Orleans,” says Reggie Pitts. “They were going to be shutting the (Kansas City) plant down.”
Reggie chose to transfer to the New Orleans plant. It happened when Justin was a junior at Blue Springs South High and just beginning to come into his own as a basketball player. So Reggie and Dody Pitts were forced to make a decision: Should the bring Justin with them to New Orleans or let him finish his last high school year in Blue Springs?
“He was so close and we didn’t want to pull him from that,” says Dody Pitts. “He was doing good in school and in basketball. So the decision was mutual. He wanted to finish out at Blue Springs South.”
For his senior year, Justin moved in with his best friend, Carl Martin, and his mother June.
“June and I are really close,” says Dody Pitts. “If he stayed, that’s who I’d want him to stay with because I knew she would really make sure he’d get things done.”
If Justin Pitts would have followed his family to New Orleans, Bearcats coach Ben McCollum would not have seen him play.
“The first time I watched him I thought he was going to be too small for us, honestly, then I was like, ‘Let’s bring him and see how he plays with our guys,” says McCollum. “He came up and played with our guys and was as good as any player we brought in.”
But it wasn’t a slam dunk, so to speak, to stay in Blue Springs, according to Justin, as he remembers the pros and cons.
“I already made a name for myself in Kansas City for Blue Springs South,” Pitts says. “I didn’t want to go somewhere and try to prove myself again, which I already had to prove. The cons were leaving my family.”
Basketball was important to Justin, but so was doing things with his younger brother and sister.
“I love being around my family and when they all left me it was pretty hard at first,” says Justin Pitts. “Simple as not even being able to play Xbox with my little brother and just going outside and playing with them. That was tough.”
Needless to say, the decision to stay behind worked out for everybody.
Dr. Rochelle Harris, a psychologist in behavioral sciences at Children’s Mercy Hospital, says there’s potential psychological damage if a teen is uprooted between junior and senior years in high school.
“Their social connection takes a while to establish and cement,” says Dr. Harris. “I think that by the time kids are moving into their senior year a lot of those relationships are established.”
Because Justin Pitts was detached from his family as a high school senior, Harris says it’s almost like Justin Pitts was adjusting a year early to being away from home like a college freshman would. She says she has seen cases like this.
“What I know is that the parents who early on recognize that they have a limited time with their teenager, in which that teen can learn the skills that they need to problem-solve independently, those teens will do better,” says Dr. Harris.
Coach Ben McCollum believes that senior year made Justin stronger mentally when he arrived on campus at Northwest Missouri.
“Some kids by what you would think is unbelievable backgrounds, two-parent home (who) do everything for their kids, a lot of times those kids have a lot less confidence because they never accomplished anything on their own,” says McCollum. “Whereas, Justin and those guys have a natural confidence because they’ve had to accomplish things on their own.”
This year, the Bearcats with a 32-1 record are trying to become the first team in NCAA Division II history to win a football and basketball national championship in the same school year. They’re in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for a national quarterfinal game on Wednesday against St. Thomas Aquinas College of New York.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.