His father — and mother’s — son — the Kyle Castlin Story

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Kyle Castlin was in calculus class this past October when his phone buzzed.

It was his mom. The Columbia freshman didn’t think anything of it — his mother, back home in Georgia, called to check in most days. He let it go.

Then his phone buzzed again. This time it was a text from Lions’ men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith: “I need you in the office.”

Castlin left for the Columbia Recreation Center and headed for the basketball offices, where Smith was waiting. That’s when Kyle Castlin learned the news he and his family had been waiting so long to hear: after 14 years, an arrest had finally been made in connection with the murder of Rodney Castlin — the man who first put a basketball in Kyle’s hands, his father.

***

Last Saturday night — four months after Kyle Castlin learned of the arrest — the Columbia Lions hosted Penn at New York City’s Levin Gymnasium

For the Lions, circumstances were desperate. The previous night they had dropped a close game to Princeton. The loss put the team at 2-3 in conference play. Another defeat on Saturday would effectively knock Columbia out of the Ivy title race before it had really begun.

Less than a minute in with the Lions trailing 2-0, Castlin — the lone freshman in Columbia’s starting lineup — caught the ball on the right wing. There were still 22 seconds left on the shot clock, but Castlin took a quick dribble to his left and rose into his shot. The 3-pointer was good, and, as the ball passed through the bottom of the net, Castlin held his follow-through. For a split second his arm hung in the air.

The basket sparked an 11-2 run heading into the first media timeout, and Columbia cruised to an 83-56 win. Castlin finished with 13 points, marking the rookie’s fourth straight game reaching double-figures. At 10.3 points per game, he’s currently the Ivy League’s top freshman scorer and, after junior Maodo Lo, Columbia’s No. 2 offensive threat.

Perhaps more important to the Lions than Kyle’s scoring, though, has been the addition of something less tangible.

“He’s got a lot of confidence — a lot of belief,” Smith says. “The other day in practice, the starters weren’t playing well. And he’s the guy that’s emotionally giving them a lift, picking guys up.”

“There’s a lot of guys,” Smith says, “that have what you would call swagger, but his is more than that.”

Kyle Castlin. Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics
Kyle Castlin. Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics

****

Kyle Castlin was 4 years old when his father was murdered.

Rodney Castlin was working as the overnight manager at a Cobb County hotel on Dec. 7, 2000 when two robbers arrived, demanding cash. The clerk behind the desk emptied the register. Then, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution story published two days later, the men demanded to be brought to the safe. Castlin explained there wasn’t one.

One of the men fired a shot into Rodney Castlin’s chest. The robbers fled, and the 36-year-old Castlin died at the scene.

Kyle Castlin had been sitting on the sofa at his old house when the police knocked at the door.

His mother — at the time pregnant with Kyle’s sister — answered.

“She just came in the room and was crying,” Kyle remembers.

More people showed up to the house that night, and Kyle wanted to know what was going on. He asked his mother.

When he heard the news, Kyle Castlin didn’t cry. Instead, he had something to tell his mother: “I have to take care of you and the baby.”

“Just said it so straight-faced,” Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, his mother, remembers. “I don’t know where that came from.”

Kyle Castlin. Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics
Kyle Castlin. Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics

***

Long before he was hitting pull-up 3-pointers for the Lions, long before he starred at Hillgrove High School, even before that night on the sofa at his old house, there had been a mini hoop.

“He and his dad used to play all the time,” Kelley remembers.

“[My dad] basically put a ball in my hand when I was like 2 years old,” Kyle says. “Just playing on that little goal in my home I started to really get a love for it.”

After Rodney’s death, Kelley signed her son up for other sports — football, baseball — but Kyle kept returning to the game he had played with his father.

“After losing him,” Kyle says, “I really wanted to make something real special out of it.”

When Kyle was in the 4th or 5th grade, Kelley noticed a change in her son.

“He just really poured into basketball,” she says.

But also in the 5th grade, Kyle started to develop another interest.

“That was the grade where I was kinda growing — not growing up,” he says, “but, you know, starting to get into girls and things like that.”

“He had a period,” Kelley remembers, “where he started to not think that reading was cool.”

One day, Kyle, who had always been a good student, brought home a C. Kelley was not pleased.

“She kinda flipped,” Kyle remembers.

“It was middle school. It was all about being cool,” Kelley says. “I just told him, it’s unacceptable.”

She had a solution: reading bowl.

“The kids were reading these huge books — you know, Harry Potter books — and then having to participate in a bowl where they were asked questions and they had to respond,” Kelley explains.

She signed Kyle up. He wasn’t exactly thrilled.

“He said, ‘Mom, you know I really don’t want to do that. None of the cool kids are in there,’” Kelley recalls. “And I said, ‘You know what, you don’t have a choice.’”

That, Kelley says, was the “turning point.”

“After the first few times he went, he did like it,” she says. “He started to see that… you can also be cool if you are accelerating in the classroom.”

Kyle never brought home another bad mark. He would finish high school with a 4.23 GPA.

****

Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan knew from the age of 6 that she wanted to be a teacher.

“My first grade teacher inspired me,” she says. “One day I asked her, ‘How do you become a teacher?’ And she said, ‘You have to work hard and you have to go to college.’”

Kelley did both. First she earned her bachelor’s. Then her masters. And then she finished her doctorate. She’s worked as a teacher, a principal and a professor. Last December she was voted interim superintendent of Bibb County Schools.

Back when he was still in high school, Kyle remembers days when his mom would leave for work before dawn and return home at 8 p.m.

“The way she works, it’s just so crazy to me,” Kyle says. “Watching her break her back just to make sure me and my little sister were good — she really inspired me.”

So when colleges began showing interest in the 6-foot-4 wing who averaged 19.5 points per game as a junior, Kyle was thinking about more than basketball: he was thinking about the work he’d seen his mother put in.

“That’s why I wanted a really good education,” he says, “because regardless of if I can play basketball professionally or do something with a career, I just want to take care of her and my little sister.”

In that sense, Columbia was a natural fit. But in another, it was not. When Kyle Smith and the Lions first reached out to Kyle, he had never been to New York City.

The city is not for everyone, and Smith — now in his fifth season as Columbia’s head coach — knew that.

“We’re not gonna talk anyone into doing New York,” Smith says. “You gotta wanna do it.”

It was around the 4th of July when Castlin and his mother showed up in Manhattan for their first visit. Castlin remembers the people. Lots of people.

“It was packed — like it was crazy,” he recalls.

Kyle’s mother, at first, remembers thinking something else: this place was far from home.

“Initially I was taken aback because the idea of him going to New York City,” she says with a laugh, “was really not that appealing to me,”

But she could also sense that the city spoke to Kyle.

“I wanted him to go to a place where he really wanted to be,” she says. “So I started to come around after a couple visits.”

***

It was October of his senior year. For about a month, Kyle Castlin kept his decision a secret. He had made up his mind — he would be going to Columbia — but he wasn’t telling anyone. Castlin had completed his recruiting trips. His original plan had been to announce a decision early in his senior year, before the start of his final high school season. But the days in October slipped past, and Castlin stayed quiet.

His mother and stepfather were confused.

“My parents,” Castlin recalls, “were like, ‘You wanted to commit early. When are you going to decide?’”

That’s when Castlin revealed his plan. He was waiting until Oct. 23 — his father’s birthday.

“He’s the reason I play basketball and inspires me so much,” Castlins remembers thinking. “I just want to wait until his birthday.”

Kelley and her husband Pedro didn’t hesitate.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Kelley says, pausing. “A great idea.”

When the day came, Kyle Castlin called Kyle Smith and committed to Columbia.

***

On the night Rodney Castlin was killed, one of the detectives had told Kelley: “I’m not gonna give up. We’re gonna find the person who did this.”

Two weeks passed. A reward was posted. That didn’t bring any leads. Two months passed. A year passed. Then two years passed. Then three.

For a while it was just Kelley, Kyle and his younger sister. Growing up, Kyle would ask his mom questions about his father. He even learned the way Rodney moved on the basketball court.

“She said that he liked to attack the basket,” Kyle says. “I like to do that as well, so I guess I kinda get that trait from him.”

Soon Pedro entered the family.

“He’s been great since he’s been in our life,” Kyle says. “He treats me and my sister like we’re his own kids.”

“My husband,” Kelley says now, “has always embraced that Rodney has a very special place in all of our hearts. … We talk about Rodney all the time. We have pictures in our house of him. He’s very much a part of our family even though he’s not here.”

Kelley, meanwhile, never gave up hope that there would be an arrest in the case.

“I’ve always held on that one day it would happen, quite honestly,” she says. “I just believed that. I didn’t know when, but I definitely felt like it would.”

Then in October she got a call. It was the same detective from that December night in 2000. They hadn’t spoken in years, but he had good news.

****

When Kyle Castlin arrived at the men’s basketball offices on that day this past October, Smith had already spoken to Kelley. They were worried. How would Kyle — a few months into college, hundreds of miles from home — react to the news.

After learning of the arrest, he dialed his mother.

“Just hearing her on the phone, it was happiness but just the reminder of what [had] happened,” Kyle says. “My mom’s everything to me, so just seeing her sad and stuff, it kind of got me emotional.”

The start of the season was just a few weeks away, but Smith would have understood if the rookie needed some time away from the court.

But Kyle showed up to practice the next day.

“Having gone through the passing of my father, it’s made me such a stronger person,” Kyle says. [The arrest] wasn’t affective on me as bad as I thought it would be…. A couple days in practice I was kind of down a little bit, but besides that I’ve pretty much been kind of fine.”

Basketball-wise he’s been more than fine. He beat out Columbia’s upperclassmen for a spot in the starting lineup.

“He earned the job,” Smith says. “There’s no eyebrows raised in that locker room.”

And midway through Ivy League play, Castlin is on his way to picking up the conference’s Rookie of the Year award.

In fact, Kyle Castlin’s basketball career couldn’t be off to a much better start. But, as he’s well aware, there’s no banking on a pro contract. That’s why the freshman who’s planning to major in business-finance is already showing up for informational sessions when companies stop by campus.

Kelley Castlin-Gacutan isn’t sure where her son will be in 10 years. She could see him being a professional basketball player or something completely different.

But there’s something she’s quite certain of:

“I see him being a great family man.”

Kyle Castlin. Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics
Kyle Castlin. Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics

Columbia needs someone besides Maodo Lo to step up on offense

During Columbia’s 70-61 loss to Stony Brook Tuesday night, one thing became incredibly evident: the Lions need to find a way to win without relying so heavily on Maodo Lo.

Lo, Columbia basketball’s leading scorer, was held to a season-low seven points on two-of-nine shooting. The junior point guard with the sweet shooting touch couldn’t get his offense going as Stony Brook’s defenders did a good job limiting his scoring opportunities.

“People were sitting on him pretty hard, (Carson) Puriefoy did a great job getting up under him and didn’t give him a lot of looks,” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith said. “In on-ball coverage they were pretty aggressive and he’s got to be better in those situations, just knowing he’s a guy they’re sitting on and he’s got to fight his way out of it. But I think that’s part of the process going through it, for him, and he’s gonna have to figure it out for us to get better.”

The Seawolves big men would hedge out hard on Lo every time he received a handoff, not giving him any clean looks at three-pointers. Multiple defenders would meet him in the lane each time he drove to the basket. Lo’s first points of the game came on two free throws with under eight minutes left.

“We had a saying, ‘Everybody has to guard Lo,’” Puriefoy said. “We need to help each other out, we need to have each other’s back. I think we did a great job on him tonight.”

The fact that Stony Brook’s defensive gameplan was so focused on Lo says it all. Columbia’s offense is so centered on Lo that the Seawolves didn’t view anyone else as a threat. The Lions (7-6) have been able to win with him carrying the offensive burden in the past, but other players will have to contribute as Ivy League-play approaches.

“He’s shot some people out of the gym before, like the game against Hofstra (29 points with seven three-pointers) where he just got it going,” Smith said. “He can do that, but that’s a tough way to live. If we’re gonna get better, [he’s gonna need some help].”

Steve Frankoski had a team-high 16 points off the bench on four-of-six shooting from beyond the arc. Cory Osetkowski had a nice first half with 11 points on four-of-four shooting from the field, but finished the game with 15 points while making just one of his last eight attempts. Starting forward Chris McComber was limited to just seven minutes and starting guard Kyle Castlin played well in the first half but spent most of the second half on the bench as Smith needed more size on the floor to contend with Stony Brook’s big men.

“Our frontcourt guys haven’t been able to stay healthy all year, and hopefully we can get there,” Smith said. “Luke (Petrasek) will help us there, Jeff (Coby) will help us there. We’re not there yet so those young guys got to get us there more.”

One bright spot was the emergence of Isaac Cohen, who followed up a season-high 11-point performance in a loss to St. Francis (Brooklyn) with eight points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Cohen had an advantage on smaller guards in the post and even knocked down his second three-pointer of the season.

“This week was our first full week of practice that we’ve had in a while, and I was really aggressive,” Cohen said. “We did a lot of live stuff in practice and I was aggressive in practice and that’s just carried over into the last two games.”

“I want him to be more aggressive and shoot,” Smith said. “He’s getting confident, our goal is to get him to be more aggressive going to the basket.”

An off-night is rare for Lo, who has been excellent all season long. Still, other players will have to step up if Columbia hopes to be successful during conference-play.

Isaac Cohen: Columbia’s cleanup man

Isaac Cohen does all the little things that make Columbia go. (Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin/Columbia Athletics)
Isaac Cohen does all the little things that make Columbia go. (Photo Credit: Mike McLaughlin/Columbia Athletics)

It’s easy to be enamored by the fire power of Columbia’s high-octane offense. But what you don’t see, lost in the frenetic movement and barrage of three-pointers, is all the dirty work done by the Lions’ cleanup man Isaac Cohen.

Cohen’s game-by-game stat-lines won’t “wow” anyone, but it’s the intangibles that don’t show up on the stat-sheet — the screens he sets to free up the Lions’ shooters Maodo Lo and Steve Frankoski; his drive-and-kick ability; the defense he plays against opponents’ best perimeter players and his basketball-IQ — that are the things that make Cohen the quintessential glue-guy every team needs and arguably the Lions’ most important player.

“I feel like I’m the guy out there that’s trying to put everything together,” Cohen said of his role on the 7-5 Lions. “I usually guard the team’s best perimeter player and try to do a good job defensively on him. I try to take a load off the ball-handling for Maodo when guys start pressuring him, try to get Chris (McComber) and Steve and the other shooters some good shots. I just try to blend.”

A 6’4” 220-pound pinball of a guard, Cohen leads Columbia with 4.8 assists per game and ranks second on the team with averages of 6.2 rebounds and 31.5 minutes. The junior nonchalantly shrugs off the burden placed on his shoulders, but his invaluable contributions are not lost on his teammates or his coach.

“He’s perfect to play with, you can’t wish to play with anyone else other than Isaac Cohen,” said Lo, the Lions’ leading scorer at 18.2 points per game.

“He is the jack of all trades. He’s actually one of the best passers and playmakers I’ve ever coached,” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith said. “He’s unselfish to a fault, but he makes so many plays. He’s our best defender, he’s our best rebounder, and he’s all about ‘team,’ again almost to a fault (laughs)… He’s a basketball-savant in a lot of ways; he doesn’t think through things, he just has a really intuitive sense of how to play the game and what to do offensively and defensively.”

The thing neither Smith nor Cohen mention is his scoring, probably because Cohen only takes a shot when it’s absolutely necessary. Through 10 games he has attempted only 27 shots, by far the lowest of any starter, but surprisingly leads the Lions with 56 percent shooting from the field. Smith said he’d like to see Cohen make more use of his scoring ability.

“I do!” Smith said emphatically when asked if he wants Cohen to look to score more. “Like I said, he’s unselfish to a fault. He’s really good in the post, we need to get more catches for him down there. We want to get him going and get him more assertive that way.”

“He’s perfect to play with, you can’t wish to play with anyone else other than Isaac Cohen."  -Maodo Lo (Photo Credit: Tim Sofranko/Columbia Athletics)
“He’s perfect to play with, you can’t wish to play with anyone else other than Isaac Cohen.”
-Maodo Lo
(Photo Credit: Tim Sofranko/Columbia Athletics)

Cohen, on the other hand, sees scoring as his least important contribution to the team.

“I just go out and play, if I need to take a shot I’m not gonna not shoot. But I’ve just kind of been given the liberty to make decisions, the coaches trust me to do what I think is best,” he said. “I just go out and play and whatever happens, happens.”

Cohen sure went out and played in a Dec. 28 throw down against visiting Colgate, dishing out 10 assists, ripping down eight rebounds, scoring five points and swatting three shots while serving as the engine revving in overdrive that powered the Lions to a 69-64 win.

In high school Cohen actually held his own as a scorer, averaging 14 points as a senior at Orlando Christian Prep, but averaged just four points per game during his first two years at Columbia. He said he stopped focusing on scoring as a freshman once he realized the offensive talent that Lions already had, and admitted that not taking on a scoring load makes it that much more important for him to be a facilitator and contribute in other areas.

“Once I got here, just seeing the type of team we have, we have a lot of play-finishers. Steve is a catch-and-shoot guy, Chris is a catch-and-shoot guy, Jeff (Coby) is a guy who catches it and scores. Play-finishers need guys to create shots for them and I found out pretty early in my career that that was something I was able to do. It was something that was able to give me minutes as a freshman and it just carried over [throughout my career],” he said. “Being a guy that isn’t scoring 10 or 12 points a game, I have to be able to be really good at all the little things: defending, rebounding and taking care of the ball, which are the three things our program preaches more than anything else.”

But the truth is, Cohen is the embodiment of the philosophy shared by the entire Lions roster, which is not only to fill your role, but to embrace it. That cohesion amongst the players is what has Columbia playing so well to start the season.

“I think that’s just a testament to how well [Coach Smith] recruits; he picks guys that really want to be here and have great work ethic,” Cohen said. “I think we have 15 guys that are all ‘team’ and not ‘me’ guys, guys that are worried about getting their own [accolades]. We all live together, we hang out together and we enjoy each other’s company. When you love each other like that, it’s easy to play for each other.”

Cohen said he believes the Lions are good enough to win the Ivy League and make it to the NCAA Tournament before his career is over. He’s not interested in a personal legacy being known as Columbia’s cleanup man; instead his career goal is all about the team. “At this point I want them to say that I was a part of two Ivy League-title teams,” he said when asked what he hopes people will say about him at the end of his career. “I think that’s pinnacle of success for this team.”

Whatever the case, Cohen will forever be known as a player whose value was beyond how many points he scored. He will be known as a leader, one who put the team’s needs above his own from the moment he first stepped on the court at Levien Gymnasium.

“He’s grown as a leader through his investment in trying to make the team as good as it can be,” Smith said. “It’s why I enjoy coaching college basketball: you get to see this age group from 18 to 22 and see guys like him really grow and mature. He’ll be just a phenomenal asset to whoever hires him in whatever he decides to do with his life. He’s that special.”