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 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.”
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.”