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Kevin Alter – the heart of a lion

Special to So Much Sports Baltimore from One-Bid Wonders

By: Sam Perkins

Kevin Alter might be the shortest player in college basketball but he's never let that stop him from playing the game.

Kevin Alter might be the shortest player in college basketball but he’s never let that stop him from playing the game.

Simply put, Kevin Alter is short — really, really short. At a listed 5-foot-6 and 148 pounds, the native of Rumson, New Jersey, is dwarfed by the average, everyday American male (5’9” and 195.5 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). On the hardwood, Alter is a Lilliputian — quite possibly the smallest player in all of Division I basketball.

But when he walks into the locker room, sets foot on a practice court, or stands at the center of a huddle, he is a giant in a game played by giants. And if there was a measure for the size of a player’s heart, Alter’s might be the biggest in all of basketball.

“He’s got the heart of a lion,” raves Navy head coach Ed DeChellis. “Any time there’s any issue, any time anybody’s got a question, they go to Kevin Alter,” the coach continues, before emphasizing, “And when I need something done with the team, I go to Kevin Alter.”

DeChellis’ assessment is of a player who has averaged just 2.5 points, 0.5 assists and 8.2 minutes over his four-year career, and who is currently averaging a career low six minutes per game, might seem like a coach simply trying to play to the crowd. But DeChellis, a basketball lifer who has spent the past 18 years as a Division I coach, with previous stops at East Tennessee State and Penn State, and who just last year exclaimed after a loss, “I don’t think we could have beaten four nuns and a priest,” has never been one for coach speak or anything other than the blunt, honest truth.

“There’s nobody that I respect more than Kevin. He’s got a level of toughness about him that’s very special,” says DeChellis, speaking directly from his heart.

And those suiting up alongside Alter echo the high praise heaped upon the small reserve guard by his coach.

“Kevin might be tiny, but he has the biggest presence on the team – when he talks, everyone stops and listens,” echoes Alter’s fellow senior Worth Smith.

“I’ve never known someone who worked harder at anything in life than Kevin does every day, every practice,” says senior Brandon Venturini.

When you first meet Kevin Alter, you are blown away by two things: One, the dude really is short. The first time I walked past him in the lay-up lines at the Agganis Arena last season, I literally looked downward at him, and I check in at a whopping 5’8” ½”.

“I would say, in all honesty, I’m a confident 5-foot-6,” he laughs.

Confident is right.

As soon as Alter begins to talk to you, you instantly forget about his physical stature — his personality is so large that even even the most cavernous arenas can’t contain it.

Alter addresses every person as “Mr.” or “Ms.” and every answer he gives includes a “yes sir,” or “no sir.” Yet despite adhering to staunch military protocol, he exudes personality and laughs often when talking in an informal setting.

“I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me; it means a lot,” he says before a single question has been asked. Black and white words printed on a page cannot begin to do justice to the energy and enthusiasm that ooze from every word — the kind that are impossible to fake — and within five minutes of talking to him, you feel like he’s been your buddy for your entire life.

“He has that magnetism that draws everybody towards him,” says DeChellis.

According to DeChellis, Smith and Venturini, it’s that personality, that magnetism, that has made Alter a unanimous selection by his teammates as team captain, and the undisputed voice in the locker room. That, along with an unmatched work ethic.

“Unbelievable person; unbelievable work ethic,” says DeChellis. “It was unanimous,” the coach explains of Alter’s captaincy, “that’s the kind of person he is.

“He can be firm, he can be tough with the guys, but they all love him because he works so hard.”

For his part, Alter’s explanation of his work ethic is simple, and it revolves directly around his height.

“The one thing for me is I have to bring it every day. There are no days I can afford to take off just because of my size. I just have to bring it every day and play as hard as I can every second I’m out there,” he says. “I think it’s really been a blessing for me, because no minutes are guaranteed for me so I have to come in and play hard.”

But why basketball? With his quick feet, great hands, toughness and “separation speed” as DeChellis calls it, one could easily see Alter excelling as a second baseman or small-college wide receiver.

According to Alter, the answers lie in his childhood back home in Jersey.

“I grew up in Rumson, New Jersey, down by the Jersey Shore – home of Bruce Springsteen as we like to say,” he says, unable to contain yet another laugh.

“Two great parents and one older brother and they had a huge influence on how I try to carry myself and hold myself accountable,” he says.

According to Alter, he played both baseball and football, along with basketball, as a kid, but he chose basketball in high school for two reasons: He loved the game, and everyone told him he should play another sport.

“I treated it as a challenge,” he says. “A lot of guys would be saying, ‘Why are you sticking with basketball? You should be playing baseball,’ but in a lot of ways I took that as a challenge and would play with a chip on my shoulder.”

After spending his first two seasons on the sub-varsity at Rumson-Fair Haven High, Alter finally made the varsity squad as a junior, and played his best basketball down the stretch as a senior, earning first-team all-conference and all-state honors and setting his high school’s all-time record for career 3-pointers, while leading R-FH to the first conference tournament final in school history. In the championship game, Alter scored 24 of his team’s 35 points on the night.

Alter’s ability to shoot the ball from long range, and his work ethic, earned him an offer to play at Navy, something he had wanted to do for some time.

“My high school coach made a huge influence on my career and my life and why I came to Annapolis: He always preached honesty and accountability and hard work. When I came down here on my visit it was a no-brainer, just in terms of the standards the school holds and the leadership qualities and traits that are bestowed upon the midshipmen here,” he says.

The opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, William Alter, a member of the Annapolis Class of 1954, also played a large role in his decision.

“I really admired him and respected him and he definitely had a big influence on it as well.”

Alter started the first game of his college career, becoming just the third Navy freshman to ever start the season opener at point guard. It was also the last time he ever started a game for the Midshipmen.

“It definitely was a challenge at first, going from playing a lot my last years in high school,” he says of his spot playing time throughout his career. “But the way I saw it and the way I’ve tried to play is to do whatever it takes to help our team win.”

And according to DeChellis, no matter what the stats say, Alter has been a difference maker for the Midshipmen.

“He works really, really hard. On the floor, before practice, after practice,” DeChellis says. “He has some limitations, but if we need to make a shot at the end of games he’s as good as there is. He’s won some games for us, he’s brought us back in some games. He’s got great separation speed, he can get away from defenders and he can knock it down from behind the arc.”

Alter played just 10 minutes total in the Midshipmen’s first two games of the Patriot League season, with a lone assist as his only statistic from the pair of wins. And in their third league contest, a 70-64 loss against Boston University on Jan. 7, Alter spent all 40 minutes watching from the sidelines.

But ask Alter about his experiences and he’ll tell you that he’s having the time of his life and loving every second of it.

“Whether I’m playing five minutes, 20 minutes, or no minutes — if I’m not playing — I’ll be the best cheerleader I can be rooting my guys on,” he says.

An outstanding student, Alter has been named to the Superintendent’s List four times and to the Commandant’s List six times. He will graduate with a degree in economics in the spring.

“He’s a kid who can literally do anything he wants in life once he sets his heart on it,” says DeChellis.

So what will Alter do with the rest of his life once his career is over?

“Just found out in November on Service Selection night. I was fortunate enough to get my selection: I chose United States Marine Corps,” he says, his energy hitting yet another decibel level.

“He’s going to make one heck of an officer and I’m glad he’s on our side,” says DeChellis proudly, but with a hint of sadness in his voice at the prospects of a future that will not include Alter by his side.

Photographs courtesy of Phil Hoffman.

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