• Denzel Kennedy of the Valley City State University Vikings (Facebook/Denzel James Kennedy)Source: Facebook/Denzel James Kennedy
From Cairns, Denzel Kennedy is living out his basketball dream as an athletics scholarship-recipient for a US college in North Dakota. He recently received the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' academic excellence award.
Emily Nicol

25 Mar 2019 - 3:51 PM  UPDATED 26 Mar 2019 - 10:13 AM

Denzel Kennedy began playing basketball at the request to join his friend's team, but as soon as he stepped on to the court at age of 13, he fell in love with the game.

Now at 21, he is living out his dream.

Not only was Kennedy selected for the Australian Indigenous basketball team for the World Indigenous Basketball challenge last year, but he is currently studying at the Valley City State College in North Dakota, US on a prestigious basketball scholarship. 

Kennedy, a Kalkadoon man from the Mt Isa/Central Queensland area, moved from Darwin to Cairns in his early teens. During childhood, he played a variety of team sports from rugby league to soccer, and even baseball. It wasn't until Year 7 when his friends organised a basketball competition where he would find his ongoing life passion.   

"Honestly, the only reason I started playing was because my friends told me, 'you’re tall, you should try basketball'," he said. "The reason I continued to play, however, is because I fell in love with the game."

After graduating in 2015 from Cairns State High School which known for its Basketball Excellence Program, the basketball coach of US's Valley City State University team reached out to him, offering a scholarship. 

Although Kennedy's reputation on the court had led him to receive several offers from other schools, he decided on Valley City after consultation with his Mum.

"I decided on Valley City because I knew two other Australians who were already playing there, and my mum felt more comfortable sending me somewhere with a few friendly faces," he said. 

Coming from a large and tight-knit family, where older cousins and uncles were more like big brothers and best friends, the young athlete says that it's the support of his family and community that has helped him get to where he is.

"I won’t lie, there have been times in my career where I have faced obstacles that I doubted I could get over at the time," he said.

"Things like failure, injuries and other circumstances were so heavy on me that I wanted to quit, but my parents — through their support — helped me see the bigger picture."

Growing up, Kennedy says he had a limited connection to his culture, especially his own Kalkadoon mob but has always known his family history. 

"I’ve learned about the past from my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother," he explained. "I think the older that I’ve got, the better my understanding has become and the more active my participation in cultural events and festivities has increased."

"I think that it is so easy for youth today who grow up as inner-city kids to be disconnected from their roots, it’s not until we grow up and realise that there is a lot of pride in where we come from and who we are."

"I think that it is so easy for youth today who grow up as inner-city kids to be disconnected from their roots, it’s not until we grow up and realise that there is a lot of pride in where we come from and who we are.

When I play basketball, when I do well in school, I’m not only doing it for myself and my family, I do it as a representative of my people."

The young player says that he looks up to fellow Indigenous players as role models and he hopes to be an inspiration for future generations too.

"Definitely huge role models for me are guys like Patty Mills, Nate Jawai, Mike and Chris Cedar, Deba George — the list goes on," he said. 

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"In Patty Mills' case — when you see someone who is Indigenous, but also on a large platform like the NBA — he has a voice that can be heard and often he uses that influence to help out the communities that he’s come from.

The same with Nate. I think that it’s awesome to see someone who has seen so much success to give back to their home roots."

"When I play basketball, when I do well in school, I’m not only doing it for myself and my family, I do it as a representative of my people."

Unlike his university peers, Kennedy's studies and other school commitments are also met with a rigorous training regime, which leaves him with little personal spare time.

"I’ll typically wake up around 7-8am and get ready for individual workouts, I’ll get some shots up at the gym from like 9-10am and then head to class. When classes finish around 2pm, it's gym time again," he explains.

"I’ll walk over to the gym and get treatment (icing, heat, massage) in the training room, really just taking care of my body and mending any niggling injuries that I’m dealing with at the time.

"Practice typically starts at 3pm, where we watch [an instructional] film from 3-3:30pm and then we go on court and practice from 3:30-5:30pm.

"After practice, we’ll have a team lift three times a week that goes for about 45 minutes to an hour. Leave the gym around 6:30pm and head to the cafeteria to eat dinner.

"I get home about 8pm, shower, study and do homework for an hour or two, and then play some video games before getting to sleep."

It's not a schedule that suits everyone, but Kennedy is excelling and has just been named a Daktronics-NAIA Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete, an award that recognises students who demonstrate consistent success in the classroom while handling the heavy time demands of being a student-athlete.

Whilst he is enjoying the challenge, Kennedy says that living away from home can be tough.

"The people, for the most part, are awesome and I’ve made a lot of great friends in my time here. I think the biggest difference for me is definitely the weather and how cold it can get here, obviously growing up in Darwin and then Cairns, I’m used to a hot climate, but over here it can get to -30 degrees in the winter here, which is ridiculous! 

I think the biggest challenge is being so far away from my family, and not being able to see them for 10 months at a time. It can sometimes be a tough time not having people to turn when you’re feeling down or not doing well." he says.

Beyond the court, Kennedy says that he would like to follow in the footsteps of other Indigenous players and even explore another lucrative side of the sport. 

"All young basketball players have dreams of playing professionally and that’s great, but I’m happy with just being able to one day be someone who can be looked up to by younger kids and generations in the Indigenous community," he said.

"Away from basketball, I hope to one day be an agent or manager for professional players. I find the business side of sports very interesting and would love to land a job somewhere along the lines of that.

"I want to take basketball as far as I can, whatever that entails," he said. "That being said, I would love to play for the Taipans one day." 


NITV offers more exciting and engaging basketball stories:

Watch Chi-Town, a documentary that follows basketball hopeful, Keifer Sykes on his meteoric rise from Marshall High School on Chicago's West Side to his improbable shot at the NBA.


The award-winning Hoop Dreams provides a fascinating take on ambition, competition, race and class as it follows the lives of two African American boys, Arthur Agee and William Gates, who struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.