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Kitchen credits her grandmother for her determination to escape the neighborhood's pitfalls. To this day, Cox is the only person whose advice Kitchen values, the only person who is able to change her opinion about something.
"She's strong, a very stern disciplinarian. It was either her rules, or you get out. And I made it all the way through. A few of us did, many of us didn't," Kitchen says, before breaking into her patented raspy, baritone laugh.
"My grandmother wanted us to have a basic understanding: 'All right, you live this kind of way now, but you don't have to stay here.' Through basketball, I went a lot of places, out of state. I traveled a lot, and saw a lot, and I knew that if anybody out of our family could go somewhere, to another coast or something, I could do it."
But Kitchen firmly believed that the only way she could break free of her neighborhood's smothering grip was to attend a college far from the East Coast. Otherwise, she would be too tempted to return home at the slightest hint of adversity.
So, in the summer of 1996, after three straight years as an all-state basketball player at Newark Central High School, Kitchen packed her bags for California, to attend San Jose City College.
"When Kitch first got here, he met her, and he told me, 'I don't know if she'll ever make it. She's got an attitude,'" Oberg recalls. "But by the time she left here two years later, he wanted her to tutor his class, and he loved her."
Friends from Newark had told Kitchen that she wouldn't be able to hack it at SJCC, that she'd grow fed up with people telling her what to do. She admits that it was an awkward adjustment, but says she refused to allow her doubters to be proved right.
Oberg remembers that Kitchen hit San Jose with a street-tough sensibility that was a bit jolting for mellow Californians. At Kitchen's first meeting with Oberg, she greeted her new coach with the warning, "Don't think I'm gonna kiss your ass." Oberg firmly, but calmly, responded that no posterior smooching was required, as long as Kitchen got the job done on the court. They never had a problem after that.
In fact, Kitchen swiftly emerged as the Michael Jordan of the Lady Jags program. A 5-7 guard with slick ball-handling skills and a deadly three-point shot, Kitchen shattered the school's scoring records, averaging 19.5 points in her 68 games. She was a two-time Coast Conference MVP, and in her second year (1997-98) she carried the chronically dismal Lady Jags to a 34-2 record and the first state championship in their history.
She also made her first, tentative steps as a hip-hop performer in San Jose. Oberg remembers Kitchen going on the school's radio station for an interview, and freestyling a lengthy rap about the team. Oberg, an admitted hip-hop neophyte, was amazed at Kitchen's ability to put together a coherent story that rhymed, with no preparation.
"She's very bright," says Oberg. "When she came here, her thing was, 'I want to play ball,' and she did the other things, like classes, so she could play ball. But, along the way, she got into the idea of getting an education."
In 1998, Charli Turner Thorne was in the second year of her rebuilding effort with the ASU Sun Devils, and anxious to find talent that could step in immediately and help her team. A good friend of Oberg's, Turner Thorne had monitored Kitchen's blistering scoring rampages in San Jose, and knew she could be a big asset to the Sun Devils.
"You could tell she just knew the game," Turner Thorne says. "This kid's been playing on the playground probably since she could walk. She was a great scorer. And it helped that the program I recruited her from was also a very good defensive team and a pressing team, and that's something that we stress."
When Kitchen came to visit ASU, she and Turner Thorne struck up an immediate rapport, and Kitchen was so impressed with the young coach that she nixed all other recruiting stops.
Kitchen's charisma, so evident onstage, also translated to the basketball court. Although she led the Sun Devils in no major statistical categories in either of her two seasons with ASU, she ultimately generated the biggest, most avid fan base. During the 1999-2000 season, Kitchen's boosters created a section in Wells Fargo Arena called "Kitch's Korner," the only example of such fan devotion for an individual player during Turner Thorne's five-year tenure with the team.
Turner Thorne recalls that Kitchen also participated in the team's off-season camps for kids, and was invariably the favorite of the attendees. "She just has the kind of personality that breaks down walls," the coach says.
Kitchen also impressed the coach by adjusting her game, which had always been based on scoring and individual creativity, to accommodate the team. At ASU, Kitchen focused on defense and playmaking, relegating her shooting to the back burner.
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