There are certain athletes who simply cannot stay away from the game once they retire as active participants. Count former Gwinnett County high school basketball standout Kai Lambert among them. Though the 2016 Collins Hill grad has played his last game after three seasons of college ball — one at Gordon State College in Barnesville and two more at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., he is already getting a jump on his coaching career while still working his bachelor’s degree as a community assistant coach with the girls program at Collins Hill. He recently spoke with staff writer David Friedlander on such subjects as just how much he misses basketball, the circumstances that brought him back to his alma mater and joining Brian Harmon’s staff with the Eagles.
DF: This is your first coaching job, right?
DF: Did you ever dream you’d be back at your alma mater so quickly with the girls program, much less be involved with a state runner-up team?
KL: No. It actually caught me off guard. There were a lot of schools … that are kind of spread out throughout Gwinnett County and Georgia that I had reached out to over the summer about working with them. None of those really went through. Then, I don’t know why, but Collins Hill was one of the last place on my mind to contact. I never thought of hitting up Coach Harmon because me and him didn’t really talk a lot when I was in high school because he was only there one year (during my high school career). But when I talked to him, there was no hesitation. He put me through the whole process, probably within one or two days. He was excited to have me come help.
DF: So it was kind of one of those situations that came about by accident?
KL: I wouldn’t say accident. It’s more like it was a perfect situation that presented itself.
DF: So you’re getting ready to graduate (college) soon?
KL: I actually haven’t graduated yet. I have about a year left of school. I took this year off. This is my first year not playing basketball anymore. So I just took this year off. And then I figured, as far as this year not playing, … I was going to go ahead and get my foot in the door with coaching because when I do go back and finish (and get a bachelor’s degree), I do want this to be my long-term career.
DF: I guess that even though you knew you wanted to coach some point in the future, is the fact you jumped into it so quickly after stopping playing for good is an indication just how much you knew you were going to miss basketball after you walked away as a player?
KL: Yeah, I had to be around the game somehow. When I go watch my friends play basketball — for example, I have a friend, Jordan Lyons, who plays at Furman. I go up to his games, and I’m sitting in the crowd and I catch myself yelling out stuff, like when screens are coming. It’s like I’m still playing with him. I just knew it was hard to stay away from the game.
DF: It’s almost like you have to sometimes catch yourself heading to the scorer’s table to check into a game.
KL: Yeah, it’s crazy. Even with coaching our girls, it’s like … I can’t wait to get out there and do something, especially when we watched our boys this year. They had a good team, and sometimes, I just wanted to get out there and help.
DF: So what do you think you’ve learned about basketball and yourself during a year coaching in the girls program?
KL: Definitely, the girls game I a lot different than the guys. You have to be a lot more precise about the things that you’re doing on the court because you’re not going to have as many athletes jump up high above the rim. The (girls) game’s played a lot on the ground. So your fundamentals have to been strong, and your IQ has to be on point. So it’s a lot more teaching in regards to that.
DF: Since you were in high school only four short years ago, did you know any of the current seniors at Collins Hill.
KL: I’ve seen a few of them playing AAU (ball). … I’ve worked with Brandon Clay, he does a lot of girls basketball events over the summer and spring time. So I’ve been working for him since I was a sophomore in high school, and I’ve gotten a chance to see some of these girls play before I even … got to meet them this year.
DF: Did that make the transfer from being a male player to being a coach on staff of a girls team easier?
KL: Honestly, I walked into a situation where these girls, from Day 1, … they were all new faces to me. So honestly, I didn’t really get really, really close with (the players), or they didn’t really get comfortable with me until we went to Panama City (Fla. for the Beach Bash tournament in December). They got a chance to really talk to me and see me outside of the basketball court, have a little one-on-one conversations, whether it be about life of stuff that’s going on. And they got a chance to really see who I was outside of coaching.
DF: Do you think there’s more of a trust factor with the players because of that?
KL: Yes, 100 percent. We just ended our season two days ago (with another postseason loss to Westlake in the state championship game), unfortunately. But I already have some of the girls wanting to work out and further their games because they’re hungry and they know that they have something on their minds and they have something to work for next year, and especially with this summer coming up. This is a big summer for a lot of the girls. We have a lot of juniors on our team.
DF: You’ve got one more year of school left before getting your bachelor’s degree. I guess the next step would he to try to finish up your bachelor’s degree and go after your master’s?
KL: I’m a psychology major the last two years, … and I’ll probably try to end up being some sort of counselor. I’ve already talked to the principal (Kerensa Wing) and our (athletic director Scarlett Grantham) at Collins Hill about maybe doing some type of internship when I go back to school or when I finish school so I can stay where I’m a little bit known.
DF: So are you going to finish at Truett-McConnell?
KL: No, I’ll probably start taking classes back over here near my house at (Georgia Gwinnett College) to have as smooth a transition going back in without having that aspect of sports.
DF: I guess that will give you a chance to continue doing some community coaching while you’re finishing up school?
KL: For sure, I would love to continue coaching and working with these girls, especially since we just had a great year. … I just want to see them finally get over that final hump. Even if it’s not winning that state championship, it’s getting them to college because they all deserve to be playing somewhere.