CEDAR FALLS – Competing with his Northern Iowa basketball teammates during the season-opening Crossover Classic, Antwan Kimmons’ mind often drifted to family back home.
Behind the smile that radiates from the Panthers’ bench to the fearless energy revealed by an aggressive style of play on the court, there was an internal battle only Kimmons’ parents and a few members of the coaching staff could fully comprehend.
“Basketball is definitely an escape for me and it hasn’t been an escape,” Kimmons revealed during a Friday afternoon phone interview before returning to his hometown of Oakdale, Minnesota near St. Paul this weekend.
The UNI sophomore has decided to take an indefinite leave from the team in order to help support his family as they try to manage multiple challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kimmons’ mother, Emmalee Bunch, was a teenager when she began raising Antwan and his older sister on paths that led to higher education. Now Kimmons wants to return the favor and be there for his mom, mentally and physically.
“She’s the reason why I am the way I am today,” Kimmons said. “From having two kids before the age of 18, and to see where we are right now, she’s my hero. She’s my biggest inspiration. She’s got two kids in college and a lot of people can’t say that.”
Once Kimmons returns home, he’ll be able to assist with chores around the house and also support his younger sister, a fifth grader completing online classes, while his mom works for an apartment management company.
“My mom, some of the stuff that she’s going through right now, she needs my help in a way,” Kimmons said. “That’s one of the biggest things that made me make my decision.
“Everybody is going through a lot with COVID and I’m just one of those people that it’s hitting hard. I made the decision to make sure my mental health is good. … I felt like doing this can get me back to where I need to be so I can make her proud and see her smile.”
When the coronavirus arrived last spring, Kimmons took comfort in being able to depart Cedar Falls and help his family. As it became apparent that there would be a basketball season this fall, he didn’t want to leave.
Even though his mom convinced him to rejoin the team, Kimmons’ heart remained in Minnesota.
“Mentally, that (staying home in Minnesota) is what I wanted to do,” Kimmons said. “When I didn’t do that, I think I fell into a pretty deep hole with myself and battling with that decision.”
While Antwan’s parents – including his dad, Anthony Kimmons – remained a valuable support system, he says he never really talked to teammates about his struggles. Eventually Antwan began to open up to UNI head coach Ben Jacobson.
Kimmons also confided in the alumni from his alma mater Tartan High School on UNI’s staff, graduate manager Marc Sonnen and assistant coach Erik Crawford. Their support has been valuable to the sophomore point guard over the past three months.
Jacobson, in particular, was able to provide comfort.
“He’s been telling me to find the good in things and he’s been super supportive of me,” Kimmons related. “The person that controls everything and runs everything, that really helps knowing that he’s supportive of you and he wants the best for you. That’s been nothing but help for me. I couldn’t ask for a better coach, a better mentor, a better person in my life right now.
“He deserves so much that people don’t even know. Coach Jake is a great man and he knows what he’s talking about. Whenever I do decide to come back and be here I’m going to give my all and I’m going to give even more because of all the support that he’s given me.”
Still determined to make a positive impact at UNI, Kimmons realized during the season-opening trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota that he needed to finally make the decision to leave the program that has been weighing on him for months.
“I’m not going to lie, it was pretty difficult for me, but I did it for my teammates, I played through it all,” Kimmons said. “I tried to do my best for everybody. That weekend was kind of one of the deciding factors for me.
“Playing the games, I know I played good against Saint Mary’s (showcasing an improved perimeter shot en route to matching a career high with 13 points), but the first game I feel like I could have played better and I was kind of held back by what was going on. Then the last game I definitely feel like I was really held back from what I was doing.
“I felt like I can’t be the best I can for my teammates and my coaches right now so that really made me make my decision (to return home). I had to look myself in the mirror and tell myself, ‘You’ve got to make that decision.’ That’s what I did.”
Reflecting on conversations with Kimmons over the past few months, Jacobson supported his sophomore point guard’s choice to leave the team while remaining enrolled in UNI’s online classes.
“I am extremely proud of him for his willingness to address where he is at and the decision he has made to spend time at home,” Jacobson said. “Antwan feels good, he is doing well and feels great about the support he has from his teammates, our program and Panther Nation. We look forward to his return to campus at the appropriate time.”
Kimmons eventually wants to get back on the court, but not until the timing is right.
“I can’t wait to play and be back in a place I need to be,” he said. “Whenever the time comes and I start thinking about it more and more, then I’ll have a better idea on when and what.