Before the start of the boys’ high school basketball season two weeks ago, new Bayonne High School head coach Ben Gamble had no idea what he had in senior forward Koi Kirk.
As practice started, Gamble watched the 6-foot-4 Kirk make his moves around the hardwood.
“I thought he could be a solid player, a pretty good high school player,” said Gamble, the veteran coach who had a long stint as Hall of Famer Bob Hurley’s top assistant at St. Anthony’s and was recently the head coach at the now-closed Marist, leading that team to the Hudson County Tournament championship game in consecutive seasons.
“I honestly thought that he was just an average player,” Gamble said.
Kirk was one of the holdovers from last year’s version of the Bees. He averaged 12 points and eight rebounds per game for the Bees as a junior.
But Kirk was determined to be a better player this season for his final year. He played for the New Jersey Fire AAU program over the summer.
Kirk was overjoyed to see Gamble become his new coach.
“I knew when he was coming, he was going to push me,” Kirk said. “I knew that he was going to demand hard work. I was really excited about Coach Gamble coming to Bayonne. It was so exciting.”
Kirk knew everything about Gamble’s impressive resume.
“I saw the programs that he was with over the years,” Kirk said. “I knew he was with St. Anthony’s for a while. I was getting a chance to be a leader on this team. I am the only junior who started last year.”
So the day after Gamble received his official appointment from the Bayonne Board of Education last June, Kirk managed to get Gamble’s cell phone number and decided to give him a call.
“One of our trainers told me to give him a call, so I did,” Kirk said.
“When I got the job, he got my numbers somehow and reached out to me,” Gamble said. “He said that he was glad that I was now coaching the team and he invited me to come to an AAU game.”
So sure enough, Gamble went to North Plainfield to watch Kirk play in an AAU contest.
“It was very rare to have a kid call me and ask me to come and watch,” Gamble said.
Was the new coach impressed with what he saw?
“No, not at all,” Gamble laughed. “But I knew you can’t teach 6-foot-4.”
Kirk was more than determined to make his presence felt with his new coach.
“I had the confidence to play,” Kirk said. “Most definitely, it was my shot to shine. I have to admit, I was really worried at first. But it was my chance to show my potential and talent. I knew that I just had to go out there and play.”
Kirk did more than that. In his first two games of the season, Kirk exploded onto the scene with two eye-popping performances.
In the season opener against McNair Academic, Kirk scored 27 points and hauled down a phenomenal 22 rebounds in a solid win, Gamble’s first win as the Bayonne head coach. Two days later, Kirk was at it again, scoring 26 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a win over Ferris.
For his efforts, Kirk has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week, the first such honoree in the truncated scholastic winter sports season.
Kirk had no concept of just how impressive his start was.
“No, I actually didn’t,” Kirk said. “I was just doing my job. My big role is to go get rebounds and be a defensive threat.”
As for scoring 27 and 26 in consecutive games?
“I was a little surprised by that,” Kirk said. “But I knew I had it in me. I was definitely going to put my stuff out there. Even if my numbers go down from here, the wins are more important.”
The Bees are currently on a COVID-19 quarantine, so Kirk’s return to the hardwood has been delayed for a week or so.
Gamble was very impressed with Kirk’s first two games of the season.
“I knew he had a lot of rebounds,” Gamble said. “But I was very surprised when I learned he had 22. Any time you’re coaching, you want to see development. You want to see him be a little stronger. But just within the first couple of weeks, I’ve watched his response. I knew he wasn’t a finished product.”
Kirk is determined to continue the hard work that has made him a player to watch for the remainder of the season.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Kirk said. “It’s a blessing. I’m just being humble. I know I still have work to do.”
Kirk has evolved into a college prospect and has already been receiving attention from local schools. He wants to play basketball on the next level.
“That is the goal,” Kirk said. “I may look to go to a prep school and get more playing time to develop. If it’s possible, I may take that route.”
Kirk is a good student, achieving B-minus status. He hasn’t applied to any colleges because of the COVID-19 situation, but he plans to apply soon.
Gamble believes Kirk could be a college player.
“I think he can go as high as [NCAA] Division II,” Gamble said. “He brings some intangibles you can’t teach. He has a nice little shot. He shoots the ball pretty well. He can step away from the basket and hit those shots. In practice, he tries to win the sprints. He asked questions to the coaches. He plays defense and rebounds. He is a 4/5 [power forward] but we can put him at the 3 [small forward]. He can hit the 3 [point shot] and put it on the floor to advance the ball if needed. And he gets very strong looks around the basket. He does a lot of things that a coach appreciates.”
Gamble is also impressed with Kirk’s demeanor.
“I think he’s a polished kid at his age,” Gamble said. “He can hold a conversation with any adult.”
And yes, Kirk is the team’s leader, sort of a Captain Kirk.
“All the younger players look up to him,” Gamble said. “Before practice gets started, he’s out there working, doing things on his own. That’s a good sign.”
And he has a very unique name, like Koi.
“It’s a historical Japanese fish,” he said. “But that has nothing to do with my name. It’s actually my father’s first name. I’m Koi Kirk, Jr., but I’m more known by my middle name Dejuan.”
Whatever the name, he’s made it known throughout Hudson County basketball in his first two games of the season. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com