EL PASO, TEXAS (KTSM) – At just 16 years old, Chapin super sophomore KJ Lewis already has a legitimate claim to being the best basketball player to ever come out of El Paso.
The 6’4 guard harbors realistic NBA dreams, and though its still early in the process, Lewis is all in.
At a church gymnasium in the shadows of the Franklin mountains in northeast El Paso, you can find Lewis honing his craft.
Rated by ESPN as a Top-25 sophomore in the entire country, KJ already has scholarship offers from powerhouses like Kansas and Texas. His life could change drastically, and very soon.
“I’ve had 20 of my former players that played or are still playing in the NBA. You look at KJ and you don’t think of it as a reality, but the thing is, it is a reality,” said James Stafford, head coach of Lewis’s 16U AAU team, Drive Nation.
For Lewis to get there, he’s learning that it will take more than just hours in the gym; it will take true sacrifice.
“I think he’ll look at it as the price he paid for his dream, to bring his dream to fruition,” says his mother, Monica Ramirez.
After Chapin’s Sweet 16 loss in the 5A playoffs, Lewis walked off the court in Andrews, Texas, and straight in to uncharted waters.
His Dallas-based AAU team, Drive Nation – A Nike-sponsored team run by six-time NBA all-star Jermaine O’Neal – was beginning its season. His mother works full time as a counselor at Burges High School, so the family had a decision to make: spend thousands of dollars shuttling KJ back and forth weekly for practices and games, or move him full time to the metroplex.
“At first it was like I wanted to do it, and I was excited to do it,” Lewis said.
With everyone in agreement, Lewis left for Dallas by himself to live with coaches and teammates, furthering his basketball dreams, while still enrolled in Chapin’s remote learning program.
“I’m gonna look at this time in my life and say I had to do what I had to do. It’s obviously for the best,” said Lewis.
KTSM made the trip to Dallas to see KJ’s new life firsthand — a life 650 miles away from home. At just 16 years old, Lewis has been handed immense responsibility.
Separated from his family during a pandemic, it’s up to him to keep his GPA above a 3.0, while at the same time leading a group of some of the nation’s top hoops prospects.
“You’re not home and I’m not there to help you get to where you need to be and do the things you need to do,” said Ramirez. “But, there’s no complaining and there’s no expectation for me to come save the day, it’s just like I know I have to go through this.”
The situation has weighed on Lewis. He’s dropped 10 pounds, been home sick, and like many students during the COVID era, he’s figured out he’s better as an in-person learner.
“I don’t think most kids can be away from their parents as long as I am with my mom,” KJ says. “It takes a toll on your body and your head.”
“It’s stressful for the kid,” said Chapin head coach Rodney Lewis. “People think it’s glorious because he’s getting the press and attention, but it comes with a price.”
That price now, may come with a huge NBA payout later.
“Having a former NBA player Jermaine O’Neal tell me that I have what it takes to get there, and the little details he helps me with, it’s crazy and humbling,” said Lewis.
As a top-25 recruit in the nation, KJ’s NBA dream is more like an attainable goal now. He’s already at peace with the sacrifices he’s making as a teenager to get to where he wants to be, but he and those around him haven’t lost sight of one big fact: he’s only 16, and still getting the chance to just be a kid is important to keep him grounded.
“The expectations are tough on these kids when they’re great at a young age,” said Rodney Lewis.
“You look at them and see what they can do and how gifted they are from a basketball standpoint, you forget that they’re just kids at the end of the day,” said Drive Nation coach, James Stafford.
This is an important summer for the teenage phenom with nearly a dozen Division I scholarship offers. In addition to playing on the high-level circuit, he’ll attend the prestigious Pangos All-American Camp in Las Vegas, with NBA teams in attendance.
We want to make the right decision now,” said Ramirez. “All of it is about making the best decision for your future.”
His mother makes a point of attending all of his games, and Lewis has made brief trips to El Paso recently; but the majority of the last two months, he’s been on his own showing a maturity beyond his years.
“I’m proud of KJ, and not for the basketball part,” said Chapin’s Rodney Lewis. “For him to just want to stick to it.”
“I’ve seen my son do some things that have had my mouth open,” added Ramirez.
His NBA dream could be coming into focus in less than four years, and it’s this time of his life, with his family as his motivation, that keeps Lewis going.
“She’s doing everything she can for me and I really appreciate her,” said Lewis of his mother and sister. “I’m trying to be the best person for her and for myself and trying to have a better future for my family and my grandkids and their kids.”
Players of KJ’s stature often take their talents to prestigious prep schools, but Lewis is already locked in to return to Chapin for his junior season next winter.
If the last two years are any indication, enjoy the show while you can.