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Estill County: Ex-Estill, U of L player Kiser sees things clearly

In two years living in war-torn Sudan while trying to work with "street kids," Brian Kiser had a front-row seat for the co-mingling of traditional African life with 21st century modernity.

"You'd see a man driving his donkey cart yet he's talking on his cell phone," Kiser said. "I saw that all the time. It was a clash of cultures. It's just the old and the new world colliding."

Basketball fans in Kentucky remember Kiser for hitting one of the most famous game-winning shots in University of Louisville men's basketball history in 1996.

Yet he says the moment that, in a sense, eventually led him to Sudan actually came on the night when his Estill County High School basketball career ended in crushing disappointment.

The old Irvine High School made a trip to the Kentucky boys' state tournament in 1948, but a team wearing the uniform of the consolidated Estill County High School never has tasted the Sweet Sixteen.

The 1991-92 season was supposed to be Estill's year.

Coach Earl Kirby had a veteran team and, in the sharpshooting 6-foot-7 Kiser, the Engineers had an All-State caliber player.

"We started four seniors and our first man off the bench was a senior," Kiser recalled. "We had played together since the seventh grade. That was the time for us to (make the state), it really was."

With Kiser averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds, Estill reached the 10th Region Tournament (the school is now in the 14th Region) with a 22-8 record.

In a first-round victory over Bracken County, however, Kiser turned an ankle and had to be helped off the floor. Sprained ligaments turned out to be the verdict.

When Estill faced Nicholas County two nights later in the region semifinals, the Engineers' star could not play.

Without its star, Estill's Sweet Sixteen dream died in a 71-58 loss to Nicholas County before 6,000 fans at the Mason County Fieldhouse.

The finality of the loss; the state tournament aspiration denied; not being able to play with his buddies for the final time; and the fact that, in spite of a stellar senior season, Kiser had no major-college basketball scholarship offers all combined to leave him devastated.

He says he turned to prayer in a way he never had before as a means to draw comfort.

"I said, 'I'm tired of living my life to be a success in the eyes of everybody else,'" Kiser said. "I want to understand what it means to be a success in Your eyes,' speaking to God."

Kiser's ankle healed in plenty of time for him to try out for the Kentucky All-Stars team that annually faces Indiana's best high school basketball seniors. Unbeknownst to Kiser, Louisville Coach Denny Crum came to the tryouts to scout him.

"I had never played that well as I played in that two-day tryout," Kiser said. "I probably haven't played that well since."

U of L had never even written him a recruiting letter. "After that tryout, that next week, Louisville called and offered me a scholarship," Kiser said.

Kiser says he drew a life lesson in the way it all played out.

"I feel like God was just waiting for me to humble myself, then he was going to open the door of opportunity for me," he said.

At U of L, the question was whether the product of small-town Kentucky would ever get off the bench.

Playing on Cardinals teams with fellow Kentuckians Tick Rogers (Hart County), Alvin Sims (Paris) and Jason Osborne and DeJuan Wheat (both Louisville), Kiser became a key contributor.

With 148 career three-pointers made, Kiser is among U of L's all-time leaders in treys.

As a senior, he averaged 8.9 points and was co-captain of a team that fell to Tim Duncan and Wake Forest by one point in the NCAA Tournament round of 16.

Still, play word association with most Louisville fans and "Brian Kiser," and it always comes back to one shot.

When U of L invaded UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 27, 1996, Crum, the former John Wooden assistant, had never won as Louisville head man on the Bruins' home court.

This time, the Cards were trailing the defending national champions by one point as the game clock ticked toward zero.

"We kind of did a 1-4 set," Kiser recalled. "DeJuan (Wheat) was out front with the ball and, of course, he was the first option; I was the second. I remember the guy playing defense on me almost running away from me to yell at the guy guarding DeJuan, 'It's one-on-one, it's you and him.'"

Reading the play, Wheat kicked the ball to Kiser in the corner.

When his shot hit bottom, Louisville had a 78-76 win.

Kenny Klein, the veteran U of L basketball publicist, said the Kiser buzzer-beater is one of his favorite Louisville basketball moments.

"My only game-winning shot of my life," Kiser said. "I never hit any other. So to do it in your senior year against the defending national champions, that was fun."

As sweet as the game-winner at UCLA was, there were two events in Kiser's life at Louisville that proved of far more lasting significance than anything that happened on the basketball court.

As a freshman, Kiser was in the U of L athletic training room when he met a Cardinals distance runner named Wendy Knight.

"She'd hurt her ankle," Kiser said, "so I was consoling her. Trying to hit on her at the same time. That was freshman year. We dated all the way through college, basically. Got married right after college."

Today, the couple, who are both 35, have eight children, ages 13 down to 11 months. They are home-schooling all eight in a home without a TV.

"We didn't really plan to have a big family," Kiser said. "We've just been very blessed."

It was also at U of L that Kiser got involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"We try to use a lot of U of L and Bellarmine (University) athletes in our work with the high schools and middle schools here in Jefferson County," said Steve Wigginton, the FCA's area director in Louisville since 1987.

From the start, Wigginton said, Kiser showed an unusual dedication to his volunteer work with the organization.

"A lot of athletes are good if you go pick them up and take them to where they need to go," Wigginton said. "'Kise' was the kind he'd get in late on a Wednesday night from a road trip and be at a middle school at 7 Thursday morning to make an appearance."

After his Louisville playing career ended, Kiser went to work full-time with the FCA.

That lasted almost 10 years. Until Kiser was reading a magazine and came across an article that said there "are 35,000 street kids on the streets of Khartoum," he said. "I couldn't get that out of my mind."

For some two years, Kiser and his family, children and all, lived in Sudan.

The country has long been torn by armed conflict between the Islamic-dominated North of the country and the non-Arab, non-Muslim South.

A separate conflict, based in the western region of Darfur, has turned into a full-scale humanitarian crisis.

"The people there were really great," Kiser said of the Sudanese. "Really generous and hospitable. They really valued relationships. I learned so much from them."

Yet Kiser said the poverty, especially the children who were on their own, in the war-ravaged country was jarring.

"When you have as many kids as we do, you realize there are literally thousands of kids all over the world that nobody really takes care of," Kiser said.

"My two best Sudanese friends, one basically lived in an old abandoned chicken coop. The other one lived in sort of the worst neighborhood in town which was mainly made out of mud huts. As an American, we have so much. We talk about our recession, but we are so blessed."

After roughly two years in Khartoum, Kiser said he was informed by the Sudanese government that his visa would not be renewed.

"They didn't really say why," Kiser said. "The work I really wanted to do with street kids or at-risk kids didn't pan out the way I hoped because we weren't allowed to stay."

The one-time Louisville basketball player does not rule out another stint in a foreign country for him and his entire family to work with the underprivileged.

Since the night his Estill County basketball career ended in such disappointment, Kiser said he's always trusted that there is a plan for his life.

"What I know is when you humble yourself, that's when things are made clear for you," he said.