Kobe King returns to college basketball with Valpo nearly two years after leaving Wisconsin Badgers

Kobe King scored a team-high 19 points in 23 minutes off the bench in his Valpo debut on Tuesday. courtesy of Valparaiso athletics

On Tuesday night, Kobe King scored seven quick points in the first half during a 14-0 run in Valparaiso's 101-58 win over East-West University (Chicago). King hadn't played in a college basketball game in nearly two years.

"It felt good," said King, who finished with 19 points (9-for-13 on field goals). "It felt very good. My adrenaline was high. I just wanted to be out there and wanted to be with my teammates instead of going at them in practice."

The last time King, 23, had stepped onto a basketball court for an official game was Jan. 24, 2020. It was his final contest at Wisconsin, the school where he averaged 10.0 PPG in his junior season before a controversial midseason departure.

It had been a turbulent ride for King since that night, a loss to Purdue at Mackey Arena in which he played 27 minutes of a 70-51 loss.

His exit from Madison preceded the departure of former Wisconsin strength coach Erik Helland, who resigned after admitting he used a racial slur around players. At the time, a source told ESPN that King had expressed concerns about Helland's treatment of minority players in the past.

King said he had to turn off his phone and remove its social media apps amid reports that he'd alerted school officials about Helland's actions, and had plans to use the incident to gain immediate eligibility at his next stop. King later told the Wisconsin State Journal, in his explanation of his departure, that he'd been frustrated with Badgers coach Greg Gard, too.

King says now he'd already decided it was time to leave Wisconsin at the time of the incident with Helland.

"There was a whole situation where something did happen [with Helland], but I had already decided to step away before that was even a thing," said King, who added that he doesn't have any animosity toward the former Wisconsin strength coach.

He said he had been questioning his future for some time when a tough stretch solidified those feelings. On a bus ride that followed Wisconsin's loss at Purdue, King said he knew he needed a change.

"What people don't fully understand is that it's not like I was really playing bad," King said. "That just even shows more of my headspace. I just wasn't enjoying it. And that was kind of my turning point where I have to, at least, even if I don't fully leave, I have to at least step away from it for a little just for my own sake and even for the team's sake, too, because you don't want a dude within the team that's thinking the way that I'm thinking [at the time]. So I've got to take care of my health first, as everybody should."

A month after leaving Wisconsin, King committed to Nebraska, but then COVID-19 arrived and changed the world. Last summer, King decided to decommit from Nebraska amid the uncertainty. King said he was lost after he'd made that choice and wasn't certain he still loved basketball.

That's when a high school friend called him and invited him to live with him in Mankato, Minnesota, while King tried to plot his next move.

King accepted the invitation and spent six months in a college town about 90 minutes south of Minneapolis, where he gained a new perspective after working a job with a furniture moving company in the Minnesota winter.

One subzero day stands out to him.

"It's minus-30, minus-40 and we've got five stops, so it's going to be an easy day," King said. "[At one house], we've got two king mattresses and they're going up to the top attic and they're frozen solid, and I'm in a pool of sweat on back-to-back stops. We get to that third stop and the customer is an hour-and-a-half late. ... Man, it had been a day. But again, it was good for me."

In Mankato, King enjoyed life without basketball. There was no pressure to talk about his future. There were no tweets from angry fans to consider. King said his time in Mankato helped him realize he wanted to take another shot at basketball.

He hired an agent and decided to enter the G League earlier this year. But he was not selected in the G League draft. That's when he looked at his options to return to college basketball.

He was familiar with Valparaiso. Head coach Matt Lottich had recruited King in high school. And two of his former Wisconsin teammates, Trevor Anderson and Joe Hedstrom, were on the roster, which made him feel comfortable.

King was granted an NCAA waiver to play but had to miss nine games because he'd hired an agent while pursuing the G League.

When King reached campus, Lottich says he wasn't convinced he'd recruited the same player he'd watched at Wisconsin.

"When he got here -- he got here in the summer -- kind of his first month, I'm like, 'This kid averaged 14 points per game in the Big Ten? What?'" Lottich said. "And then all of a sudden, you could just slowly see that rust coming off. He just does so many things to help you win games."

A wild journey led the former Wisconsin standout from a tough chapter at his former school to Tuesday's night appearance with Valpo in his first game in nearly two years. King said he doesn't have any regrets.

"It's been amazing," King said. "Just going through everything that I went through to get to this point, I think, this made me, overall, a better human being, which only helps with basketball. I really didn't even know if I was going to end up playing, if I was going to have the opportunity. Right away, I didn't even know if I wanted to, so to be able to find my love and drive for the game that's been a part of my life for so long ... it's a great feeling."