Rochester, Mich. -- You know the old phrase about the meek, right?
That they'll take your money, dignity and soul on a basketball court if you're not careful?
Well, it's true. And the calm, subdued, smiley, gritty 5-foot-9 star at Oakland University who found his game on the playgrounds of Detroit, not the air-conditioned gyms in the suburbs, proves as much.
Every time he enters a game, Kahlil Felder lies.
Not blatantly, but with his mannerisms and humility. He seemed sheepish and shy during a conversation in a back room of the Athletics Center O'rena in Rochester last month, not the tenacious terror who leads the country in assists per game (8.8) and stands among the top five nationally in points per game (25.6).
Now, he's angling to end the year as the first player in modern college basketball history to lead the nation in both points and assists per game (national leaders in assists weren't tracked nationally before 1984, according to ESPN Stats & Info).
"I thought he could do both," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "I didn't think it would be in the same year."
The junior ruined high-major programs throughout November and December. That's why NBA scouts traveled to a half-empty BB&T Arena in Highland Heights, Kentucky, on Monday night to watch Felder lead Oakland to an 85-74 victory over Northern Kentucky with his potent blend of marvelous drives, Temptations-cool dimes and step-back jumpers.
"Yes he does [have a chance]," one Eastern Conference scout said about Felder's NBA dreams.
He walks around campus in a letterman jacket that hugs the shoulders of his tailback frame. But he's not the flamboyant personality so many talented athletes become over time. He's just another player -- until you ask him about the schools that overlooked him. The power coaches who thought the prep star from Pershing High School (Detroit) could one day guide their programs -- if he grew. But he didn't grow. So Kampe grabbed him while he could. And Felder decided to destroy the doubters.
That time in December when he recorded 38 points, nine assists and six rebounds in a 97-83 road win over a Washington squad that entered the week with a 6-3 record in the Pac-12, one game behind league leader Oregon?
"That day, I didn't think that there were too many point guards in the country better than him," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "He was very good."
Three evenings after torching Washington, he finished with 37 points, nine assists and three rebounds in a 99-93 overtime loss to then-No. 1 Michigan State.
"I just know when I see those high-major schools or whoever didn't recruit me, I'm going after them," Felder said. "I always play with two chips on my shoulder. That moment was big for me. My whole family was there. So much green and white in the stands. It was a crazy and ferocious atmosphere. I was so tuned into the game that I blocked everything out. They were the No. 1 team in the country at the time. Why wouldn't you want to take out the No. 1 team? We haven't beaten them yet. But it will happen."
There. Right there. He finally reveals a portion of the attitude that's carried him to the top of the Horizon League and a shot at history.
There. Right there. That's the young man who spent Sunday afternoons across the street from his grandmother's house on the courts at Dequindre Park.
Felder's father, Kahlil Felder Sr., thought his son would need more than passion to compete with the best.
So the former Eastern Michigan standout sent his son to his alma mater, Pershing High School, the prep breeding ground for future NBA standouts Spencer Haywood, Kevin Willis and Steve Smith. Long before he starred next to former Michigan State standout Keith Appling, however, Felder competed at Dequindre Park, the incubator for his toughness and The Palace of Auburn Hills for neighborhood guys who never attracted scholarship offers and pro basketball contracts.
"I knew, in order to get my son tough, you've got to come out here with these guys who have nothing to play for but these Sunday runs at the playground," Kahlil Felder Sr. said. "About 70 to 75 percent of his game comes from that playground."
"I just know when I see those high-major schools or whoever didn't recruit me, I'm going after them." Oakland guard Kahlil Felder
The playground ignored height, weight, reach and other physical elements that college coaches and evaluators often overanalyze. If you can ball, you can ball. And every time Felder and his friends ran the court for hours on a Sunday afternoon, he rose -- not in height, but in stature. Felder had juice, according to folks who cheered for him from the margins of the court with the rusty brown goals anchored into broken gravel and bushy trees drooping over the backboards.
"That definitely gave me the confidence," he said. "I take that a long way. I never take that for granted. I'm glad I grew up in Detroit."
One afternoon, his uncle missed a shot during a Dequindre Park run. Felder flew in and flushed a tip dunk over a defender. Screaming fans spilled onto the court in a chaotic scene.
"The whole park just went crazy," Felder said. "It ended the game."
That's the playground, where excitement trumps everything but competition.
Kampe knew Felder could dominate in the Horizon League with his approach and energy. So he offered him a scholarship as a sophomore in high school, while hoping he wouldn't grow over the next two years and attract the attention of power-conference programs. Felder remained the same size and committed to Oakland before his senior season. Still concerned, however, Kampe played that year with two combo guards and refused to recruit a point guard in the previous class so Felder knew he'd arrive without any competition.
"We told him we were going to give him the keys," he said.
And unlike his peers at programs with larger profiles, Kampe didn't worry about Felder's size.
"I'm 5-9 and when I played, I couldn't look at the rim like he can," Kampe said. "I know what it's like to be 5-9. I don't know what it's like to be 5-9 and to be able to put my chin on the rim. That ability that he has negates the size. He's very strong. When I talk to booster clubs and things like that, the thing I explain to them is he reminds me of Barry Sanders. He goes sideways as fast as he goes forward. And he can take a hit."
Felder says he brought the playground with him to Oakland. So Kampe yelled at him until he realized the natural scoring ability he demonstrated during those Sunday runs would not work at the collegiate level unless he converted to a high-scoring system that would only help him if he followed its principles. Felder just wanted buckets, he admits. All of them. That's not new.
A.W. Canada, Felder's high school coach at Pershing, remembers when the talented guard stumbled on a critical play in a tight game with postseason implications. Felder drove into the lane and tried to draw a foul, but he missed the layup. He didn't notice his two teammates were both wide open in opposite corners.
"He wasn't a playmaker," Canada said about Felder's early years at Pershing. "He didn't pass the ball that much."
Felder, who won Horizon League freshman of the year honors in 2013-14, quickly recognized the challenges and aimed to blend the two: the style of the playground and the schematic requirements of the collegiate game. He talked to former players. He watched film four days a week. He worked. The freshman whom Kampe often sent texts, reminding him to get extra reps in the gym, is now a junior who receives messages asking him to quit for the day and rest.
"I've definitely always been a scorer my whole life," Felder said. "I knew I could score the ball. As far as where the assists come from, I had to get that in my game. I couldn't just be a scorer. You're not just gonna make it being a scorer, especially at my size."
Last season, the Horizon League announced that the conference tournament would move to Detroit this season. The new format will place the league's lone ticket to the Big Dance at Joe Louis Arena, just 13 minutes from Pershing High School. Friends, family and some of the people who remember him from Dequindre Park will all watch the elite athlete attempt to lead his program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
And there is another prize. Felder is on the NBA's radar. If he addresses some of his flaws this summer, he could earn a chance to live his dream at the next level. He's leading the nation in assist rate, per KenPom.com, and he's made 85 percent of his free throws and 38 percent of his 3-pointers. He he also averages 3.5 turnovers per game.
"He has some good stuff and is a heck of a basketball player," another Eastern Conference scout said. "But he needs to mature and improve his poise, shot and touch."
Felder's parents want him to get his degree before he even considers the idea of the NBA, so he'll probably spend another season at Oakland and continue to evolve.
Plus, a multitude of players make money in basketball after college. That's admirable but not unique, although Felder's height creates both intrigue and doubt about that potential.
No player in the modern era, however, has ever led America in assists per game and points per game. Felder could be the first.
His response to that possibility?
"I don't think about it," he said.
That's coming from the same guy who scored 30 points against Virginia this season, a young man who still says this:
When I see those high-major schools or whoever didn't recruit me, I'm going after them.
Just like that old phrase says: it's the quiet ones you should fear.