Bobby and friends
Kleiman, seniors carve out North Central legacy
POWERS – On basketball game nights for the North Central Jets, Bobby Kleiman stands at attention.
It’s a time for reflection before Kleiman puts his game face on for competition.
“When the national anthem comes on, and they play The Star-Spangled Banner, I actually always put one foot on the court and one foot off to the sidelines to keep in mind it’s not always about everything on the court,” Kleiman said.
“Sometimes you get too caught up in sports from how we grew up. We always think that’s the most important thing, but you have to think there is a life away from all this. I always keep one foot on each side just to keep myself reminded there are more important things than just this game.”
Meet Bobby Kleiman, a talented, undersized, do-it-all athlete who likes teeth and a flair for dress.
He’s part of the seniors who’ve grown up and built a monster legacy at North Central High School. Together, the seniors on this basketball team have won state championships in football and basketball while reeling off a nation-leading 80 consecutive victories on the hardwood.
They’ve enjoyed good times and some bad times since elementary school, forming a bond that is tighter than bricks to mortar.
This coming week, Kleiman and the Jets (25-0) will pursue their third straight Class D state title.
It starts with Tuesday’s quarterfinal game against Hillman (24-1) at the Sault, and hopefully for the players, will include stops in East Lansing for Thursday’s semifinal and Saturday’s championship game.
No matter what happens this week, Kleiman and his blood brothers — Jason Whitens, Dawson Bilski, Seth Polfus, Marcus Krachinski and Ryan Plunger — will experience the end of the road. Don’t be surprised to see tears, hugs and smiles or often hear the words “I love you” on the final leg of this long journey.
For Kleiman, these guys mean the world to him.
“Minus my family, my highlight is just growing up with my group of friends,” Kleiman said after a recent practice. “And all of us being as lucky as we are to have each other. Without them, really none of this is possible.”
Down and dirty
Kleiman (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) is one piece of the Jets’ puzzle. Like his fellow starters, he can shoot, pass, rebound, defend, run the floor and think on his feet.
Kleiman is one of those players coaches love for his versatility on a team with plenty of versatility. Whitens (2015-16 Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball finalist in Michigan), and Bilski are all-state candidates.
Kleiman does what’s needed from night to night.
“Any sport you put in front of him, pound for pound, he might be the best athlete,” Jets’ coach Adam Mercier said. “He’s a unique, athletic kid. Without the other athletes we have here in that class, he’d be always be All-U.P. Sometimes, he gets overlooked. Without a doubt, in a fox-hole situation, he’s a kid you want by you.”
Kleiman averages 10.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals and shoots 59 percent from the field. What’s noticeable about Kleiman’s game is he plays bigger than 5-11 and approaches each contest with a junk-yard dog mentality.
“You have to get down and dirty sometimes,” Kleiman said. “That’s the way I have to play in order to compete with the kids out there. Every kid I usually guard is three inches taller than me.
“I think what really helps me is I’m a competitor and I hate losing. One-on-one rarely are you going to beat me because I hate to lose.
Growing up being such a competitor with my group of friends, I think that helped us all grow up to be the competitors that we are.”
Kleiman made his mark as a sophomore coming off the bench. He scored 13 points in the Jets’ 67-47 state championship win against Morenci.
“He was unbelievable,” Mercier said about that game. “He shot the ball well and defended one of the top point guards we faced all year.
“When the lights go on, and it’s time to perform, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s up for any challenge.”
The Jets needed Kleiman in the recent regional semifinal. Dollar Bay put a scare into the Jets, who pulled out a 75-73 victory at Negaunee.
Kleiman came through with a career-high 27 points on a night the Jets needed every one.
The Blue Bolts kind of slapped Kleiman and the Jets — a game that might have been the best thing to happen to an unbeaten juggernaut.
“I think we went into the game with the mindset we were just there to be there,” Kleiman said.
“I think it’s really a lesson you can’t go into games like that. We were fortunate to come out with a win. They played so well and we didn’t play great. And that’s all that has to happen for it to all end.
“Growing up our whole lives, being such a winning school, a lot of people don’t praise us. They just work to beat us. That’s all they want to do.”
Indeed, North Central will get every team’s best shot this week in the quest to be the one that knocks the Jets off their perch.
But the Jets have five starters who can pull the wagon at any time. Whitens (22.7 ppg) and Bilski (19.7 ppg) light it up at any time, but Krachinski (10.7 ppg), Polfus (6 ppg, career-high 21 points vs. Menominee) and Kleiman are there to make sure defenses don’t cheat.
“Having the five kids we do, we’re not worried they are going to shut one player down because we have four other kids out there who can score. I think that is what’s special about us.”
Hair and flair
Kleiman’s favorite sport is baseball and he’s planning to play at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. He’s a speedy versatile player with good hand-eye coordination.
What attracted Kleiman to KVCC is its dental hygiene program. Yes, Kleiman wants to be a dental hygienist.
“I’m kind of obsessed with teeth I guess,” Kleiman said with a smile. “I like having clean teeth. It’s something about me, so it kind of led me to that. It’s nice the college I’m going to has a two-year degree in this program.”
Kleiman, who has a cumulative GPA of 3.65, is part of a smart Jets’ team with other National Honors Society members.
And about his flair for dress, it’s just Bobby being Bobby.
“He’s a rather stylish kid with his own style of clothing,” Mercier said. “Everybody knows him for his hair. He has a little flash to go with his game. I don’t think many guys can pull off the look, but he can back it up. He’s a colorful personality.
“You always have to be aware of where Bobby is on a team trip or team outing,” Mercier added. “Sometimes he develops a sense of boredom if you are doing something normal. He seems to make it seem un-normal in a hurry.”
Like visiting a retail store in the Sault on some past quarterfinal trips?
“We got up there early enough the last two years,” Mercier said. “I had somebody keep an eye on Bobby. All the basketballs will be out of the racks and bicycles will be driven. He likes to have fun.”
“I never match,” Kleiman said about his dress. “I always wear flamboyant stuff. People always look at me and they are like, ‘What are you wearing?’ I’m not really one for always dressing up real nice. I like to have a little life and keep it fun.”
Kleiman said he hasn’t faced much adversity in his life. His parents did divorce a few years ago, but his friends have been a nice support group.
“I’ve been blessed with great parents,” Kleiman said. “They’ve supported me through it all. So many kids go through (divorce), but it was hard. Having my friends really helped me through it. They were there for me every second of the way. I think having them is what made it a lot easier.”
Kleiman also is the guy who has a passion for his Xbox One and playing hours of the “Call of Duty” series.
He also enjoys playing golf and hanging out with his friends.
And he really likes playing disc golf and helping Polfus, who hosts a three-day whiffle ball tournament each summer in his front yard.
“The most important thing is kids from all over the U.P. come to this tourney,” Kleiman said. “It’s the most spectacular thing you’ll ever see. We had 12 teams last year and had to cut it off. We had two North Central teams, and teams came from Escanaba, Gladstone and Iron Mountain.”
As Kleiman’s basketball career winds down, he reflects on all the memories with his seniors.
They started their journey at recess in elementary school and haven’t let up.
“We always loved playing sports together,” he said. “We were competitors and that’s what we’ve done our whole life. Even going out for recess, we’d always get so mad at each other because we were so competitive with each other. I think that’s really what’s shaped us to be who we are today athletically.”
Kleiman said there are no specific best friends in the group. They are all best friends.
“Everyone loves everyone,” he said. “The love never stops between us.”
Kleiman is not worried about his best friends drifting off as they each go their separate ways. He knows they will all get busy pursuing goals in life and distance will come into play.
“Most kids have friendships, but the type of friendship we have is so close knit,” Kleiman said. “We will be at each other’s weddings. We will keep in touch at college. We genuinely care about each other.”
Before graduation and one final summer together, Kleiman said they all will get down to business this week.
The national anthems will be played and the games executed.
Kleiman promises one thing — the Jets will be ready.
“From here on out you can’t take anyone lightly,” he said. “You have to go in every day and prepare, mentally and physically. If you don’t give it your A game the other team is going to. Before you know it, that’s the end of you and your basketball career.”
A final buzzer will go off for the Jets this week. No matter which game it is, Kleiman does not plan to look back.
He knows the Jets invested in something special on a journey that likely may not be duplicated by any school in the U.P. or the entire state.
“Most kids think high school is the worst time ever and they just hate it,” Kleiman said. “But with the experiences we’ve had at North Central as a team and as individuals, it’s been so amazing.
“I don’t think any of us has any regrets. We’ve worked hard to be the students in the classroom, out of the classroom and on the court. We’ve worked so hard to be those people. I think it’s really paid off.”