BY Sean Brennan
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Kashif Pratt remembers a time when the possibilities seemed limitless. It was March of 2006 and he had just sunk the buzzer-beating shot that helped Rice High School topple Christ the King in the city's CHSAA's title game, an unforgettable 62-60 victory over the mighty Royals.
Pratt, along with teammates Curtis Kelly and Edgar Sosa , all friends since the sixth grade, had led Rice to a 25-5 season and the city and state championships.
Pratt remembers the fun they had, the joy the game brought to them and how eagerly they looked forward to the even more memorable and magical moments that awaited them on the college level.
The sky was the limit, and after countless colleges courted them during a prolonged and frenzied recruiting period, the trio each inked full rides to three different Big East schools.
The good times were about to get even better.
"When you're a kid, you dream about playing on a great college team and then playing professional ball," says Pratt, who headed to Seton Hall for his freshman season. "We had the dream."
But it wasn't long before the reality of big-time college basketball began to short-circuit their dreams, when their own lofty expectations fell short and adversity began to cloud the horizon.
Since that day three years ago, Pratt has transferred from Seton Hall to Iona College , before leaving the Gaels basketball program in January, hanging up his Division I hopes for good. Kelly, the 6-8 power forward who was recruited by everyone from Kentucky to Villanova to Texas, became an afterthought at UConn in two seasons before he, too, transferred out last summer. And while Sosa has remained at Louisville , has he endured a career with the Cardinals that has been anything but storybook.
The Daily News recently caught up with all three former Rice stars to find out how their ride to the top of the college basketball world got detoured and why the one who chose to walk away from the game may be the happiest of the three today.
After sitting out the 2007-08 season at Iona as a transfer, Pratt couldn't wait for the day when he could slide on the Gaels' maroon and gold No. 1 jersey and hear his name called during pregame introductions.
After being able to practice with the Gaels during his sit-out season, a time Pratt called "very difficult," the 6-4 guard was ready to fill a vital role for a very young Iona team this year. Pratt's leadership, along with his considerable skills, would be a boon to the Gaels while also helping Pratt reconnect with the game he loved.
But something had changed for Pratt. He says it began in his freshman season at Seton Hall and festered during his first year at Iona. He was losing his love of the game, the same game he says had given him so much in his young life.
"I was playing basketball for 15 years and because of the game I was able to do more things in my life than a 30-year old had," Pratt says. "It was because of basketball that I first got on an airplane and it also gave me the opportunity to go to a Catholic school. Because of basketball I've been able to travel a lot and see the world. I've been to Hawaii and I've been to Florida more times than I've been to Staten Island . But things changed for me."
The guy they call Kash, the one with the ever-present smile, was no longer smiling on the inside. For Pratt, the joy of basketball was no longer even a flicker. Decisions needed to be made and he made the decision to walk away and concentrate on his academic career.
"You'd always see me with a smile," Pratt says.
"But I haven't cracked a smile in a game since I was in high school. Even my little cousin, Charlie, told me after a game one time that I didn't look happy out there on the court. He said I didn't look the same."
So midway through the Gaels' season, Pratt met with Iona coach Kevin Willard and informed him that his playing days were over.
"He was surprised," Pratt says of the coach. "Maybe a little shocked, but he respected my decision. It was kind of the same reaction as everyone else was having."
"I said to Kash 'Are you sure about this?' and he said he was," Willard says. "Then I said to him, 'I always knew you'd be successful after basketball.' The thing about Kash is, I always knew he'd be much more successful off the court than on it. Kash is a very smart kid and I think that's one of the reasons he left. He figured out what he wanted to do and he's doing it. I'm very happy for him."
Pratt, now enrolled at John Jay College where he hopes to become a sports agent, says those who tried to change his mind - including Kelly and Sosa - now realize he is much happier. And once again the sky is the limit for the former Rice guard - just without basketball.
"I don't care what people think of my decision," Pratt says. "I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I just wasn't having any fun. I still follow the guys (at Iona) and I even pick up a basketball once in a while. But I'm done playing. My goal is to graduate college in four years and that's what I'm going to do. I feel wonderful now."
Of Rice's Three Amigos, no one was recruited more than Kelly. The athletic 6-8 forward dominated the high school ranks on both ends of the floor with Rice and was expected to continue his assault on the basketball world at UConn.
"Curtis was a real big timer coming out of high school," Sosa says. "Everyone wanted him. I thought he'd blow up at UConn."
The Huskies beat out Villanova, North Carolina , Texas and St. John's for Kelly's services. He was going to be the next great big man at UConn. Playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun , Kelly says UConn was the perfect fit for him.
"I chose UConn because of its history and tradition," Kelly says. "It was the best fit for me and my style of play and it had a great coach that I could learn from."
But what Kelly didn't learn, at least initially, was that he would have to earn everything at UConn. He wasn't at Rice anymore, where the offense, and everything else, ran through him first.
"In high school everything was given to me and I was doing everything on the floor," Kelly says. "I didn't have to work that hard in high school. But (at UConn) you had to work hard and you had to pick things up faster than your teammates if you wanted to play. But I didn't work, and it cost me."
In two seasons with the Huskies, Kelly made one start and averaged 2.4 points and 2.7 rebounds. His plan to become the next great Huskies big man never got off the ground.
"I thought my playing time would just be given to me," Kelly says. "I was wrong. So I worked really hard my second year but I think it was too late. By that time I think coach only thought of me as a role player. I thought of myself as a star, but with Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet ahead of me now, I understood my situation. I felt myself disappearing there. So I decided it would be best for me to transfer."
Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma State and Xavier were all interested, but Kelly still hoped to remain at UConn. Kelly and Calhoun had a sit-down to clear the air but nothing changed.
"To this day I don't know if he wanted me to stay or not," Kelly says. "I was trying to stall and see if I could buy some time in case he wanted me to stay."
He didn't, and now Kelly is a Kansas State Wildcat , sitting out this season as a transfer and waiting for his next chance to become the player he thought he would be at UConn.
"I enjoyed my time at UConn despite how it all ended and I think Coach Calhoun is a phenomenal coach," Kelly says. "But I'm happy here at K-State. I came here because I thought this was the school I'd work hardest at and not make the same mistakes I made at UConn."
The Daily News Co-Player of the Year (with teammate Kelly) after his senior season at Rice, Sosa burst on the collegiate scene when he poured in 31 points against Texas A&M in an NCAA tournament second-round game in his freshman season.
After that performance, and being named to the Big East All-Rookie team, Sosa faced huge expectations but couldn't live up to them. But Sosa's game did not.
His next two seasons, including this one, have been plagued by sometimes erratic play, mood swings, limited playing time and subpar offensive production.
In fact earlier this season, Louisville coach Rick Pitino sat Sosa down and told him he thought it would be best if Sosa thought about transferring.
Pitino's stunning announcement served as a wakeup call for Sosa.
"I was very shocked," says Sosa, who averages 7.5 points this season for the Cardinals. "But it got my attention. I love Louisville, and it was never a thought for me to transfer. I don't want to go to any other school. I just had to start playing better. But things are good now. They just weren't that good in the beginning of the season."
Pitino says his speech served its purpose.
"It was totally motivational," Pitino says. "Unfortunately sometimes players have such illusions of grandeur that they're all heading straight to the NBA . Edgar is very similar in that respect. These kids all have their eye on the future instead of being the best player they can be right now."
Since Pitino's speech, Sosa's play has improved. His 25-footer with two seconds to play helped Louisville top in-state rival Kentucky and his play has been more of what Pitino has been looking for from his junior point guard.
"I never really wanted him to transfer," Pitino says. "I think he's having a solid career but I think he can get better. I think he now understands that by making plays and creating offense for others that is how he could very possibly make it to the next level."
Willard, who was on Pitino's staff at Louisville before his arrival at Iona, thinks Sosa's best days are still ahead of him.
"It's tough playing at Louisville and handling all that pressure," Willard says. "I think after his freshman season, people put unreasonable expectations on him and he felt the pressure. But I think he has a chance to be the best player in the Big East next year."
This week, Pratt and Kelly both planned on watching Sosa do his thing for Louisville in the Big East tournament, then hope to see him go deep into the NCAA Tournament starting next week.
Kelly will also be rooting for his old UConn mates.
"It would be wrong for me not to root for them," Kelly says. "Coach Calhoun is the greatest coach in the world. I have no choice but to root for them."
And along the way the three long-time friends will phone, text, and e-mail each other until the summer brings them together again. Then, Kelly can talk about his new life at K-State, Sosa can regale them with tales of the NCAA Tournament and Pratt can boast about how well he's doing in the classroom instead of on the court.
"We all grew up together and some people, when they go their separate ways, they don't talk anymore," Sosa says. "But we talk all the time. We'll never lose contact. Not us."