UMass star Lari Ketner working on his inside game
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 12/27/1998

AMHERST -- Lari Ketner doesn't want his telephone anymore.

These days, when a call rings in from some friend back home in Philadelphia -- some guy with NBA connections who just has to let Ketner know what some scout or general manager is thinking -- Ketner does not listen too hard.

This sort of pressure has already caused the UMass center eight games worth of anxiety.

The telephone, in fact, has become a nuisance -- the pipeline for an untold number of friends and acquaintances who have buried Ketner with their praise.

All-America candidate? The preseason magazines all said so. And why not? Wasn't he a two-time invitee to the U.S. training camp for the Goodwill Games? The player who came up so big -- at such a big moment -- against Kansas' Raef LaFrientz last season in Allen Fieldhouse?

Ketner was second in the Atlantic 10 last year with a .523 shooting percentage, and started this season as a career .537 shooter. That was before the rim shriveled to the size of a doughnut in his view. That's before his teammates became better at shooting 3-pointers than Ketner now is with two-footers.

Never has that baby hook been so untrue.

``I know all the stats -- 40 percent from five feet,'' UMass coach Bruiser Flint said with a sigh.

But Ketner can't seem to help it. The 6-foot-10 center made what he, and just about everyone else, considered to be a wonderful decision by returning to UMass for his senior year.

So that's when he started to twist up inside?

``I've just cut off the people back home,'' Ketner said last week. ``All they talk about is basketball. Do this, and you will be a Top 5 pick. Do that, and you're in the lottery.

``But I've got to say, I've never felt any pressure from Bruiser, at all, over this whole thing.''

That's understandable. Flint, who has always treated Ketner with protective care, is working through a sensitive time now. It's fact, not a coach's fabricated pressure, when Flint says of Ketner: ``I still need him to step up for me. But if I put pressure on him, he may not score a basket. It's already rough, as it is, with him.

``He's a very nice kid, but people don't want to hear that,'' said Flint. ``And in this situation, you're dealing with kids who are trying to grow up. But all people really want to know is, hey man, why isn't he playing better?

``I know, myself, that we'll struggle if he doesn't play well. And the bottom line is that he hasn't played well.''

No easy solutions

Don't misunderstand. Flint hasn't been gentle. The coach has already broadsided Ketner with two benchings. When his star center failed to grab a rebound in 13 minutes against the College of Charleston, Flint relegated him to the bench a game later against Marshall.

When Ketner broke a team rule during a practice prior to UMass' win over Boston College on Dec. 12, Flint suspended him for the game.

He has already been whistled for two technicals -- one for flashing an elbow against Villanova, the other for ignoring a referee's request for the ball against Charleston.

Something had obviously reached a boiling point. Though Flint and Ketner still refuse to reveal the rule Ketner broke during practice, Ketner admitted that the deed in question was something of a tension-breaker.

``I've been holding in so much stuff,'' said Ketner. ``I feel like I've let people down; that I've let my teammates down. You can talk to the coaches about it, to a certain extent, but I was holding a lot of stuff in, and it all came out.

``I felt like a lot of pressure lifted right off of me after that. I've been trying to deal with it myself. I've talked to my mother, but there's only so much that she's going to understand. I've been talking to the team psychologist, too.

``I told him what I've accomplished, and he told me that I'm not alone. A lot of guys feel pressure from the NBA.''

And a lot of players find they're not prepared to become The Man.

Changing of the guard

``The thing people don't realize about Lari is that he had two great guards on that team with him in high school,'' Flint said of Donnie Carr and Arthur ``Yah'' Davis, the two chief scorers for Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia.

Ketner had an uncommon luxury then. He was the high school big man who didn't have to take it all on himself. Carr, one of the few bright spots now for LaSalle basketball, has become a perennial Atlantic-10 scoring champ. Davis was the on-again, off-again sniper who helped St. Joseph's reach the Sweet 16 in 1997.

No wonder Ketner's main worry that year, his first season for UMass, was expectations. He was, after all, about to become the Camby replacement, of all things. The man to lead the next charge to the Final Four.

But that fear peeled away last season. Ketner seemed to relax. He knew he wasn't ready for the NBA, and didn't try to force a move.

From what he can tell, everything changed during the preseason. That's when the nature of the phone calls changed. Ketner had played in Philadelphia during the summer, so he knew a lot of people with NBA connections.

Ketner says he got calls from agents during the Atlantic 10 tournament last March, and got invited to dinner by at least one. But he wasn't in a hurry. If someone gave him a business card, he gave it to Flint. If someone asked for a meeting, the answer was simple. Call the coach.

He certainly wasn't a fool. No one stood to learn more from the fall of Marcus Camby than the 20-year-old slated to replace him.

``The coaches and university learned a lot from what happened to Marcus,'' said Ketner, who would instead feel the pressure mount on another front.

All of a sudden, everyone knew what was best for Lari Ketner.

Pivotal pressures

``We started off really well against Niagara, but after that game I put a lot of pressure on myself -- especially against St. John's and Charleston,'' he said. ``A lot of outside things were coming into play. Family, friends, people saying that someone from the NBA called. I just need to reassert myself. When Bruiser sat me down before the Marshall game, I think that helped.

``The problem is that all of these shots I've missed, I'm making in practice. Bruiser also says that I'm rushing my shot right now.''

And then there's the double teams, which reached the level of gang tackling during the Minutemen's last game -- a Dec. 19 win over Detroit. Flint is not shy about noting that Ketner is not getting the calls that would normally go to a 6-10 post player.

Ketner thinks he knows the reason.

``UMass is not the referees' favorite team, anyway,'' he said. ``(But) I don't think a lot of big guys get calls. They just look at your size, and figure you did it.''

Reading between the lines

This isn't just about free throws, and Ketner knows it. This is instead about a player who knows what is thought of him. In fact, he probably knows far too much what is expected of him because he reads all of it.

``I found a lot of people's expectations weren't so much for the team as for me this year,'' he said. ``I've never liked the spotlight. Bruiser knows that. I'm not one for the cameras.

``But I'm reading that UMass will do as well as Lari Ketner does. Man, the Charleston and St. John's games were the worst I've played since I've been here. ... I haven't read anything lately.''

Flint is especially happy for that news.

``Don't listen to people -- that's the advice I gave him,'' said Flint. ``Without question he's not having fun out there. You almost cringe for him, at times.

``The one thing about Lari is that the kid has always scored. He may not rebound that well or dominate at times, but he's always scored baskets.

``And that's the one thing he's not doing right now.''

An assist from Cal

John Calipari is like a friendly ghost where his former team is concerned.

A game in New York? Coach Cal is there, shouting encouragement from the press table. Philadelphia, the city where the former UMass coach was once more reviled than Apollo Creed? No place is too forboding to keep Calipari from following his boys, now that the NBA has locked itself out during the holiday shopping season.

Perhaps it's natural, then, that Calipari knew something was wrong the first time he saw Ketner in person this season.

``He told me at the St. John's game that I was tense,'' said Ketner. ``It really hit me when he said that, because I was taking it more as a job than as a game. I was playing for the fans, my teammates, the media, the people back home. Of course I wasn't having any fun.

``After he talked to me, I started to go back to being more emotional, and more aggressive. That rang a bell, when he talked to me. He told me, `It looks like you're working, and it's a game.' ''

UMass returns to action Tuesday against Davidson. By then, with a 10-day layoff behind him, Ketner hopes to have his confidence back in hand.

But he is also clinging to the little things, at the moment. Like being thankful that he didn't leave for the NBA.

``I'm very happy with that,'' he said. ``A lot of my friends, like Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, left early, and now they're not playing or getting paid. I've definitely stopped thinking about that.

``But the NBA isn't even thinking about the NBA, anymore.''

Sounds like a good time to make a move, when not everyone is looking.

``Right now,'' he said, ``I tell myself that the worst things that can happen have happened.''

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