NBA Draft
Back in good standing
By Joe Burris, The Boston Globe Staff, 6/27/1999

PHILADELPHIA - What is the correct posture for dealing with adversity? Shoulders and head high, back straight, feet firmly planted? Or is it possible to tackle the trials of life with you head hung low, your shoulders slouched, and your eyes staring at the floor?

Former University of Massachusetts center and current NBA draft hopeful Lari Ketner has been wrestling with such questions for years.

One day 10 years ago, the 12-year-old Ketner came home from school with his shoulders slumped, a sure sign he was struggling with a growth spurt that had left him 6 feet tall. His mother, Aasya Wright, had told him to stand up straight, and he obliged for a time but soon returned to his hunched stance.

So Wright approached her son from behind and punched him squarely in the back. That did the trick. But Ketner told his mother that her blow reminded him of the verbal salvos he took at school from kids who poked fun at his size. The taunts were enough to make him hang his head.

''Don't worry, son,'' she said. ''God just loves you more, so He took more time with you. Don't pay those children any mind. You're going to play in the NBA someday.''

Her son would continue growing, and by the time he left for UMass, Ketner had attained a stature ideal for future draft consideration: 6 feet 10 inches, 270 pounds.

But his sensitivity increased as well, and it proved one of his downfalls during a senior season at UMass in which he often struggled to duplicate a promising junior campaign and was labeled as one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball.

His mother's prediction was in serious jeopardy in March, but Ketner got an opportunity to salvage it when he was invited to the Phoenix Desert Classic, a postseason invitational for players looking to improve their draft status.

But as he was bound for Phoenix, he was hit with another setback. His mother was scheduled for a second operation to remove tumors that were discovered over the latter part of Ketner's senior campaign; she had not told him of her condition for fear of adding to his worries.

Wright once again encouraged her son to stand up to his obstacles.

''The day he was about to leave for Phoenix, I had to go in to have more surgery,'' said Wright, who was found to have nine tumors after five biopsies were conducted in one day.

''I told him, `I'll be fine, but now you have to go out there and do what you're supposed to do. You have to go out there and kill those guys. Go out and use your God-given talent.'''

So Ketner left his mother's side and went to Phoenix eager to improve his draft status, in part so he could make enough money to allow her to retire from work. Many people, including UMass coach Bruiser Flint and personal trainer and mentor John Hardnett, encouraged him to take advantage of his make-or-break opportunity despite the weight of his mother's health on his mind.

''You've got to put it behind you,'' said Hardnett, ''because unfortunately, you've been labeled by so many people as a failure that you can't fail this time.''

Oasis in the desert

No one speaks of the 2-point performance against College of Charleston anymore. Or the 2 points against Virginia Tech, the 5 against Duquesne. His being benched against Marshall, sidelined against Boston College for violating team rules? Doesn't come up anymore.

Talk now begins with the 16 points and 10 boards he had on the first day at the Desert Classic. That was followed by a slew of calls from agents and scouts, personal interviews with the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Sacramento Kings, then workouts with the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors.

Ketner made good on his opportunity, and it appears most scouts have been willing to forget about his dreadful senior campaign. On draft night, he will discover how much. His co-representative, Vic Carstarphen, said Ketner has been projected to go between the 18th and 25th picks. Others say he will go either late in the first round or early in the second.

''We didn't feel he had a very good senior year, and to his credit, he didn't, either,'' said Bob Zuffelato, director of basketball operations for the Raptors. ''Then he went to Phoenix and opened some eyes, and people gave him another hard look with some workouts.

''He has a good body, is strong, and can post people up, so he was impressive in that respect.''

Ketner then went to the predraft camp in Chicago and didn't fare as well, but neither did he hurt his stock.

''All it takes is for one decision-maker to like him, and that's where he will go in the draft,'' said Cavaliers scout Rick Weitzman, formerly of the Celtics. ''He went out to Phoenix and Chicago and played hard, and those were encouraging signs.''

Those encouraging signs have made Ketner more confident and effervescent. In fact, he now smiles at recounting his arrival in Phoenix, when he ran into Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who said, ''What are you doing here? If you had played the way you did as a junior, you wouldn't be here.''

''One thing I had to do was to show everybody that I was serious about playing,'' said Ketner, who was named preseason All-America by several publications after averaging 15.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg as a junior.

Much of that success, however, came when Ketner played alongside widebody Tyrone Weeks on the UMass front line. Last season, he was the focal point, often double- and triple-teamed. As a result, his numbers were down to 10.6 ppg and 5.3 rpg. He fouled out five times and was held under 40 percent shooting 12 times.

Ketner didn't respond well, and before long it became evident that making good on his mother's claim would depend on his emotional approach rather than physical attributes.

''When I went into Phoenix, I just wanted to be in shape when I got there, play hard, and do the things everybody thought I was capable of doing,'' Ketner said. ''And I was able to do that.

''During the season I got a little frustrated. Things weren't going my way. The team didn't have, pretty much, the same goals. It seemed like, maybe to many people, that I didn't want to be out there.''

Bottoming out

It all took a toll on the team, which endured its first losing season in 10 years and failed to reach the postseason for the first time this decade.

Ketner was supposed to be the next in a line of UMass pivots - including Lou Roe, Marcus Camby, and Harper Williams - that kept the winning ways going. Many figured his upside for the next level was better than the others' because he was the only one whose natural position was center.

Instead, he and the team failed miserably.

''It seemed like everybody had different agendas,'' said Ketner. ''Some people felt playing was more important than winning. Once the season didn't go the way everybody wanted it to go, a lot of pressures came down on the seniors, me and Charlton [Clarke].''

Things capsized against Iona, as Ketner fouled out after tallying just 4 points and 3 rebounds. He went to the bench, slumped over, and cried while assistant coaches consoled him. Some say that moment brought as much criticism as any of Ketner's on-court shortcomings.

''It just got tough, with the season, people saying everything about Coach, saying things about players, things like that,'' said Ketner. ''I went from one year of being praised to another of being killed. I really wanted to win. I came in with goals of being better than the year before.

''Eventually it took its toll. I couldn't hold it in anymore. It came out with tears. I didn't have anyone to talk to, because the coaches were like, `Well, you have to suck it up and play.' They don't understand. Coaches are going to be coaches. They're going to do what they need to do to get you to perform.''

But Flint maintains there were folks to whom Ketner could talk. Indeed, the day after the Iona game, the team held a three-hour meeting before heading to New York to play Fordham. Prior to that game, Camby, who was by then a New York Knick, met with Ketner in the locker room.

''Listen, we had plenty of talks - we had private talks and public tallks,'' said Flint. ''He's 22 years old, 6-10, 275 pounds. And he's a kid. That was the toughest thing. I used to tell him that, throughout life, he was going to have things like this.

''I remember when our academic coordinator left with Cal [former UMass coach John Calipari], Lari said, `I can't make it here.' I told him that it was just a setback, and you have to go on. That's the same thing here.

''What people don't realize is that you can talk until you're blue in the face, and until the kid understands, you don't know how he's going to respond. Lari is very sensitive. He had to go through things like this because he needed it to make it in the NBA.''

A guiding presence

Aasya Wright laughs when she thinks back on the time she punched her son in the back, and on her approach to single parenthood in general.

No doubt it worked; she raised two boys in a section of Philadelphia where drugs are sold on her street corner, where Ketner was once mugged in front of his home. She sheltered them, kept them off the streets and out of trouble.

She is well aware that some considered her overprotective of her towering son and that it contributed to Ketner's sensitivity.

''I'm not really close with my family, so when I say I raised them by myself, I mean it,'' she said. ''The reality is that it's hard when you try to teach them one thing and the streets are teaching them another. Lari being so big, he was a target for drug dealers. I had to do what I had to do.''

Wright is all but recovered from the ailments that made for a fretful year. Equally difficult was keeping it from her son. He would call home and discover that she had to leave work early or had blacked out on the train ride home.

''She didn't even tell me at first. She told Kit,'' said Ketner, referring to UMass backup center Kitwana Rhymer, Ketner's best friend. ''Kit knew for a while. He found out during the middle of the season. I found out from the middle to the end.

''She finally told me, and then I told Kit, and Kit was like, `I've known for a while.' And I was like, `How come you didn't tell me?' and he said, `Lari, you know how you worry.'

''But she's recovered, and she's stopped work. Now, she's just looking over me, making sure I do what I need to do.''

Regardless of whether he gets drafted, Ketner probably will end up right where his mother said he would. Her aim is that he stays on the straight and narrow wherever he is.

''I've told him all he needs to do is put God first,'' said Wright. ''I let him know that I would die for him, that I want the best for him.

''But I also told him, `If you go out there and act like Dennis Rodman, I'm going to kill you.' He wasn't raised that way, and I'm not having it.''


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