Jennings Did it the 'Hard' Way

January 14, 2010 | RSS

Keith "Mister" Jennings spent four seasons in the NBA, and 10 years playing professionally across the rest of the world. He had to get to the NBA the hard way.


Jennings, who is now an assistant coach at Bluefield College, starred at East Tennessee State from 1987-1991, leading the Buccaneers to three straight Southern Conference titles, and three appearances in the NCAA Tournament.


As a senior, the 5-foot-7 Jennings was a second-team All-America performer, and he earned the Naismith Award - given to the country's best player, 6-foot and under.


Yet, he didn't get drafted into the NBA, and his free agent stint with the Indiana Pacers lasted a week.


"That's when I realized the NBA is a higher level," Jennings said.


Jennings learned from his mistakes, and when he got another chance after a season spent in Germany, he made his mark in the highest level of the game. He just had to adjust his style of play to compete in the pros.


"I was the traditional point guard, but when I first got a chance I would bring the ball up court and get us where we're needed and make a pass and I might not see the ball anymore," Jennings said. "I was thinking, 'Golly, these dudes ain't passing the ball like they did back at East Tennessee State'. We worked the ball around and we would get a good shot, and they're taking bad shots.


"I understood. The second time around I thought maybe I need to take some bad shots and have to do some things a little bit different. I did and it made the biggest difference in my career as far as that point went."


Jennings was on tour with his German teammates in California in 1992 when he caught the eye of Ed Gregory, the player personnel director of the Golden State Warriors. He was invited to their summer league tryouts, and it was then that head coach Don Nelson went one better.


"He told me he liked what I was doing and he wanted me to come back to the veterans camp which was like another month away," said Jennings, who grew up in Culpeper, Va., and patterned his style after Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas. "He thought I had a really good chance of making the team...


"Coach Nelson was a coach that liked mismatches, he knew I could shoot the ball, he knew I could play defense, and he knew I was a tough cover for some of the guys that were a little bit taller so it just gave me more of an opportunity to show what I can do offensively," Jennings said. "The NBA, I feel like it is more of an offensive league, if you can get your shot 1-on-1 then you can pretty much find yourself a home in the league.


"I just think the college game is more team-oriented and then the NBA, you might have two or three dominant players and you just hoped that everybody else could settle in and contribute."


Jennings made it with the Warriors from 1992-95, although his first season had a rocky start. He fought back from injury, and helped Golden State to a rare playoff appearance in '94.


"In my rookie year I had just dropped 22 on Miami and the next night we go to Orlando to play against Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) and Penny (Anfernee Hardaway) and I blew my knee out," Jennings said. "That was my first major injury and I had to sit out the whole rest of the year.


"The next year I had a successful surgery, I had to make the team again and I made the team. That year is when we got Chris Webber as a first round draft pick and we made it into the NBA playoffs."


Jennings averaged 6.6 points and 3.7 assists in 164 games with the Warriors in three seasons, including helping Golden State to the postseason in 1994, losing in three games to the Phoenix Suns.


"I thought the NCAA tournament was the king of all kings," Jennings said, "but after playing in that three years and playing in the NBA playoffs one year, I thought the NBA playoffs were incredible."


He said the NBA playoffs - like the league itself - was in a league of its own.


"I guess making money doesn't hurt, but in college you've got the top 64, in the NBA you've got the top 16 so it's really narrowed down so you see which teams are the best and which teams aren't the best," Jennings said. "I'm a basketball fan, I'm a student. I always grew up watching the NCAA tournament, I always watched the NBA playoffs, and to be a part of those was definitely another dream come true.


"It was just the travel, the NBA playoff logo on the floor, knowing this is where your season is going to end or where you can advance. It was just a real good feeling and I was sick I only got to do it once. I only got to play in the NBA playoffs once and I think I understood it more after we had been through it."


The NBA was a far different game than what Jennings experienced in college. He said the casual fan has a false idea of the way the professionals do their thing.



"When people say they don't like watching the NBA because they don't play any defense, it is so tough to play defense when you've got the best offensive players in the world getting ready to score on you," Jennings said. "In college you've got that five second count so if you can stay in front of somebody for five seconds then they automatically turn the ball over, in the NBA you don't have that count.


"Eventually in the NBA, a good offensive player is going to get by you which makes it look like you're not playing any defense, but people who think that are so wrong about the game."


Jennings was selected by the Toronto Raptors in the '95 expansion draft, but contract issues nixed those hopes. He eventually wound up with Denver, but another injury ended his NBA career.


"In the third preseason game I blew my other knee out," Jennings said. "I had to sit out that whole year altogether and they released me at the end of the season and I finished my career playing throughout Europe."


Jennings didn't quit playing basketball. He spent a total of 10 overseas, was twice named MVP in France, was an All-Star in Germany and Spain, and was in the playoffs eight years, although he never reached the finals.


"It was definitely worldwide adventure for me," Jennings said. "Basketball showed me the world, I was able to go places and see places that I don't think I had would have dreamed of visiting, but basketball enabled me to do that."


Life was much different for Jennings while traveling the world, far from the glamour of the NBA.


"It was different. We had our own plane in the NBA, you stayed at the best hotels, you played in the best cities and played in the best arenas," Jennings said. "In Europe, you might be on a bus for 12 or 13 hours, you've got to carry own luggage, you've got to have a roommate on the road."


The 41-year-old Jennings had to finally retire from the game for good in 2003, a victim of Avascular Necrosis, a conditions that limits blood flow to his hip. He can still play, as the Bluefield Rams find out at times in preparation for games.


"I could still play, but the pain I was having to deal with afterwards was starting to be too much so I decided it would be a good time because when you have kids you want to be able to play with them when they get a little older and hopefully if they want to pick it up," said Jennings, who has two children. "I just felt like it was a good time."


"I still shoot though, I still stay active on the court, the guys know that when it comes to shooting I can still put the ball in the basket."


Jennings never lacked confidence, despite facing roadblocks along the way due to his smallish frame. Among the biggest supporters was his family, which includes three brothers and three sisters.


He certainly won't forgot those folks who never let him get down on his dreams.


"I would like to give my family a shout out, my mom and dad, my brothers and my sisters...," Jennings said. "They all played a tremendous role. When I think of my family and friends that still believed in me when everybody else was doubting me, it's just a great feeling to know they always had my back.


"I think you need people like that in your corner in life and the fact that it is the closest ones to you makes it even more special."