Jon Teitel's Interview Series: ETSU Legend Keith "Mister" Jennings

    
May 10th, 2010
Recently, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with East Tennessee State legend Keith "Mister" Jennings, one of the greatest players in school history. Jennings still ranks in the top four in six major statistical categories and nearly led the Bucs to an improbable upset of top seed Oklahoma in the first round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament. In the first of three straight trips to the Big Dance, the Bucs fell 72-71, one of only a handful of one-point losses for sixteen seeds.

Jon Teitel: How did you get the nickname "Mister", and do you like it?

Keith "Mister" Jennings:
My dad started calling me that around age 6, and it just stuck, so everyone in my hometown calls me that. My teammates were going to call me Keith when I joined the team, because they did not want to call a freshman "Mister", but they came around after a week or so.

JT: Why did you decide to go to ETSU?

KJ:
They were they only program that really offered me a full scholarship. VMI showed some interest, but I was not into the military. I am a competitor, so I wanted to display my skills against the best, which was D-1.

JT: You were named an All-American despite being only 5'7". How were you able to succeed despite being at such a height disadvantage on the court?

KJ:
I always felt that I played bigger than I was: I always said I was 5'8", but people said it sounded better if I was listed as 5'7"! I did not feel like the smallest guy on the court. I always played against my brothers growing up who were similar in height to me. I never looked at it as a disadvantage: I actually felt it was easier for me to play against bigger guys, because I played inside and did not mind trying to battle for a rebound.

JT: What are your memories of the 1989 NCAA Tourney (you scored eight points and had seven assists but fouled out in a one-point loss to Oklahoma in Nashville, which almost became the 1st-ever upset by a #16-seed over a #1-seed; Stacey King had 28 points and 10 rebounds)?

KJ:
When I look back on all my defeats that one sticks with me more than any other loss. I assume that most of the other players you talk to remember their losses more than their wins. We were a young team that did not fully understand how to win, but we gave it our all. We won our conference tourney, which was really special. It was the 1st time that I ever got a ring, after watching guys on TV get rings and cut down the nets, so that was important to me.

JT: What are your memories of the 1990 NCAA tourney (you scored a team-high 17 points and made a tourney-school record 5 three points in a loss to Georgia Tech. Dennis Scott had 36 points on 14-22 FG)?

KJ:
It seemed like Scott had at least 20 points in the 1st half. We felt that we were seeded badly. Mid-major teams now are getting higher rankings, but even though we had a record of 27-6, we felt kind of shafted because we ended up as a #13-seed. We felt we had a good chance playing in Knoxville, but the ACC was a great conference, and Georgia Tech was stacked (Kenny Anderson, Brian Oliver, etc.). We could not run with them but we were the type of team that kept on fighting. We felt that the following year would be our best chance to make a splash.

JT: In 1991 you scored a career-high 37 points vs. Marshall. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone"?

KJ:
Our other main shooters that night were something like a combined 2-for-22 from three-point range so I just tried to take over. We were ranked in the top-20 at the time, and just tried to keep moving up the list. It was a high-scoring game; the ball felt good when it left my hand and I had a lot of steals that led to easy lay-ups.

JT: What are your memories of the 1991 NCAA tourney (you scored 11 points and had a school tournament record 13 assists in a three-point loss to Iowa. Acie Earl had 18 points)?

KJ:
That was one of the toughest losses for me, as it was my last game as a senior. We were 28-4, but got screwed as a ten-seed and got shipped out to Minneapolis. I had plenty of opportunities and did not make any turnovers, but I shot 4-of-13 from the field. I remember that we were missing two of our best players at the time; we never went into the tourney full-blast with a healthy team except in 1989.

JT: In 1991 you set a school and conference record with 301 assists in a single season. How were you able to balance your scoring and defense with your passing abilities?

KJ:
I do not think a lot of people realized that I was a high-percentage shooter: I always tried to shoot 50% or above. When you play with other guys who can hit threes or catch alley-oops, then it is just a matter of "pick your poison". We had great chemistry, so nobody cared who got the press; we were a real unselfish team in a great situation who put winning above everything else. It was just a fun time: when I go back to campus, there are lots of people who still talk about that team as one of the best.

JT: In 1991 you also led all of Division I in three-point percentage by shooting 59% from behind the arc. How big a weapon was the three-point shot in your offensive arsenal, and what is your secret for three-point shooting?

KJ:
There is no big secret: it is just a matter of repetition, hard work, etc. We did not have a three-point line in high school (it came into existence soon after I graduated). I would just wake up every morning and go shoot while my younger brother rebounded for me. Obviously, you also need to have good balance, a lot of confidence, etc. I never felt like I struggled with my shot, but I also did not take a lot of bad shots. If you want your team to win, you have to make shots. When you shoot a wide-open shot, it is very different than shooting with a hand in your face.

JT: You still rank fourth on the all-time list for career assists with 983. Do you feel that you were one of the best point guards in NCAA history?

KJ:
When I look at the numbers I put up I think I have to be one of the best point guards who ever played, if you are looking for a complete point guard and going by the numbers. We won conference championships, and I like how my numbers stack up with anyone's.

JT: From 1992-1995 you played three years for Golden State, averaging 6 ppg and 3.7 apg. How satisfied are you with your career, and how do you want people to remember you on the court?

KJ:
I cannot say that I was real satisfied, but it was a dream that came true. People always said I was too small, from high school through college and the pros. I actually got cut the first time I tried out for the NBA but God blessed me with a 2nd opportunity. Playing behind Tim Hardaway was a blessing but you do not get a chance to make a mistake with Tim on the bench. I also learned a lot from Coach Don Nelson. I felt that I could have been an NBA journeyman, but I just wanted to play, and did not get a lot of opportunities in the NBA.

JT: In 1995 you were picked by Toronto in the expansion draft but you never played for them. Why did they take you if they did not want you to play for them?

KJ:
Things just did not work out contract-wise. Toronto GM Isiah Thomas called me right before the expansion draft to say that they would take me with the 4th pick. I was an All-American coming out of college so I was surprised to not get drafted originally. When Toronto took Damon Stoudamire in the real draft, they also took BJ Tyler in the expansion draft so I was stuck behind 2 other point guards.

JT: You spent the next decade playing professionally overseas. What did you learn from this experience and how did it compare to the NBA?

KJ:
I just love getting on the court and showing my skills and helping my team try to beat your team. I was making good money and playing 35 minutes a game overseas, so I was pretty happy. My first year in Germany after I was cut by the Pacers was huge, because I got paid to do something I loved and I was an All-Star. I took it seriously because I wanted another chance in the NBA. We took a 2-week tour to play teams in California, and Golden State invited me in for a tryout. After getting cut by Toronto I had an opportunity to play in Spain and I was an All-Star and won a couple of three-point contests. The Spanish guys were not ready for a small/quick guy who could shoot the ball. It was nice to see the world by playing basketball. I was always a pass-first point guard, but European teams required their point guards to score; I just wish the NBA had been like that.

JT: From 2004-2007 you coached a boys' varsity basketball team at a private school in Virginia but said the job left you unfulfilled because your players were not motivated because they had an easy life. When trying to be a successful athlete, how does motivation compare to skill, effort, genetics, other?

KJ:
I did not see the hunger from those high school kids that I had in myself growing up. When I go out now and recruit kids I look for 2 things: the hunger to be the best student/athlete you can be, and the toughness to win the test of wills. I do not care if you are 5-feet tall or 7-feet tall; you just have to try and stop your opponent without being scared.

JT: You currently are an assistant coach for the basketball team at Bluefield College. What is the main difference you have found in coaching high school players vs. college players and what do you hope to end up doing in the future?

KJ:
I think college kids are getting more realistic about their chances of making it to the NBA from a small school, while high school kids are already thinking about the NBA. The college kids are not in awe of my status as an NBA veteran, but they respect me because they know I made it to the NBA. I want to be a head coach and run a program. Every coach I ever played for called me a coach out on the floor, and I got the most out of my teammates because I know how to talk to people.

 

ATLANTIC SUN "Fantasy Picks"

Belmont: Joe Behling (1990) 2,823 PTS (#1), 947 REB (#4), 142 BLK (#2), 3-time All-American, national POY

Campbell: Joe Spinks (1994) 1,711 PTS (#4), 954 REB (#2), 220 STL (#2), 155 BLK (#2), conference POY

East Tennessee State: Keith Jennings (1991) 1,988 PTS (#4), 983 AST (#1), 334 STL (#1), 223 3PM (#2), 49.3 3P% (#1), 86.1 FT% (#2), All-American, 2-time conference POY

Florida Gulf Coast: Bryan Crislip (2005) 985 PTS (#3), 373 REB (#2), 606 AST (#1), 194 STL (#1)

Jacksonville: Ben Smith (2010) 1,971 PTS (#2), 515 AST (#1), 230 STL (#1), 220 3PM (#2)

Kennesaw State: Ronell Wooten (2008) 1,633 PTS (#2), 615 REB (#5), 262 3PM (#1)

Lipscomb: John Pierce (1994) 4,230 PTS (#1), 1,497 REB (#1), 4-time All-American, 2-time national POY

Mercer: James Florence (2010) 2,287 PTS (#1), 436 AST (#2), 222 STL (#1), 242 3PM (#1)

North Florida: Donny Lotz (2005) 1,412 PTS (#2), 660 REB (#2), 77 BLK (#2), 105 STL (#4)

South Carolina Upstate: Ulysses Hackett (1992) 2,688 PTS (#1), 908 REB (#2), 227 STL (#3), 67.1 FG% (#1), 3-time All-American, 2-time conference POY

Stetson: Kerry Blackshear (1996) 1,826 PTS (#1), conference POY