By Trey Williams
After piling up 983 assists during his record-setting career at East Tennessee State, Keith “Mister” Jennings handed out 614 assists with the Golden State Warriors.
Actually, make that 615.
Jennings, a two-time Southern Conference player of the year and the 1991 Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award winner, was invited to Oakland last week as part of the Warriors’ 75th anniversary celebration. The SoCon’s all-time assists leader got to chat with its all-time scoring leader, Steph Curry, and do a segment with former teammate Chris Mullin during the Warriors pregame show prior to their matchup with Denver.
But best of all, he visited with Omar Wandera, a Warriors ball boy when Jennings played who wanted to personally thank him for being an inspiration. Wandera was in high school when he was a ball boy and Jennings played for the Warriors.
“Omar always had like a little mean mug on him and everything,” said Jennings, now in his fifth year as the Lees-McRae women’s head coach. “I was always just trying to get in his ear a little bit. The next thing you know, I invite him over to have some dinner and cook some food with him and play the PlayStation and we just started hanging out a little bit.
“When you’re talking to city kids that don’t have too much to dream about and they meet you and you give ‘em a reason to dream, it just seems to change things in some people’s lives.”
Jennings said Wandera made a good career for himself, one that included being a school principal.
Jennings had a Hall of Fame career at ETSU. Seemingly always under control, he was a model of efficiency with his skills, smarts and unselfishness. He led the country by shooting a sizzling 59.8 percent from 3-point range as a senior (1990-91) while scoring a team-high 20.1 points per game. He helped the Bucs climb as high as No. 10 in the Top 25 on Feb. 11 that season, which included wins at Cincinnati, Memphis and BYU and at home against North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack had one of the nation’s top backcourts with seniors Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani (“Fire and Ice”) as well as future NBA player Tom Gugliotta. And it was coached by Les Robinson, who had recruited Jennings to ETSU and coached him his first three seasons prior to moving to Raleigh to succeed Jim Valvano.
The Bucs had also beaten NC State the previous season in Raleigh, helping secure the job for Robinson, by a score of 92-82. The game didn’t seem that close.
“At their place, I’ll never forget Corchiani bringing the ball up and looking at the score, and I swear it might’ve been like, 44-18, or something like that,” Jennings said. “I know he was like, ‘Wait a minute, man. Who the hell are these guys?’”
Jennings had 17 points and 10 assists in the win in Raleigh and Corchiani told reporters before the rematch what he thought of Jennings: “I think he’s the most underrated point guard in the country. He did a number on me (last season).”
High-flying Calvin Talford scored 30 points and another great leaper, Rodney English, added 20 as the Bucs won the rematch, 94-91. Jennings and Corchiani each had nine assists.
The Bucs were always confident against quality teams. Talford, who was named to the Southern Conference’s 100th anniversary team last month along with Jennings and Zakee Wadood, said Jennings’ basketball IQ was perhaps the primary reason.
“Mister’s knowledge of basketball was so far more advanced than everybody’s was back in the day,” Talford said.
Jennings led ETSU to the first three of four straight NCAA Tournaments (1989-92) and the Bucs seemed likely to become the first No. 16 seed to triumph when they had Oklahoma on the ropes in Nashville in ’89 – at least until Jennings fouled out on a questionable call while going against Mookie Blaylock. Billy Tubbs exhaled and his Sooners escaped, 72-71.
“You could see they wanted to get Mister off the floor,” Talford said. “If they didn’t get him off the floor they would’ve lost.”
Added Jennings: “I know I didn’t foul Mookie.”
ETSU was overmatched in the 1990 NCAA Tournament, losing 99-83 to a Georgia Tech team that had future NBA starters Dennis Scott (36 points) and Kenny Anderson (21 points, 10 assists, seven turnovers). Jennings finished with 17 points (5-of-8 shooting from deep), five assists and two turnovers.
ETSU assistant coach Jeff Lebo would tell Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin the following year that Anderson was the only point guard he’d seen as good as Jennings that season.
Rushin was one of three media heavyweights to visit Johnson City during Jennings’ senior season. Television reporters James Brown and Robin Roberts interviewed Jennings, too.
“These are people you see on television,” Jennings said, “and the next thing you know, they’re sitting in front of you chatting and making you feel really comfortable like they know us.”
ETSU failed to break through in the NCAA Tournament Jennings’ senior season, losing 76-73 to Iowa. Of course, the Bucs had lost center Greg Dennis to a season-ending injury early in the year and they were without Talford due to injury.
“If Greg could’ve stayed healthy would we have beaten Iowa and then ran into Duke maybe in the second round,” Jennings said. “And the way I played against (Bobby) Hurley in the League, I would’ve felt good playing against him if we would’ve had to match up. I don’t think we were ever totally healthy (that season).”
Jennings’ senior season was Alan LeForce’s first as head coach. Jennings helped make certain LeForce succeeded Robinson during a meeting with ETSU president Ron Beller.
“(Mister) got up and said, ‘Dr. Beller, you’ve got the finest coach you’ll ever find sitting right there,’” LeForce said. “So you could imagine what that made me feel like. I could’ve cried, really.”
Jennings didn’t want anyone else to get it.
“At that point we were having so much success and I was having so much individual success,” Jennings said, “and I was really kind of worried they could bring somebody in that might want to change our style of play.”
Jennings still speaks with LeForce frequently, perhaps more than he does with anyone from the ETSU days except for Marty Story and maybe Talford.
LeForce saw Jennings play for Culpeper (Va.) in high school on a night he broke the district’s career scoring record.
“It was like I’s watching a 5-foot-7 Oscar Robertson,” LeForce said.
Granted, LeForce couldn’t have predicted Jennings playing in the NBA that night.
Jennings might have played longer in the NBA if not for multiple ACL tears, the second of which came in the preseason with Denver during his final NBA venture.
Jennings exited Golden State after his third season, one that included coach Don Nelson leaving after 45 games. Jennings was left unprotected and selected by Toronto in the expansion draft, but a lockout ensued.
“During that lockout was when Vancouver and Toronto came into the league and I got drafted by the Raptors,” he said. “I thought things were gonna work out there. But I ended up during the lockout going to Spain and finished the season. I didn’t even come back when they came out of the lockout.
“Then I got with the Denver Nuggets that following year and I blew my knee out in the preseason and they released me after that. And then in ’98 was when I went back over to France and I finished my career overseas.”
Jennings was the MVP of the league in France. Talford was playing in Europe when he had an opportunity to watch Jennings play one night in France.
“I get down there,” Talford said, “and the whole stands – people have these little signs with Mister’s face on ‘em and everybody’s holding ‘em up chanting, ‘Keith!’ … He was a great point guard, a great player.”
And, as Wandera would tell you, a great guy.