KJ Keatts enjoying ride with Dad

NC State walk-on KJ Keatts poses with the Wolfpack’s ticket to March Madness after winning the ACC Tournament (photo by Shawn Krest)

With 15.7 seconds left in the ACC Championship Game, and NC State preparing to celebrate its first title in 37 years, coach Kevin Keatts turned to his bench and called his son’s name.

KJ Keatts is in his second year as a Wolfpack walk-on. He’s never scored a point. The quarter minute against UNC was his first game action since Dec. 20. It was his first action against an ACC opponent in 53 weeks, since last year’s ACC Tournament.

Still, even though he didn’t touch the ball in his 15 seconds, Keatts was on the floor when the confetti fell.

Fans and experts alike focus on wins and losses, points and rebounds, contracts and buy outs. It’s easy to call for a coach’s head based on the results and forget that there are people involved that are impacted by the decision.

At the start of the week in Washington, D.C., KJ Keatts was hearing all about the fate of his coach. The consensus was that whenever NC State’s stay at the ACC Tournament ended, so did Keatts’ tenure with the Wolfpack. That is stressful for any college player, unsure of his future when the new head coach takes over and begins reshaping the program in his image. It’s especially impactful for walk-ons, whose spot on the roster is far from assured. And, when the coach is your dad, the prospect of a double-loss—the elder Keatts’ job and the younger’s spot on the team—weighs heavily.

“You know, I kind of just threw it all on the back burner,” KJ said. ”I really tried to not pay much attention to it. I think for the most part, I know what he can do. What he’s capable of doing. And he did a great job handling everything.”

Of course, when Keatts orchestrated a history-making five wins in five days, to make sure State’s run didn’t end until the ACC Tournament did, followed by two wins and a Sweet 16 berth in the NCAA Tournament, his son had a front row seat.

“I’ve been seeing, you know, what I’ve always seen out of him,” he said. “Being able to, a guess you could say, do well under pressure. You know, people are looking at him in different ways. Everybody viewed him differently.”

The younger Keatts has noticed more of a spring in dad’s step lately, like a great weight has been lifted off of him.

“I would say so, yeah,” he said. “I think there’s definitely a sigh of relief. You know, he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder, I guess you could say.”

That has also lifted a weight off the shoulders of the entire team.

“It’s been great,” KJ said. “Just having fun, being here with these guys. It’s been a great time with my team. And now my brother’s here, and my mom’s here, and everything’s going great.”

And, of course, Dad isn’t going anywhere.

“Just over these two weeks, he’s prepared and gotten things done,” son said. “And I think he’s been great, and I’m very proud of him.”