Big Ten Conference Player of the Year. Bob Fitzgerald might not have gone that far in the summer of 2010, when a tall, thin, quiet kid with long arms and a unique name showed up at University High School’s basketball camp.
Yet, from that first day, Fitzgerald knew there was “something special” about Keita Bates-Diop. Some of it had to do with basketball and how fluid the freshman-to-be was on the court. But there was more than that.
Entering the fourth season of a nine-year run as U High head coach, Fitzgerald was intrigued by Bates-Diop’s makeup.
“We knew we had a kid with special ability, but as importantly we knew we had a kid who was going to work really hard and going to continue to just be a really good kid … a fine young man,” Fitzgerald said.
Fast forward to Feb. 4 of this year. Fitzgerald and his wife, Teresa, traveled to Columbus, Ohio to watch Bates-Diop, now an Ohio State redshirt junior, play against Illinois.
The 6-foot-7 forward was terrific that day, scoring a career-high 35 points with 13 rebounds in a 75-67 victory. Fitzgerald loved it … almost as much as what he saw and heard off the court.
“He’s still that same humble, nice kid,” Fitzgerald said. “He has that infectious smile. That was as nice to see as anything … that he’s the same guy in the midst of this incredible season he’s had.”
Incredible is a good word. Bates-Diop has averaged 19.2 points and 8.9 rebounds on a 24-7 team that began the season with a new coach and low expectations. The Big Ten coaches and media both selected him as the league’s Player of the Year.
The honor is well-deserved and, yes, hard-earned. Bates-Diop’s smooth style makes it look easy. It looked that way at U High.
Fitzgerald knows better.
“He had gifts which were directly related to natural ability, but also there was the time he put in,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think there was a day in his four years here that he wasn’t playing basketball.
“I’m just so happy for him and proud of him. I think we all knew he had this in him. It’s so nice to see it come out.”
Bates-Diop is healthy.
Last year, a stress fracture in his left leg led to surgery and essentially a lost season. In the midst of it, his brother, then-U High sophomore Kai Bates-Diop, had to be revived at practice after his heart stopped. An emerging prospect, he was found to have a heart condition that required surgery and no longer allows him to play competitively.
So Keita plays for both of them. Their parents, Richard and Wilma Bates, will tell you that.
They’ll also tell you the number they treasure most in regard to their oldest son isn’t on a stat sheet.
Keita Bates-Diop earned his bachelor’s degree in economics at Ohio State in three and a half years. He is taking graduate courses this semester.
“His story is important for young kids to hear,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s the focus on education first. Basketball was fun and a vehicle, but with Keita it’s always been about the value and importance of education and finishing his degree.
“It’s using basketball as a tool for that rather than basketball being the end product. That part of his story needs to be told. That’s what young kids need to hear, especially in light of all that’s going on right now.”
Indeed, college basketball is a mess. The FBI is investigating fraud and corruption throughout the game. Arrests have been made and more will come. Light is being shined in dark corners, exposing the unseemly and unsightly.
Bates-Diop is proof it doesn’t have to be ugly and underhanded. It can be beautiful and above board.
The quiet kid with the long arms and unique name is no kid anymore. He is 22 years old. He’s also the Big Ten Player of the Year.
And a whole lot more.