Keith Pickens is a jumper.
As a basketball player, that’s simply part of who the former Missouri State guard is: a high-level athlete that can jolt an arena with a dunk, or protect the rim much better than you’d expect for someone his size. Yet injuries, as they will, robbed the jumper of his bounce.
As a freshman in 2009-10, Pickens was a frequent starter for a 24-win Bears team before being shut down with a meniscus injury late in the year. Surgery and a five-month recovery followed, and Pickens found himself back home in St. Louis in a pickup game late in the summer. Guys were competing, trash talk was flying around. So when Pickens felt his knee get sore — being the jumper that he is — he didn’t think twice about elevating to swat a shot off the backboard.
Pickens ruptured his patellar tendon in that offseason game, which sidelined him for the entire 2010-11 season. He did eventually get back on the court, and played in 78 games — including 34 starts — over his final three years of eligibility in Springfield. But as he fought through injury after injury, he was never quite right.
“I definitely feel like I would’ve been a better athlete,” Pickens said. “It just wasn’t the same. Something was always nagging — it caused back injuries, hip injuries.”
As he says it, the high flyer was forced to adjust like an NBA veteran reinventing his game as he loses a step and the league gets quicker around him. That put an emphasis on understanding angles and seeing the game differently, which helped him transition to coaching: after two seasons as an assistant at his alma mater, Pickens is in his first year on Rick Ray’s staff at Southeast Missouri State.
Earlier this season, Pickens was finishing up a workout with one of his players. He was feeling good. The former guard was years removed from the daily grind of Division I practice as a player, and had been taking care of his body. So he did what jumpers do, and took the ball and threw down a dunk.
The result surprised him. It brought him back to high school, to that freshman season at MSU before the cruel avalanche of injuries.
“I thought, ‘I didn’t realize I could still do this,’” Pickens said.
That moment helped spur a tradition. Beginning in late December, Pickens has posted videos of himself assaulting rims in SEMO’s gym, but also places the Redhawks have visited, like Florida State:
And Eastern Kentucky:
The dunks usually happen the night before games, after Pickens and the SEMO staff play pickup games against the opposing staff.
“I started playing in a few of those games,” he said. “Afterward I’m usually loose and feeling good, so I start doing different dunks and have fun with it. Just continuing to be young as long as possible.”
While it’s made for great Twitter content, Pickens’ bounce has been felt on the court at SEMO this season too.
Gabe McGlothan has been one of the Ohio Valley’s most productive forwards, averaging a near double-double since league play began (9.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG) and taking home an OVC Freshman of the Week honor in mid February. But like many freshmen, there was initially a speed and size adjustment as he transitioned to the college game.
McGlothan says going against Pickens in practice has helped him make that leap.
“He may not be the tallest, but he shows why he was a Division I athlete. He’s a monster down low,” McGlothan said. “He’s helped me come to that new level of intensity, of being around high-level athletes. He’s really helped me improve and figure out how I can finish, and be more aggressive.”
That’s precisely the intention.
“They know I’m a jumper,” Pickens said. “I block their shots at times, and they know I’m going to be very involved.”
McGlothan says the team sometimes gives Pickens lighthearted grief about his dunks because, after all, they can do some pretty cool stuff around the rim themselves. But they’re nonetheless impressed. When asked about the most impressive Pickens’ dunk he’d seen in person, McGlothan launched into blistering detail.
“It was probably just a self alley oop to himself. He threw it up really high,” the freshman forward said. “He went up and caught it and windmilled it, and it was crazy because how high he got and how nice a windmill it was. Not a short, little circle; it was a big circle all around, the finish was perfect through the net.”
For Pickens, that sort of bounce is a long way removed from his final season as a player at MSU. After grinding through his sophomore and junior seasons, he wasn’t sure he had enough left. He’d still been an effective contributor, particularly on the glass, and had drawn praise from his coach — Paul Lusk — for his energy and leadership.
But he just didn’t think his body would make it through another year’s pounding, and when the 2012-13 season was over he gave up his scholarship, leaving another year of eligibility on the table. The plan was to finish up an internship, graduate and join the real world.
That plan changed.
Pickens was in Louisville that summer with Nita Slaughter, a standout Louisville basketball player and WNBA draft pick who he would later marry. He was shooting and jumping and feeling pretty good. A thought crept into his mind.
Could he really pass up that final season?
The MSU coaching staff wanted him back, and to wipe out any potential regret, Pickens rejoined the team. As he had given up his scholarship, which had been handed out, he had to take care of tuition himself that year as a walk-on. While injuries yet again limited him, he played in 19 games as an important part of the rotation (19.2 MPG). Fittingly, this included three big performances in home wins late in the year over Drake, Indiana State and Loyola Chicago.
Lusk, who coached Pickens’ final three season after he had been signed by Counzo Martin, talked about the impact he had in that final campaign.
“He had skin in the game,” Lusk said. “You know he would do whatever he had to do to help the team win. I think all that matters.”
Pickens made the most out of a tough situation during his playing career, and that perseverance is a lesson he can pass down to his players. As is leadership, which Pickens said is a focus for a young SEMO team that has two sophomores and four freshmen as big parts of its rotation. That experience makes him a uniquely valuable assistant, as does his ability to add a live wire, high-level athlete to scrimmages.
As he continues to feel better, the high-arcing windmill dunks probably can’t hurt either.