Some friends, members of my fraternity and I have a nickname for Kevin Keatts…it’s “Deacon Keatts.” All of us are African-American, with the vast majority of us born and raised in the South, saw when Kevin Keatts first stepped on the scene he reminded us of that memorable church deacon. The one who always knew the right elocution to get the most from collection, could out dress just about everyone in the congregation and would have the warmest personal interactions with everyone present in church. All of this was very familiar, so when Keatts was hired as only the second African-American head coach in NC State revenue history, it was a point of pride for many of us. There was something about a head coach who, not only spoke in a vernacular that was familiar, but doesn’t appear to code-switch when interacting with the press or fans. The “Kevin Keatts is a winner” meme resonates and while this is only one year with the jury still out on long-term success…it has ostensibly become our mantra as Wolfpack fans. Not only is it our mantra, but it’s the words the man said himself. I can’t recall, in recent history, a coach who is so willing to express confidence in his own abilities. And it may come back to bite him one day, but that swagger is on par with the attitude we gravitate towards at NC State and our hope is that will lead to success.
Now I write this because of a concern a former student of mine expressed to me when Keatts was hired. This was a great student with a true blood red Pack family, who all happen to be white. He related a worry he and his parents had that some Wolfpackers would keep a shorter leash on Keatts due to his race. And while I immediately thought “well we kept Sid Lowe for 5 years” it was understood to me that these situations were different. Sid was a beloved alum who stepped in at a time when our search hit rock bottom. Keatts situation is different, he hadn’t been family. It’s true he would be taking over a program that needed change but also one that had just awkwardly fired a coach who had reached more postseason success than anyone since Jimmy V. Maybe the leash would be shorter, and maybe this concern had some validity. Friends and family, black and white alike, have for decades shared the same fears of the potential treatment of an African-American head coach at a Southern school, especially in a region that treats its basketball like a religion. Fortunately, we have witnessed very little, if any of this…acknowledging that a part of it may be that Keatts is winning right now so those with such negative proclivities can accept this since Ws continually appear on the scoreboard. But I had yet to get my former student’s words out of my mind until it led me to flip this worry on its head and view the glass half full here. How many young Black men in North Carolina (or anywhere), will see pride in having some more representation at the highest level of basketball at another Tobacco Road school? A number of Black coaches at this level have other underlying reasons that contributed to their getting these valuable jobs. Often, it’s in the role as a vaunted successor or that of nostalgia towards times past or even nepotism as an alum… Keatts had none of that and, however he succeeds or fails going forward, will not have an asterisk of how he got here in the first place. That, in and of itself, a selection made almost purely on merit…is an inspiration to other people of color who wish to reach the heights he occupies.
Two weeks ago, the film Black Panther made nearly $235 million in 4-day opening. Industry insiders predicted this movie, and its connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would garner a strong $140-150 million in its debut. Instead the film surpassed expectations to become the 5th highest grossing opening of all time. This was primarily due to an audience that has been underrepresented in blockbuster films, that was overjoyed to finally had an entire production of people that look like them to revel in. Kevin Keatts…Deacon Keatts…may reach the comparable success of a record-setting blockbuster one day…or he may fall just short as we all fall short of the glory sometimes…but so far, how he portrays himself as a person, a coach, a Black man may resonate with young African-American men and others across this state for years and years to come.