It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Keita Bates-Diop’s junior season was downgraded to impossible.
A stress fracture in the shin like the one that ultimately necessitated surgery for Bates-Diop isn’t necessarily tied to one specific instant but rather the accumulation of wear and tear over a period of time.
But as Ohio State’s junior forward tried to play through the injury and the pain increased in his left leg, a pair of graphic warnings cemented the decision to go under the knife and call it a season: Kevin Ware and Paul George.
“It was getting close to essentially being a compound fracture,” Bates-Diop said on Thursday. “That’s what would’ve happened. We don’t know when it would’ve happened, but if I kept playing it was a high possibility. I was already decided on not playing and when they said that, I was like, ‘There’s no chance in coming back.’ ”
Instead, Bates-Diop had a steel rod hammered into his left leg and two screws inserted to help keep it in place. He spent about a week at home in Normal, Illinois, immobile, and was back on his feet shortly thereafter to resume his role as mentor and interested observer on the Ohio State bench.
It’s not the year forecasted for the junior, who by all accounts was playing at a high level during the summer before being slowed by injury. The pain started early during the summer and gradually increased, aided by a session when someone hit it, he said. He was shut down for about two months leading into the season and slowly eased back into action, but the pain intensified as the season continued.
Although he said throughout that he was getting close to 100 percent, it never quite looked like it — and today he came clean.
“I told you guys I was close to being back all the time but I was never (there),” he said with a laugh. “I essentially just lied. I was never 100 percent. I was never close.”
He posted a double-double in the season opener at Navy but suffered a high ankle sprain to his right leg during the third game of the season, a home win against Providence, that cost him five games. When he came back, Bates-Diop struggled through six more appearances before the pain became too much to bear.
In a Dec. 20 game against Youngstown State, Bates-Diop scored a season-high 15 points but only played 17 minutes because “I stopped funny and I was like, ‘Ooh.’ I felt it a lot at that point. Then from those weeks on, it was worse and worse.”
He averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per game.
“I’ve got a new perspective on things because I was in it the first few months we were playing,” he said. “You can’t really see everything when you’re playing. Once you take a step back and look outside the box, you can see all the things you’re doing right and wrong. I’m trying to get these guys to see my perspective because I’m different than a coach. I’m your guys’ friend, your brother, all that. The perspective of what I see and what I think is going right and wrong.”
The surgery took place Jan. 25, and it wasn’t easy on him.
“They went in through the kneecap,” he said. “They opened it up a little bit, and essentially nailed a rod down. They said it was the longest (rod) they’d ever done. I didn’t feel it, obviously. I was asleep. When I woke up it was excruciating pain because they didn’t nerve-block me for blood clot reasons or some medical reason. Then they nailed it in and put two screws in.”
In addition to the injury, Bates-Diop’s family dealt with another emergency when his 16-year-old brother, Kai, collapsed during basketball practice Feb. 9 and had to be revived on the court. Bates-Diop said his brother returned to school on Thursday for the first time since the incident.
“It’s been pretty hard at some points, but I’ve got a good family,” he said. “I’ve got good friends here and back home. We all have stuff going on whether we show it or not. My stuff’s just public at times because I play here. I’m sure you all have stuff going on, but it’s just how we deal with it and good people around you can help and I have that.”
Going forward, Bates-Diop is months from being able to resume basketball activities. He’ll follow a gradual progression and will spend extra time working on his upper body in the weight room with an eye on making a big return next season — one the Buckeyes will need.
“I think mental preparation toward the game,” he said when asked what he’s learned. “The physical stuff, I was playing at a high level, I can get that back. Looking from the outside in, now I can change my mentality toward the game. All that stuff, I can teach these guys.”