The postgame interview room at Value City Arena, like most things associated with the Ohio State men’s basketball program, has gotten a makeover during Keita Bates-Diop’s tenure. The walls have changed, downplaying the arena’s significance as a concert venue to showcase the torsos of Buckeyes whose sports also call the building home.
It was only fitting that it played host to the final press conference of Keita Bates-Diop’s collegiate career. It served as the unofficial kick-start to his Ohio State career, too, when the Buckeyes fended off Walsh in an exhibition game to start the 2015-16 season. It was the start of Bates-Diop’s sophomore season, when he was expected to move from bit player to key contributor as the Buckeyes said goodbye to a senior class and embarked on a new, youthful era.
He scored a team-high 26 points in a closer-than-comfortable win, which in hindsight was a sign of greater troubles ahead. After the game, he was one of two players made available in the postgame interview room.
The other, freshman guard JaQuan Lyle, was asked about Bates-Diop’s performance. His response, though perceptive, drew some side-eye from the older player for the manner in which it was relayed.
"You never know with Keita," Lyle said. "One week he’ll do what he did tonight, the next night you wouldn’t know he’s in the gym. The only thing we do, we try to talk to Keita about being consistent and being that killer like he was tonight every day."
It was a brutally honest statement from one of five newcomers on the team, all of whom would eventually leave within two years. Although, Bates-Diop didn’t dispute Lyle’s words.
"I guess I’m tapping into it, trying to bring it out and do it continuously and consistently," he said. "That’s just how I’m looking to approach the season. I’m hoping to carry that over to the season."
It happened at times, and at others it didn’t. Bates-Diop scored at least 19 points four times and would be named honorable mention all-Big Ten at season’s end, but he also went scoreless twice while attempting a combined five shots. After scoring 15 points in a loss at Maryland, he didn’t score at Purdue before coming home and pouring in 22 against Penn State.
After the Buckeyes dropped a second consecutive home stunner, losing to Louisiana Tech on the heels of a loss to Texas-Arlington, Bates-Diop sat alongside teammate, classmate, roommate and close friend Jae’Sean Tate and had to try to explain what happened.
"I could probably be a little more aggressive," he said after scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. "I definitely can, but part of that is just our offense, how we move it around, how we try to share the wealth. Marc (Loving) had his night tonight. I had mine in the exhibition game. We try not to put it all on one person."
It was a topic of conversation that carried over into his junior year, a season that by all internal accounts was shaping up to be a big one. A preseason ankle injury was said to be in the past, and although he suffered a sickeningly awkward fall against Providence in the third game of the season, Bates-Diop pronounced himself 100 percent healthy in the postgame interview room after missing five games with the injury.
Except that he wasn’t fully healthy, and his play would prove that out. Six games later, a surprisingly ineffective Bates-Diop was shut down to have season-ending surgery. That news was delivered by Matta inside the postgame interview room following a one-point home loss to Purdue that dropped the Buckeyes to 0-2 in the Big Ten and 10-5 overall.
Weeks later, after a successful surgery, Bates-Diop met reporters inside that interview room. He hoisted his leg up onto the table to demonstrate where the steel rod had been inserted into his leg and fessed up that, yes, when he said he was 100 percent healthy in late December, he was lying.
It all set the stage for this breakout season, one in which he became Big Ten player of the year. In mid-January, it’s where I sat down with him for a long chat about his burgeoning star power and what had helped get him to this point of his career. It was an honest, in-depth conversation from a player on the cusp of achieving a major career goal.
I asked him in that room if he grew up wanting to be famous.
"I really didn’t," he said. "I was kind of a quiet kid. I was a shy kid, so fame was never on my mind. But as I got better at basketball, especially in high school, you start getting attention so you start getting used to it."
He cited Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James role models from his younger years, and I asked if it had dawned on him that if he kept playing at this level he could join their ranks one day.
"That’s when I put two and two together, that there’s bad that comes with it because I feel like fame is a nasty beast sometimes," he said. "Your whole reputation can be ruined if you’re famous by doing one wrong thing. It’s a slippery slope."
It was a mature answer from a recently graduated athlete, and one the likes of which I’d come to expect in my dealings with Bates-Diop. There would be a jubilant press conference when the Buckeyes knocked off No. 1 Michigan State, and plenty of others from a remarkable season capped by a senior night in which he participated followed by the revelation that the team would return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since his freshman season.
It all came full circle Monday afternoon, when Bates-Diop announced that he would be heading to the NBA and hiring an agent inside the same room that had seen so many highs and lows. I had to ask: what did it feel like, to have such a moment in such a room?
"It’s a good feeling because I came so far, but it’s kind of the end of all those moments that made me who I am today," he said. "It’s a good feeling, but I’ll always cherish all those memories of sitting here at this table."