Kenneth Faried owns the glass like no other player in the country, and he does it in obscurity. It's a nice little story, but only the start of his unlikely narrative
Where you at, Nard?"
Mild crisis in Newark: Three missed shots into the game, and Nard has not rebounded any of them. Whereabouts on the floor: uncertain. These are invisible misfires, invisible missed rebounds, radio play-by-play streaming over the Internet. Nard's team, Morehead State of the Ohio Valley Conference, is rarely televised. He's playing against SIU-Edwardsville, 930 miles from this 24th-floor apartment in the Zion Towers projects, yet in his mother's living room he's everywhere—his plaques, his trophies, his game balls and photographs of him hugging her. Her voice again, this time with exasperation.
"Where you at, Nard?"
Five shots have been missed, and Waudda Faried's oldest son's name still hasn't been called. She counts all the rebounds made by Kenneth Bernard Faried-Lewis II. He gets them as a tribute to her. When he first went to Newark's playground courts with Waudda and his father, Kenneth Sr. (he was Kenneth, so the boy was called Nard), they explained that if he wanted to shoot the basketball, he had to rebound it first. This is a harsh thing to tell a five-year-old—unless that kid goes on to become the best rebounder in college basketball. Then, it becomes a part of his legend.
"Tillman turns, fires ... off the iron, off the glass, off the rim, a miss, rebound Faried—"
"Thank you," Waudda says, clapping once for emphasis. "Thank you."
That's one. Nard, who's averaging a Division I-best 13.3 rebounds per game for the 12--7 Eagles, will get 20 before the final buzzer. Waudda has requested 30—"He owes me 30, and he's working on it," she says—but will celebrate his 20. It's 7 p.m. and darkness has settled over Zion Towers. She has enough energy left to rise up off the couch and dance a happy dance. Go Nard, go Nard.
She didn't think she'd live long enough to do this.
In 2007, Faried arrived in tiny Morehead—a 6,000-person burg in the northern tip of the Daniel Boone National Forest—cutting a frail figure. He was 6'7" and 185 pounds, dreadlocked and culture-shocked. He's grown immensely, to 6'8" and 228, his upper body a sculpted isosceles triangle, his legs sinewy pogo sticks. He's still small compared with the top NCAA rebounders of the past three seasons (chart, page 55), yet he's so relentless that each of his first three seasons with the Eagles appears in the top six. Oklahoma's Blake Griffin won the Wooden and Naismith awards in part for his glasswork in '08--09, but Faried had better numbers that year and the next.
Faried received little attention during his high school days at Newark Technology, a charter school with an unestablished basketball program. He could start in the frontcourt for any college program in the country (most NBA scouts will tell you this—more on that later), and yet four years ago, he was recruited seriously by just two schools, Morehead State and Marist. Seton Hall and Rutgers checked in on him, but uncertainty over what position he'd play and whether he'd qualify academically—he had to scramble as a senior to make grades and didn't get an acceptable SAT score until June 2007, two months before he enrolled in college—made both programs lose interest.
Faried took one official visit, to Morehead State, whose first-year coach, Donnie Tyndall, had received a tip on him through a New Jersey scouting service contact. The Eagles were in the midst of a 12--18 season in 2006--07, but Faried committed in February, and he's since been the cornerstone of the program's rise to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and a 24-win season last year. Tyndall had no notion that Faried would be a star capable of appearing on the NBA's radar. "I thought he'd be a guy who could start for us for three years and make all-conference before he graduated," Tyndall says. "Now, I call him a once-in-a-lifetime player at this school. Even if I'm fortunate enough to coach at Morehead for 20 years, I'll probably only have one Kenneth Faried."
What separates the player who gets 10 to 12 rebounds per 40 minutes from the one who gets 17, as Faried does? He's oversized for his conference, which helps; he has long arms, an excellent second bounce and loads of lateral quickness, which help even more. He has a few tricks that he learned from Kenneth Sr., including a jujitsulike swim move Faried uses against opponents who have him boxed out; it typically involves a deft blow to the solar plexus that pushes the opposing player away from the basket. But elite rebounders have an intangible force as well. Former Pitt star DeJuan Blair, for example, said he was powered by something like greed. "I love money," he explained during his sophomore season. "I pretend that every rebound is a million dollars, and I'm going to go out and get my millions." Faried has a deeper drive, and this is what major-conference recruiters missed: They could see 6'7", 185 pounds and they could see his raw athleticism—but they could not gauge the depth of his will to rebound.
That will comes from a place that Faried is slow to reveal. He's in his dorm room at Morehead, a rectangular, ground-floor triple in which he occupies one end; best friend Demonte Harper, the Eagles' highest-scoring guard, occupies the other; and a student manager's bed is wedged in the middle space. They use shower curtains as dividers. Faried is playing the Xbox 360 game Call of Duty: Black Ops, a first-person shooter that requires too much focus to simultaneously engage in an emotional discussion. An anonymous, online soldier slays him with a volleyed explosive device, and Faried relents. He powers down the Xbox, then the television, and apologizes.
"It's just that ... video games are my escape," he says, leaning forward in his chair now, so that his dreadlocks fall over his eyes, which are welling up with tears. "Because when I start thinking about my mother, and talk about her being sick, I always start to cry."
Faried never met his maternal grandmother, Ishana, who died from lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that causes the body's immune system to attack its own tissues and organs, while Waudda was pregnant with him in 1989. Waudda was an all-district hurdler and long jumper in high school, ran track at Jersey City State and held her own in streetball games—"I was a very physical player," she says—while playing on the same teams as Kenneth Sr. Because of her mother's experience, Waudda knew she was genetically predisposed to contract lupus.
She was told when Kenneth was two that she had the disease, and when he was in the fourth grade, it began to debilitate her, affecting her kidneys and her joints, and sapping her energy. "I used to wonder why my mother would lie in her bedroom in the middle of the day with all the lights turned off and not want us to bother her," Waudda, age 43, says. "And then I understood." She has spent the past 12 years in and out of the hospital, dealing, as Faried says, with heartbreak after heartbreak.
He explains how after high school games, Kenneth Sr. would take him to visit Waudda in St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J. "Tell her the story," Kenneth Sr. would say, and if Nard wasn't being descriptive enough, his dad would interject falsehoods ("Remember when you got dunked on?") designed to rile up his boy. Waudda only cared about one stat. "She'd say to me, 'You'd better have gotten your rebounds,'" Faried remembers.
Despite her illness, Waudda promised to be present if Faried ever played for a championship at Morehead State. On March 7, 2009, in Nashville, after the Eagles beat Austin Peay in double overtime to win the OVC tournament and reach the NCAAs for the first time since 1984, Faried's first move after the buzzer was to bound up into the stands and embrace his mom. She was weak, with staples in her arm from a recent operation, but she had made the trip. Waudda came to Nashville again last season, on March 6, only to see Morehead lose in the OVC finals to Murray State. Faried was devastated by the loss, but what he heard that night from Waudda—who asked him to have a talk with her at her hotel—shook him to his core.
"I don't know how long I have left," she said. "I always wanted to see you achieve your dreams, and see you have a child ... but I don't know how long I have left."
Unbeknownst to Waudda, Faried's close friend, Rebecca McCarthy, was due to have their baby girl, Kyra, in just a few days.
He had been too scared to tell his mother; he wanted to make sure the child was healthy first. Kyra was born on March 12, and when Faried called Waudda with the news, she was overjoyed. There was then the matter of his dream—the NBA—and whether to enter the draft as a junior. He declared with the intention of helping his mother and daughter.
Faried could only fit one workout trip around his finals during the shortened draft window (April 25 through May 8) for underclassmen. The Oklahoma City Thunder put him through the most thorough physical exam of his life. He'd battled asthma in the past—he was even hospitalized for it as a child—but the Thunder's doctors discovered something alarming.
Faried had been playing for an indeterminate amount of time with a deviated septum. One of his nasal passages was blocked completely; the other was 25% blocked. He had surgery this off-season to correct the issue and has been able to stay on the floor for longer stretches as a senior. (He's played 35-plus minutes in 10 games already—compared to just four last year.)
But Faried had been the nation's best rebounder when he could barely breathe.
It was Waudda who insisted he stay in school, because he wasn't certain about turning pro and he couldn't get a first-round guarantee. After pulling out of the draft, Nard went home to Newark to spend what might have been his last quality time with Waudda. He was with her on May 26 when a miracle occurred: After a seven-year wait, St. Barnabas had finally found a kidney donor for her. The surgery was successful, giving Waudda what Kenneth describes as "a second life." The transplant could give Waudda another five years in her fight with lupus. It should also allow her to see Kenneth in the NBA draft, which is being held in Newark in June—and, he firmly believes, in the NBA in 2011--12.
"She is what drives me," he says. "I want to be the person she wants me to be. When I see her I say, 'That's one strong woman. She has no quit in her whatsoever.' That's why I don't quit on anything."
The game is over, and Waudda has pulled out a box of photographs of Nard as a boy. She is partial to one of him dancing in a plain white T-shirt when he was about eight. "That," she says, picking it up and examining it, "was one active child."
Now NBA scouts regularly fly to Lexington and drive the hour east, or to Cincinnati and drive the two hours southeast, to check in on Waudda Faried's active child and watch him chase every rebound. They are trying to discern, while seeing him dominate tiny OVC forwards, whether he's worthy of their first-round pick. The most common assessment they make on-record is, "He's interesting," because they know to be coy about a mid-major sleeper. He could be the next Paul Millsap or Louis Amundson, or if you believe Florida coach Billy Donovan—against whose fully sized Gators Faried had 20 points and 18 rebounds on Nov. 21—"Dennis Rodman all over again."
"If I was an NBA general manager, I'd be taking him with my pick," Donovan said of Faried after Florida's 61--55 win. "That's what a next-level guy looks like. He just totally destroyed our frontcourt."
Surely several G.M.'s winced upon reading Donovan's quote; when the college coach of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and David Lee anoints a small-school forward the Next Rodman, the secret is going to get out. But Faried has been making his case for three years. He had double doubles in 15 of 19 games this season, 25 games as a junior, 25 as a sophomore and seven as a freshman. In his two NCAA tournament appearances, he had 14 points and 21 boards (against Alabama State) and 14 and 11 (against Louisville). It doesn't matter what kind of frontcourt Faried is up against. He'll always get his rebounds.
A look through the Newark Star-Ledger clippings Waudda has in a scrapbook reveals that Nard was doing the same thing in high school. He averaged 15.8 rebounds (and 23.2 points) as a senior, yet major colleges put no stock in those numbers. Waudda saved every tiny story and box score, from the games she witnessed Nard rebounding for her, and the games about which she could only hear his stories. She sometimes annotated the scrapbook entries in her unsteady hand, such as the article from Dec. 17, 2005, which is headlined FARIED SPARKLES AS TECHNOLOGY TRIUMPHS. That was his junior year, and he had 25 points and 22 rebounds in a playoff game. What Waudda wrote next to it, in thick red marker, is the only epitaph Nard's career will ever need: "He played his ass off."
NARD WAS WITH HIS MOTHER WHEN A MIRACLE OCCURRED. AFTER A SEVEN-YEAR WAIT, A KIDNEY DONOR HAD BEEN FOUND.
CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARDS
A look at the top Division I rebounding averages (per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted) from the previous three seasons puts Faried in good company. His average for the 2010--11 season (16.3) would rank seventh.
1 JOHN BRYANT
Santa Clara '08--09 19.0
Averaged 13.4 points and 9.5 boards for the D-League's Bayhawks in '09-10.
2 DEJUAN BLAIR
Pitt '08--09 18.6
The 6'7", 265-pound strongman led Pitt to a No. 1 ranking; he was drafted by the Spurs.
3 KENNETH FARIED
5 BLAKE GRIFFIN
Oklahoma '08--09 17.2
The gravity-defying man-child is running away with the NBA Rookie of the Year race.
7 ERIC COLEMAN
Northern Iowa '07--08 16.3
The 6'7" Coleman has played pro ball in Europe for the past three seasons.
8 DEMARCUS COUSINS
Kentucky '09--10 15.9
Cousins, at 6'11" and 270 pounds, was the fifth overall pick in 2010, by the Kings.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
IN GOOD HANDS The versatile Faried not only leads the Eagles in points (17.6) and rebounds (13.3), but he's also a crafty defender, with 38 blocks and 43 steals in 19 games.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
SKY HIGH EXPECTATIONS Faried returned to school hoping to impress NBA scouts, who have flocked to Eagles games this year.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
DREAM TEAM The kidney transplant Waudda received last summer could prolong her life several years and allow her to see Faried play in the NBA.