Whenever Craig Ponder has been at a crossroads in his basketball career, Kevin Keatts has helped him through it. The UNCW guard is grateful for the relationship as he celebrates senior night.
The sixth man on his final team at Hargrave Military Academy was miserable, buried on the bench for a mid-major squad headed for another 20-loss season. Now he reached out to Keatts during winter break, unsure if he should even stick around for the second semester.
Keatts – in his third season as an assistant at Louisville by December 2013 – let his former player do most of the talking before offering a measured opinion:
At the time, Craig Ponder didn’t particularly like that advice. Some in the UNCW locker room had already started discussing where they might transfer, both pie-in-the-sky hopes and realistic destinations for the next chapter of their careers. A fresh start couldn’t come soon enough.
These days, it’s just another scene in a tale speeding toward an increasingly happy ending. Ponder, of course, didn’t go anywhere. The guard got his clean slate less than four months later, when Keatts became his coach again.
As Ponder celebrates senior night at Trask Coliseum, there isn’t much room for debate: He never would’ve made it to UNCW without Keatts offering the prep school platform to keep chasing his Division I dream. And he almost certainly wouldn’t have stayed with the Seahawks for five seasons -- long enough to break the 1,000-point mark and become their all-time leader in appearances -- if their paths hadn’t crossed again.
“He means more to me than he’ll ever know, man,” Ponder said. “It’s almost like he saved me twice.”
High school football is still king in West Virginia, but Ponder gravitated to basketball growing up in Bluefield, a former coal-mining hub at the base of 3,400-foot East River Mountain on the state’s southern border.
Almost every afternoon, Ponder would find a ride to the local community center and run the court until the adults showed up after work. Eventually, he was able to hang with them, too, thanks to a game modeled after undersized, high-scoring guards Allen Iverson and Dee Brown.
It was a routine born out of passion for the sport but also the surest way to stay clear of trouble. That was just fine with his mother Sarah, who set a dream-big example for her three boys as the first black woman to make engineer and drive coal trains on her line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
“They know with hard work you’re going to achieve,” Sarah Ponder said. “And the success is at the end.”
Her middle son put that maxim to the test. Craig Ponder was well-known on the state hoops scene but had trouble garnering the college looks he wanted. In four years with the Bluefield High Beavers, the easy-going star was always eager to share the spotlight. In the offseason, he played on a local travel team rather than a state-hopping AAU squad.
“He just wanted to win ballgames for Bluefield,” said assistant Tony Webster. “He didn’t care if he had 50 (points) or he had five. He’s always been that kind of player.”
Even a 56-point effort in his high school finale wasn’t enough. Marshall let him know they were paying attention but never bothered to actually come watch. He had to settle for Division II offers from mostly in-state schools. As graduation approached, he was likely headed to West Virginia State.
That’s when his brother Ansel started pushing him to consider following his path through Hargrave.
“No knock on West Virginia State, but I felt like, ‘No, we have to change this,’” said Ansel, who played football at the Virginia prep school in 2008 before playing receiver at Western Michigan.
That meant impressing Keatts, who needed a new roster every year at Hargrave but had no shortage of interest. The coach would hold a handful of spots for elite recruits looking to get their grades in order, then fill the other seven or so slots with under-recruited guys like Ponder. There could be up to 70 applicants in that second pool.
Ponder’s initial taste of top-tier competition came at his first of two tryouts. He didn’t recognize Lorenzo Brown (who went on to play at N.C. State) or Shawn Kemp Jr. (Washington), but they helped him realize what he was getting into.
“When I left, I had to look them up,” Ponder said. “They were so good. It was like, ‘Who the heck are these dudes?’”
Keatts never took such decisions lightly. He had to figure out who could handle his lofty demands on the court and the strict military lifestyle.
Eventually, Keatts picked Ponder for one of the coveted spots. Fittingly, the guard was playing at the community center when the coach called with the news.
Looking back, that was the most rewarding part of the job.
“We made a living off guys that people just didn’t believe in,” Keatts said. “Craig Ponder’s one of those success stories now.”
Indeed, attention came swiftly once Ponder was in the Hargrave gym every day alongside a host of Division I prospects, including future pros P.J. Hairston and Dez Wells. UNCW assistant Matt McMahon was one of the first to show interest but coaches from Radford, Marshall and The Citadel were also involved.
Ponder would end up as the top reserve for a Hargrave squad that went 26-1 with its only loss in the national prep school semifinals. It was a year of laugh-filled games of one-on-one with Keatts, road trips across the country and fun times in the barracks with his blue-chip teammates.
None of those memories topped the day in October 2010 he committed to Buzz Peterson’s first full recruiting class.
“That was one of the best feelings in the world, man,” Ponder said. “It’s truly a blessing. A lot of guys from Bluefield don’t get that opportunity to expose their talents. I’ve just been blessed to be able to go out there and show coaches that I can actually play.”
Coach Kevin Keatts (from right) stands with Craig Ponder and Ponder's mother, Sarah, after Ponder signed to play basketball with UNCW.
Before Ponder ever took his concerns to Keatts in late 2013, he asked for a meeting with Peterson. He’d proven a capable Colonial Athletic Association guard and wanted to know why his minutes had dwindled in his redshirt sophomore season.
“As far as basketball, it was one of the lowest lows I’ve ever experienced,” Ponder said.
No, Ponder’s career to that point hadn’t exactly followed according to plan. As a true freshman, he stepped on a teammate’s foot in practice and eventually needed season-ending surgery to fix torn ankle ligaments.
When he returned, Ponder had proven a consistent – and sometimes explosive – offensive threat in his first full season. He couldn’t figure out why he’d seen his minutes slashed in half.
Ponder remembers Peterson telling him that he wanted senior guards Tanner Milson, Chris Dixon and Ben Eblen to lead the back court. The coach thought their experience was a valuable asset for a struggling squad that eventually endured a program-record 14-game losing streak.
The answer only brought more questions.
“As a teammate I wanted him to stay, but the friend in me was like, ‘You need to do what’s best for you,’” former teammate Cedrick Williams said.
Even his mother had started getting phone calls from other parents, asking what was going on. She could see it all taking a toll on her normally upbeat son. A woman of strong faith, she prayed with him over the phone and urged him to trust his resolve would be rewarded.
"I was proud of him,” Sarah Ponder said. “He still kept his grades going. He never said anything bad about that coach. I just had to keep him staying strong and hanging in there.”
Keatts took a less sympathetic tone on their unexpected phone call. It wasn’t the first time the coach had experienced some version of this conversation. His message was for Ponder to look in the mirror and make sure he was doing everything he could to get on the floor. He could re-evaluate his options after the season.
“If they wanted somebody to call and tell ‘em what they wanted to hear, I wasn’t the right person,” Keatts said. “I’m going to tell you the truth.”
Ponder’s minutes did increase at the end of the season, boosted by Peterson’s hockey-style substitution experiment. The guard turned in his best performance of the season in a CAA Tournament loss, scoring 24 points in what turned out to be his coach’s final game.
As UNCW launched its coaching search, it seemed likely Ponder would be on the move. That belief changed when he unexpectedly ran into Keatts on his campus visit. His old coach hadn’t given him a heads-up that he was in the running for the job.
From that moment, Ponder started spreading the gospel of Keatts. By the time he was officially introduced a few days later, almost everyone had heard Ponder’s pitch.
“When he was telling me (about Keatts), you could tell he was excited,” teammate Dylan Sherwood remembered. “I hadn’t seen him like that in terms of basketball stuff in a while.”
Keatts appreciated the help. The new coach called each player before he arrived from Louisville. Each conversation ended like this: “If you have any questions about me, call Craig.”
Williams still was strongly considering a transfer. The forward knew that high-major opportunities would be out there if he wanted to look around. Ponder’s enthusiasm that the Keatts-led Seahawks would win sooner than later helped convince him to stay.
“It was really just that simple,” Williams said.
Once the workouts started, Ponder’s familiarity with the system helped -- to a point. He was still bent over at the waist, gasping for breath with everyone else, during the early days.
It was just what Ponder was counting on, though.
“He’s literally the same exact person," Ponder said. "The jokes, style of play, personality. Everything’s the exact same.”
Ponder has played to Keatts’ expectations, too. The guard was the only Seahawk to start all 32 games last season in a worst-to-first turnaround.
He’s survived a midseason slump this season to rank third on the team in scoring at 11.1 points per game. His quiet leadership and quick laugh in the locker room have perhaps been just as important, especially integrating so many new players this season.
For a coach who built his career remaking his roster each season, it’s been gratifying to see Ponder’s progress on and off the court over six years.
“It’s almost like you become a proud dad watching your kid grow up,” Keatts said.
That relationship sticks out on an already tight-knit team. Ponder’s mother hails Keatts as a “God-send.” His closest teammate, Williams, says the story belongs in Hollywood. He simply calls his mentor a role model and follows up with his plan to go into coaching whenever his playing career ends.
This particular path took hard work, some good timing and a couple of assists from Keatts. The “what-ifs” are hard to ignore. Say Ponder had skipped his Hargrave tryout and accepted West Virginia State’s offer?
“Right now, I’d probably be working at Norfolk Southern,” Ponder said. “I probably would have moved back to Bluefield and started working on the railroad or something. Who knows, man?”
The body-shaking laugh that accompanies Ponder’s answer makes it clear he prefers to be here, chasing an NCAA bid. Every step closer is a testament to the importance of good advice and the power of patience.
Contact Eric Detweiler at 910-343-2261 or Eric.Detweiler@StarNewsOnline.com.