As the value of Nerlens Noel dipped, pick by agonizing pick, during the 2013 NBA Draft, fans of the Big Blue Nation no doubt suffered for the Wildcat, who was wearing a forlorn look as Overall #1 status faded into the distance.
Noel eventually landed with his team (actually one, then another) and the talking heads analyzed a draft that was short on marquee talent but laden with trades. And the biggest one of all included yet another ex-Wildcat who seemed to be little more than a throw-in, but one on the verge of signing the fattest contract of his long NBA career.
Keith Bogans was one of five players (plus three future first-round picks) sent from Brooklyn to Boston as the Celtics tear down what used to be a championship roster, and the Nets try to squeeze just one more Season of Greatness from Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. Even if they don’t , they’ll likely have a ton of cap room two seasons from now.
And cap room is the key in the NBA. Juggle salaries as you construct the best team you can, and avoid paying luxury tax. Every little bit helps, which is why, just minutes before the start of the 2011-12 season, the Chicago Bulls pulled Bogans off the practice floor, so they wouldn’t be responsible for a $1.73 million option. Six weeks later, he signed with the Nets.
And now, he stands to sign a one-year deal worth $4.4 million - nearly four times what he made last season. It’s part of a sign-and-trade contract which, by rule, must be for a minimum of three years. Including standard raises, it could pay Bogans a total of $13.85 million - just a little less than the earnings for his entire NBA career ($14.1 million).
Not bad, for a guy who couldn’t wait to get out of college and begin his pro career, but was forced by circumstance to play a (now) unheard-of FOUR seasons of basketball at Kentucky.
Bogans signed with Tubby Smith and the Wildcats as a 1999 first-team high school All-American out of Dematha, the Washington, D.C. powerhouse developed by legendary coach Morgan Wooten. Dozens of Divison I players have poured out of Dematha, including Joseph Forte, who graduated the same year as Bogans.
Forte chose North Carolina, where he played just two seasons, earning Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2000 and the ACC Player of the Year trophy in 2001. Bogans, who at the time was playing a secondary role to Tayshaun Prince, could only wait.
His first two seasons were productive; Bogans was named to the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team after setting a new school record for steals and finishing third on the team in scoring.
During his sophomore season, he led the team in scoring 26 times, was named (along with Prince) co-MVP and picked up second-team All-SEC accolades. His junior year loomed as what likely would be his last as a Wildcat and a springboard to the NBA, just a year behind Forte, his ex-high school teammate.
Instead, it was a nightmare.
Bogans had One Of Those Years. His numbers plummeted. His scoring fell from 17 points per game to 11.6; his field goal percentage dropped from 47 to 39 (31 percent from three-point range, down five points) and his team struggled as well. The Wildcats lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament, embarrassed by South Carolina, 70-57. Maryland eliminated UK from the NCAA tourney in the round of 16.
And as losses piled up, Bogans felt the heat.
In the locker room, media pestered him about his struggles, night after night. And through practically all of it, Bogans patiently answered our questions. I can recall only two times when he did not make himself available for post-game interviews; instead, huddling in the trainer’s room with Mr. Wildcat, venerable equipment manager Bill Keightley, who spent 48 seasons being there for any player who needed a shoulder and a hug.
UK fans were worse. They booed him, inside Rupp Arena. They crushed him on call-in shows, urging his coach to bench him, or worse. “I’d take his scholarship,” snarled one “fan.” They labeled him selfish, even though he played defense as intensely as he had for each of the first two seasons, back when they were cheering him. And he dished out virtually the same number of assists in fewer minutes.
But they ragged on him, repeatedly. And he had to take it.
With Prince gone, 2002-03 figured to be a year where Bogans had to be better not just than he was the previous season, but better than he’d been as a sophomore. He showed even before the first practice that this would be “his” team.
Keightley later told me of a minor locker room dust-up that occurred early, on the first day of classes, between two other payers. Apparently, there had been a few of those the year prior. Mr. Wildcat wanted no more. So he pulled Bogans, the senior, aside and told him as much. “I’ll take care of it,” Bogans assured him, and he did.
Keightley said they never had another similar problem that season.
Such was the chemistry of that 2002-03 year, which began with point guard Cliff Hawkins sidelined for a semester. His first game back was the Louisville matchup, which the Wildcats lost. The Nation was in an uproar. Here the Cats were, coming off an unsatisfying year and now they lose to the Cardinals and their second-year coach, Rick Pitino.
They wouldn’t lose again for two and a half months.
Behind Bogans, the Wildcats ripped off 26 consecutive victories, running the table in the SEC – both the regular season, and the tournament. Bogans would go on to be named SEC Player of the Year, as well as first-team All-SEC, SEC Tournament MVP and All-American.
A run at a national title seemed inevitable for the nation’s top-ranked team, but in the round of 16, Bogans suffered a high ankle sprain that rendered him ineffective in UK’s matchup with Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the Elite 8. His career as a Wildcat ended when Bogans limped off the floor that night in Minneapolis, one win shy of the Final Four.
Less than three months later, he was chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks (his rights later traded to the Orlando Magic) in the second round of the draft. Orlando is one of eight NBA teams for which Bogans has played over the course of 10 seasons(he’s actually done two tours with the Magic).
He’s become a “3-and-D” guy, a player known for his physical brand of defense, as well as his ability to spot up and hit three-pointers in this age of the pick-and-roll. He knows his job; be it as a starter or a reserve. Bogan’s next official NBA game will be number 666 in his career; he has started 333 times.
"If he's guarding you, you know he's guarding you,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told the Chicago Tribune. “He's going to make you work. He's a physical player."
Which is just what the Nets needed when the signed him. But now, like so many other teams, they’ve decide to go in a different direction. Only this time, thanks to the sign-and-trade clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Keith Bogans is about to get paid.
One can’t assume that any pro athlete is set for life, especially one who’s amassed “only” $14 million in career earnings. The latest story about an NBA player who’s burned through his fortune features Allen Iverson, who evidently has little of the $200 million he earned during his years in the league.
But Bogans, it seems, is a professional, in every sense of the word. You don’t hear about his salary-gobbling posse, or a garage full of extravagant cars. He knows his job, and he’s done it well. That’s why he’s about to begin his 11th year in the NBA.
Just making an NBA roster had to seem as though it was a world away during that nightmare of a junior season in Lexington. Shot after shot clanged off the rim, all the while Forte, his high school teammate, was reaping NBA riches.
Funny how that works. Forte spent only two seasons in the NBA before he was released, then one year in the D-League and the last seven overseas, bouncing from Greece, to Italy, Russia, Spain and now Iran.
Bogans, the guy who had to wait on the chance to chase his dream, has become a bona fide veteran of the NBA – not one of countless players who just dropped in for a visit.
(For more on how the CBA’s sign-and-trade rule works, go to http://thebrooklyngame.com/keith-bogans-brooklyn-nets-boston-celtics-contract-sign-and-trade/)
(Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)