Like millions of other folks, Keith “Mister” Jennings had the television tuned to TNT on June 26, 1991 to watch the National Basketball Association Draft and he anxiously awaited as each pick was unveiled – from the Charlotte Hornets taking UNLV’s Larry Johnson first overall to the Portland Trail Blazers selecting Marcus Kennedy from Eastern Michigan at No. 54.
There was just one problem for Jennings, a Culpeper, Virginia, native and one of the most accomplished – and beloved – players in the history of East Tennessee State University’s hoops program.
“My name never came across the screen,” Jennings said. “That’s when the first inkling of ‘What’s going to happen now?’ went through my brain. I didn’t really have anybody to give me any advice that had been there, so I was kind of going through it blindly.
“I had a good agent and he told me some teams were interested, they just didn’t pull the trigger during the draft. Me being a 5-foot-7 point guard, there wasn’t a big market for those types of players anyways.”
A little less than 17 months later, Jennings would put up a 10-point, five-assist stat line for the Golden State Warriors in a 129-114 opening-night victory over Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz as he went from undrafted free agent to assist-dishing fan favorite.
If former Gate City High School superstar Mac McClung doesn’t get selected in Thursday’s NBA Draft, it doesn’t mean that the dream to play at the game’s highest level is over as Jennings and many others can attest.
Ben Wallace went from non-drafted free agent to NBA champion and recent Hall of Fame inductee. Toronto’s Fred VanVleet and Alex Caruso of the Los Angeles Lakers are among current NBA standouts who didn’t have their names called on draft night.
Jennings took his own unique path to the pros.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Jennings said. “If I’d give any tip to a free agent, when you get invited to training camp or a mini-camp, it’s almost like the NCAA tournament. no matter what happens coming into it you have to wipe the slate clean and act like it’s zero-to-zero. It doesn’t matter if you were an All-American or player of the year, you’ve got to treat it like starting over. If the NBA is your dream you have to go after it like no other.”
Jennings initially attended a rookie free agent camp with the Indiana Pacers, but it did not go well and he was cut loose.
“That was my first real taste of playing against anybody in the NBA,” Jennings said. “Of course, you play against people in college that ended up going to the NBA, but now all these guys were pros. … I thought I was in great shape and I prided myself on my conditioning. I think that helped separate myself from other players in college. But I found out it was a whole other level in the NBA.”
With no other options stateside, Jennings landed with Germany’s Brandt Hagen and became an All-Star in the team’s league. Jennings caught the eye of Ed Gregory, Golden State’s director of scouting, when Brandt Hagen played a series of exhibition games against college squads on the West Coast.
The Warriors invited Jennings to training camp prior to the 1992-93 season.
“I thank God all the time for giving me a second opportunity with the Warriors,” Jennings said.
He quickly won over Golden State coach Don Nelson.
“I think what Coach Nelson really liked about me was my leadership,” Jennings said. “I just had a knack as far as getting the people the ball where they could do something positive with it. I don’t think he knew how good of a shooter I was. … I could play pretty well one-on-one and it was a one-on-one league and he wasn’t afraid to play Tim Hardaway and I at the same time, because one of us was going to have a defensive person on us that we could probably get by. He was an isolation coach, so it played into our hands.”
Jennings averaged 6.6 points, 3.7 assists and 1.5 rebounds per game over the course of three seasons and 164 regular-season games with Golden State, overcoming a knee injury that cut his rookie season short.
He would eventually get drafted: by the Toronto Raptors in the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft, but didn’t play for the team. He was later signed by the Denver Nuggets, but never appeared in a regular-season game for the Western Conference club.
“He was one of my favorite teammates,” said Josh Grant, who played with Jennings both in Golden State and overseas. “There is no question Keith had a big heart. He was one of the most competitive people I have known. The thing that made Keith such a good player was his intelligence. He learned from a young age how to use his size to his advantage. … He was so used to being the smaller guy that he capitalized on it.
“The second thing that made him the player he was was his ability to be going full speed, but to always be under control. He was never out of control. He could stop on a dime at any time, change direction at any time during a move, and it didn’t matter how fast he was going. … His size made people look at him as the underdog, but I’m not sure he ever thought of himself as an underdog. He just wanted to win, and would find ways to do it, which leads to the third reason he was so good – he had a lot of confidence in himself.”
The balance of Mister’s career was spent starring in leagues in Spain, France, Turkey and Russia as he won French League MVP honors in 1999 for Le Mans.
“Overseas presents a wonderful opportunity to broaden your basketball skills,” Jennings said. “You play well overseas, the NBA notices and you can still get back over. … Having played in the NBA, it’s easier to get jobs over there after that.”
Jennings is now the women’s basketball coach at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, and is among many interested to see how the 6-foot-2 McClung does at the next level after earning honorable mention Associated Press All-American honors at Texas Tech in 2021.
“The bonus for him is he played major college basketball,” Jennings said. “Somebody as explosive as Mac, no doubt there is room for guys like him in the league. … If it’s your dream to play in the NBA, it’s worth fighting for.”
As Keith “Mister” Jennings and many others have proven: You can be undrafted and undersized, but undeterred.
“You have to realize that the NBA is not only your dream, but the dream of millions of other young men that want to get that spot and they are working for it too,” Jennings said. “It comes down to you playing your best when you get that opportunity and when you do get an opportunity, you have to play consistently well enough to get noticed.”