MOREHEAD — For Morehead State University, the trek between NCAA Tournament trips lasted 25 years, included five head coaches and featured 17 non-winning seasons.
For Kenneth Faried — the player around whom MSU Coach Donnie Tyndall built the team that has returned the Eagles to college basketball's big event — his journey to this moment has been even more challenging.
Faried grew up on the 24th floor of a high-rise apartment in the grittiest part of urban Newark, N.J.
Like many parents of growing children, Faried's often told him not to leave home after dark.
In Kenneth's case, the consequences of disobeying could be grave.
"Where I grew up, late at night, you did not want to be outside," Faried says. "Because of the drive-bys. People would get shot."
As is the case with many teenagers, Faried felt strong peer pressure to be in with the "in gang."
The consequences of not doing so could be grave.
"Newark is known for gang violence," Faried says. "It was really hard for me. I saw a lot of my friends pass away because of that gang life. A couple of my cousins joined the gang and went to jail. A Blood or a Crip. That's the choice a lot of kids made."
As he got older, like many teenagers, Kenneth Faried became very conscious of his fashion choices.
The consequences of not doing so could be grave.
"I never wanted to go outside wearing all red," Faried says. "Somebody might think you were a Blood and, even though there were a lot of Bloods in my neighborhood, that could be dangerous."
It is 671 miles from Newark, N.J., to Morehead, Ky.
Kenneth Faried will tell you that the distance feels like light years.
'Take care of him'
By the time her daughter, Waudda, got pregnant, the Lupus that would ultimately claim Ishana Faried's life was in an advanced stage.
Looking at Waudda's growing belly, Ishana had a premonition.
"She said, 'That's a boy. You are going to have my grandson,' " Waudda says of her mother.
Ishana died before getting to see the baby. But she was right. Waudda named the boy Kenneth after his father, Kenneth Lewis.
As Kenneth Faried grew up, his mom would often repeat to him his grandmother's prediction.
"She said my grandmother pointed at her belly, at me, and said 'You take care of him, you keep him by your side, make sure he's always right beside you,' " Kenneth says.
Across the years, Waudda Faried made her mother's words into a personal vow. If she had anything to say about it, her son was not going to be lost to the gangs.
"Oh, when he was young, I used to stay on his back," Waudda says. "I did not want him to be another statistic here on the streets of Newark."
Kenneth Faried says a mom tough enough to keep him away from the street life was not the only advantage he had.
"Most kids where I'm from, their fathers aren't even there," Faried says. "Mine was there. My uncles and my aunts. They just love me so much. I wasn't one of those kids who grew up hard. I just grew up in a tough neighborhood."
From Waudda, a pretty fair hoops player in her day, Kenneth inherited a passion for basketball.
As he built his reputation as a ballplayer at Newark's Technology High School, Faried noticed something about his neighborhood.
"Once I got a little bit of a name from basketball, nobody really bothered me, nobody really messed with me," Faried says. "They were like 'Kenneth, what are you doing? Go in the house around this time. Don't be out here in front of this building.' A lot of kids got drawn in (to street life) by the community. The community pushed me away."
The road to Morehead
In his days as an assistant coach at Middle Tennessee State, Donnie Tyndall had successfully recruited a guard who had played for a Newark-based AAU team.
After Tyndall got the head coaching job at his alma mater, Morehead State, three years ago, he did what all good college basketball recruiters do. He stayed in touch with his Newark contacts.
They sent word that the city had a promising big man whose late development and uncertain status as an immediate academic qualifier had him flying beneath the radars of the big schools.
When first approached, Faried had never heard of Morehead. He had to be convinced it was actually a real university.
Once that was done, Morehead brought Faried in for an official visit during his senior year of high school that included the Eagles' home game against archrival Eastern Kentucky.
Watching Tyndall conduct a practice made a lasting impression on the 6-foot-8 center.
"I thought he was a crazy man," Faried says. "He was yelling and screaming. I'm like 'Wow, this little person has a lot of oomph in him.' But I liked his passion."
Three years later, now that Faried has developed into a dynamic college big man, the mythology that's grown up around his recruitment has him picking Morehead State over big-time, homestate schools such as Rutgers and Seton Hall.
"That gets a little overblown," Tyndall says. "He had a great state tournament his senior year, and some of the bigger schools were trying to place him in a prep school. But, basically, Marist, Iona and Morehead State were the three schools offering him."
When push came to recruiting shove, Tyndall had made a favorable impression on the person who mattered. Mom.
"I told him, I expect you to take care of my son," Waudda Faried says.
Kenneth was Morehead bound.
A pro future?
There were two big challenges during Faried's freshman year at Morehead.
In basketball, the issue was stamina. "I could really only play him in two-, three-minute stretches," Tyndall says.
Not shockingly, the off-the-court issue was homesickness. Small-town Kentucky life in Morehead (population 7,642) was a culture shock for the guy from Newark.
"I was on the verge of just getting on the plane and leaving," Faried says.
His parents told their homesick child exactly what parents have been telling college students in such situations for centuries.
"They said, 'If you get out of school, you'll have to get some type of job,' " Kenneth Faried says.
Faried stayed with Morehead.
As a sophomore, Faried added some 20 pounds of muscle (to 215) and blossomed as a player. He has compiled 23 double-doubles, is the nation's third leading rebounder (12.8 a game) and averages 13.9 points.
His alley-oop dunk off a pass from point guard Brandon Shingles at the end of regulation in what became Morehead's double-overtime victory over Austin Peay in the OVC Tournament championship was one of the most electric plays of the season.
On Tuesday night, Faried will try to lead Morehead to its first NCAA tourney victory in 25 years against Alabama State in the opening-round game. If the Eagles prevail, they will get a crack at No. 1 Louisville on Friday.
Long term, Tyndall says, his big man, with his knack for rebounding, has a shot to some day make an NBA roster. "I'm not saying he's a lock," Tyndall says. "I think he'll have a chance."
Faried thinks about that. His mom is battling the same disease, Lupus, that took his grandmother's life. Kenneth fantasizes about making the NBA and being able to buy his mother a stand-alone house.
Yet he's also a realist.
"I play in a smaller conference," Faried says of the Ohio Valley. "I'm not a guy who scores the ball and puts up 40 a night. If I do get to the NBA, I will have accomplished a life goal. If I don't, I will have my degree and be a tall businessman."
For now, a guy who rose above the streets of Newark, N.J., has given Morehead, Ky., a moment in the sun.
It's been quite a trip for Kenneth Faried.