- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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MOREHEAD, Ky. -- Elizabeth Avenue, in the shadow of downtown Newark, N.J., is a typically busy and built-up thoroughfare in the Northeast. Cluttered with fast-food joints, check-cashing stops and traffic lights, it seems especially claustrophobic on this February morning.
A winter storm has dumped a slushy freezing rain on the city, on top of the near foot of snow that already covered the ground. Cars are parked diagonally, catty-cornered and just about every which way they can if it means landing an on-street spot.
Outside of the high-rise apartment complexes that fill the sky where the road runs slightly uphill, people are walking down the street instead of on the still icy sidewalks, making maneuvering around Elizabeth Avenue even trickier.
This is what Kenneth Faried knows. For better or worse -- and there has been more worse than better in this portion of urban blight -- this is home.
Or rather it had been home until four years ago, until basketball dumped Faried in an Eastern Kentucky outpost where an African-American kid with a huge smile and long dreadlocks might as well have been a Martian.
"I can tell you what my reaction was exactly," Faried said, recalling his first drive to Morehead State University. "We drove in from the airport -- and I still have no idea where that airport is -- and I said, 'Where are all the tall buildings? Where are the skyscrapers? Where's the mall?' Coach just looked at me and said, 'Son, this is Morehead, Ky. We don't have tall buildings. We have tall mountains."
Yet in a land as foreign to him as Belize, Faried has thrived. He has 1,520 career rebounds, only the fourth player in the past 35 seasons to reach 1,500 and now just 50 boards shy of surpassing Tim Duncan's record for that time period.
Three times this season, he has enjoyed a 20-20 night. And in three of Morehead's past six games, he's pulled down 20 rebounds.
NBA scouts have become regulars in the throwback Ellis T. Johnson Arena, all winding and finding their way through the Appalachian hills to Morehead in order to see the player often compared to Dennis Rodman.
It is not just the court where Faried has found success. He is a wildly popular player and an equally popular student, a kid who has found a way to both stand out and fit in.
"Kenneth is a chameleon and I mean that in a good way," said MSU coach Donnie Tyndall, whose Eagles (17-8, 9-4 OVC) sit one game back of Murray State in the Ohio Valley. "He can be in a conversation with a businessman, a little kid, a retired person, a janitor and people love him. He has that smile, that wit and that charm, and people know it's genuine. He has an unbelievable ability to adapt."
He's had good practice.
Life didn't deal Kenneth Faried a conventional hand. His father lives in a rough part of Jersey City, his mother in an equally rough part of Newark.
Before he was born, his grandmother died from complications of lupus and since he was in the fourth grade, his mother, Waudda (pronounced Wa-dee-uh), has battled the crippling disease that attacks the body without discretion.
And then 10 years ago, his mother introduced Faried to Manasin Copeland, the woman that would become her wife.
"I think people have an aura about them and the first time I met her, I thought, 'I like this lady," Faried said. "And when they got married, that showed me what commitment is all about, that there are people out there that can commit, even though for them it really has been the worst of times. I look at them, what they've been through and I think, 'Wow. That's amazing.' They're amazing to me."
They laugh because if they don't, they'll cry. There was the time that a hospitalized and disoriented Waudda decided Copeland was too busy watching television to help her and so she would therefore get herself out of bed, thank you very much.
And she fell.
"The nurses came in, 'Ooh, Ms. Faried, Ms. Faried what happened? And then they looked at me," Copeland said. "I said, 'She did not want my help, so what would you like me to do?"
Then there was the time the EMTs came to the apartment because Waudda's arm, so desperately infected after dialysis treatment, had begun to bleed profusely.
Instead of rushing Waudda to the stretcher in the hallway, the EMTs stared at Kenneth's assorted trophies and hardware crowded onto a shelf in the corner while Copeland and her son got Waudda on the stretcher.
It isn't funny, of course.
Lupus is cruel, coming in waves that can be life-threatening. It's not picky. It can attack the skin, joints, blood or vital organs with equal vigilance.
Waudda has spent as long as three months in the hospital.
Her body is a highway full of scars from her battle, carved up as doctors tried to find entry ports for the dialysis necessitated after her kidneys failed. Because lupus rejects almost anything introduced to the body, Waudda's arms, neck and chest all have been brutalized to make the dialysis work.
On May 26, she had a kidney transplant -- but that good news was offset with the bad news. She has diabetes.
Whenever she travels, she first must call ahead to a hospital to make sure that doctors there are well-versed in how to treat a patient with lupus. Two years ago, during Morehead State's run through the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in Nashville, she had to receive two dialysis treatments.
It was because of her illness, as much as finding a safe haven from the rough streets of Newark, that Waudda wanted Kenneth to go away.
She watched her own mother suffer and, in retrospect, believes she saw too much.
"There was no need for him to be here watching this," Copeland said. "You can't understand, I can't understand what she's been through mentally or physically, but I know what I've seen. I know what I've watched. If he was here, there's no way he could do it. He had to leave in order to have his own life."
Faried didn't always agree. His freshman season he practically begged his mother to let him come home. He was OK with Kentucky, but he was worried about his mom.
Waudda and Kenneth's father stood firm. There was nothing there for him to come back to.
He knew fighting was pointless. He wasn't going to win and so Faried stayed, comforting himself in the knowledge that Copeland was there. She would take care of his mother.
Together for in the neighborhood of a decade -- 10 years, according to Waudda and nine, says Copeland -- the two made their bond legal on April 5, 2007 in the Newark City Hall municipal court.
"Some people just say for better or worse and some people mean it," said Waudda, who was in another relationship prior to meeting Copeland but discovered quickly that the other woman couldn't handle her disease. "I know she's in it for the long haul."
Faried knows there are people in the world that will not approve of the relationship between his mother and Copeland, whom he calls Oomie, the Arabic word for mother.
Somehow, Faried never encountered them growing up. No teasing, no snickering, not a reaction at all.
I know what people think. I'm from the North, I'm in the South. I'm black. But I think if you treat people well, they embrace you. The other stuff, it just doesn't matter.
”-- Kenneth Faried
"I think maybe I was just lucky because I lived in New Jersey," Faried said. "There's everything there, every culture, every lifestyle. I'm sure it would be a lot different if I grew up somewhere else."
Faried's easy acceptance is exactly what Waudda and Copeland hoped for. They have never had any long sit-downs about life lessons with their children (Copeland has four kids), not even so much as an explanation.
There never had to be.
They loved one another, they love their kids and now they love their nine grandkids.
Life is only complicated if you make it that way.
"People are going to have their opinions," Waudda said. "Really, their opinions don't matter. Who cares what they think?"
But as parents always do, Waudda and Copeland, as well as Faried 's father, Kenneth Sr., molded Kenneth. Without intending to, perhaps without even trying, they helped create a man who is not bound by any sort of social restrictions.
He is free and comfortable anywhere, with anyone, and that includes in a tiny Kentucky town.
Faried grew up in a city where more than half the population is black -- 143,566 of the 278,154 Newark residents, according to the latest U.S. Census -- and now goes to college where there are only 442 African-Americans living in the entire county.
And he doesn't care.
"I know what people think. I'm from the North, I'm in the South. I'm black," Kenneth said. "But I think if you treat people well, they embrace you. The other stuff, it just doesn't matter."
He did not want to go to Kentucky, not to be part of any sort of unintentional social experiment nor to play basketball.
Given his druthers, Kenneth Faried would have gone no further than across the Hudson. But in high school he was a 6-foot-7, 185-pound scrawny pack of limbs and his high school, Newark Technology, wasn't exactly a New Jersey powerhouse. Add in the fact that it took Faried more than a little time to get adequate test scores and most everyone was scared off recruiting him.
New York schools Marist and Iona were in the mix, but Morehead kept the recruiting press on. It was the most persistent school and that stuck with Faried, so eventually he went.
And it was ... well, different would be a whopping understatement.
"If you like hiking, biking, swimming, boating, fishing, water skiing, canoeing, bird watching, camping or just the solitude of nature, then Morehead is your ideal destination," reads a Morehead tourism website, offering up a slew of action verbs that are not typically associated with Newark, N.J.
The main street in Morehead, Main Street, is a few blocks long. There are a couple of banks, a florist, a handful of tiny restaurants and trinket shops.
The biggest space is allotted to Holbrooks Embroidery Plus. There are no office parks within sight, no subways, no horns honking, not really any noise at all.
The nearest mall is in Lexington, an hour's drive away, and only recently did a Super Wal-Mart come to town.
"Of course I questioned whether he could adapt," Tyndall said. "You don't know. It's different, but Kenneth is different. A lot of inner-city kids, and I don't mean to stereotype, but they're very often sullen or pouty, they don't trust easily. Kenneth was, 'Hey! Here I am!' There's no such thing as a stranger to him. He was here two days on his visit and everyone in Buffalo Wild Wings knew who he was."
That personality, as engaging as it is, can also be a bit overwhelming, especially when packaged inside a 6-8, broad-shouldered, dreadlocked body.
"When he first got here, I couldn't understand a word he said," said teammate Demonte Harper, who is from Nashville. "He had that New Jersey accent. He was loud and I was like, 'Man, we don't do things that way down here."
In the first class of his first day of college, Faried sat front and center in Lisa Shemwell's freshman orientation class. Shemwell has spent 15 years as a media and communications professor.
That class was big by Morehead's standards, probably around 37 students, and they were something of a handful.
Especially the kid directly in front of her.
"For everything I said, he had an answer," Shemwell said. "Now it was a good one, mind you, but I remember thinking, 'I have to get a hold of this class, and this kid is the key."'
She had no idea who Faried was. Didn't know he was a basketball player, didn't know his name -- but after two days of bedlam, Shemwell had enough.
In the middle of class, with Faried offering responses to her every query, she stopped.
"I said, 'You. Out in the hallway,'" Shemwell said. "I remember walking out in the hallway and thinking, 'What in the world am I doing? This isn't high school.'"
Too tiny to get eye-to-eye with him, Shemwell instead got toe-to-toe.
"I said, I don't know who you are, and he stops me and says, 'Faried, Kenneth Faried," Shemwell said. "And I said, 'Well, Mr. Faried,' and he stops me again. 'You can call me Kenneth.' Well I wanted to laugh, but I didn't. I said, 'Look, Mr. Faried, I'm going to tell you how it's going to be in my class. I think you have some real leadership qualities but you're not using them appropriately, so you can either straighten up your act or you can leave this class."
Faried wasn't the least bit offended.
They leave and they might call but to actually see it, to see this happening for him. ... Oh my goodness.
”-- Morehead State professor Lisa Shemwell on Faried's dream of the NBA
In fact he was impressed.
He knew this sort of lady.
"She reminded me of my mother," he said. "I don't think anyone had ever talked to me like that except my mother, so I respected her right away."
Four years later Shemwell, wearing a Morehead warm-up suit and sporting a necklace that features an oversized gold hoop surrounded by blue and gold beads, is in tears.
This is the season of lasts. At the start of the semester, Faried announced to his favorite professor, "This is my last first day of class with you." Senior night is coming, set for Feb. 12, and then there will be a last game and ultimately graduation.
Shemwell has taught Faried in every semester since that freshman orientation class and now is preparing him for a professional career, working on interview skills and diction for what he hopes will be a future in the NBA.
Tucked away in her office drawer is a paper, the first essay Faried wrote for her, penned that first week he was on campus.
"I assigned a paper saying, 'What is your dream?' and he wrote that his dream was to play in the NBA," Shemwell said. "He wrote how a lot of people told him that wasn't going to happen but he planned on doing it anyway. As a teacher, you always hear about their dreams, but you don't always get to see them live their dreams. They leave and they might call but to actually see it, to see this happening for him. ... Oh my goodness."
Nothing is guaranteed, especially a lifelong dream pegged to the whim of subjective evaluation.
Most draft boards list Faried as a middle to late first-round pick, but the NBA is a fickle business. Teams often draft on buzzwords like potential and upside versus what's right in front of them. Today's sure thing could be tomorrow's wallflower.
Faried is doing all he can to make sure no one changes his mind about him. He is averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds per game and by no means are friendly statisticians inflating his numbers.
He is blessed, certainly, with the body and genetics to succeed at rebounding -- his long arms seem to Stretch Armstrong over and around his opponents and somehow his second jump is quicker than his first -- but Faried also has a ferociousness to him. Rebounding is his thing and no one is going to stop him.
In a game against Tennessee State -- a game in which Faried already had a double-double with two minutes to play in the first half -- he had 23 boards. Plenty of them were as much the product of sheer will as innate skill, with Faried often beating three guys in opposing jerseys for the ball.
"I thought he could be good, but never like this," Tyndall said. "I don't think anyone could have predicted this."
Maybe one person.
Waudda long believed her son would be special. She raised him on the NBA dream, lifting him up enough into the believer who penned that essay in Shemwell's class.
And now that it is so tantalizingly close, Waudda isn't quite ready. Faried has vowed to turn over his first paycheck to his mother. He wants her out of that apartment and in a home wherever she wants to go. She can't go too far. She needs to stay close to her doctors, so she's mentally drawing a circle that stretches out in any direction about 90 minutes from Newark.
The draft is still three months away, but Faried wants her to start packing now.
Judging by the looks of things in the apartment, that hasn't happened.
"He keeps calling me and my wife and saying, 'Are you ready?" Waudda said. "And we just say, 'Ready for what?'"
Ready for the next step, of course.
Kenneth Faried is moving on.
Destination unknown, ability to fit in assured.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.