There is a tinge of guilt in Kenny Buckner’s voice when he recounts how he went from the recreational basketball leagues of the District to the front court at Boise State, and how he will play in the NCAA tournament after never having suited up for the basketball team at Wilson High in the District.
“Kids dream to play basketball their whole life and work since they were a kid, and all I had was a slight opportunity and now I’m in this situation,” said Buckner, 23, by phone from Idaho. “I remember when I first received my scholarship and went back around the neighborhood telling [everyone], and them joking, ‘You’re lying. You’re lying.’ ”
Buckner paid far more serious dues in becoming one of the most unlikely players in the NCAA tournament. Boise State faces LaSalle at 9 p.m. Wednesday in Dayton in one of the four opening games of the NCAA tournament. The Broncos (21-10) and Explorers (21-9) are 13th seeds; the winner will advance to face Kansas State in Kansas City on Friday.
His mother, Marvita Doreen “Pinky” Buckner, was fatally shot in the neck on Montana Avenue NE in Nov. 1994 on her way to buy a $1 can of beer at 2 a.m., according to a Washington Post story from the time. She was 31 and had relinquished custody of her four children, including 3-year-old Kenny, to a relative because of her drug addiction. A fifth child, the Post story said, had died of complications of AIDS.
Buckner’s father, Leonard Webster, about two years removed from prison — “the best two years of my life,” Buckner said — was fatally shot on a Prince George’s County bike path in May 2005.
Years later, Buckner was attending Montgomery College when his grandmother, Elaine Webster, fell ill. “That’s my heart right there,” Buckner says of his grandma. He dropped out of school to spend nights with Webster at medical facilities where he was such a regular, including overnight, that the nurses would sometimes reserve a plate of food for him.
After his grandmother improved, Buckner started playing basketball at Lamond Recreation Center in the District. To his surprise, he showed promise.
“I would just go play for fun just to get off the streets and do something useful with my time,” Buckner said. “My goal wasn’t even to try to get in school. A man who worked at the rec said I had a little skill set to play basketball and told me to keep coming to the gym and play for the rec team and he’ll give me a school.”
The 6-foot-7, 251-pound Buckner ended up at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, where he redshirted, and then at the College of Southern Idaho for two years. For the past two seasons he has played at Boise State, where he is a key reserve center for the Broncos, shooting 62.6 percent from the floor and averaging 5.1 points and 5.1 rebounds. His season high of 11 rebounds came against NCAA tournament teams New Mexico and San Diego State.
“It’s nice and it’s clean and it’s fresh air,” Buckner said of the state he has called home for the past four years. “I wake up and it’s like somebody painted a picture every day.”
Buckner has helped Boise State, an at-large team from the Mountain West Conference, reach the tournament for just the second time in 18 years.
So in some ways Buckner owes his unlikely college basketball career and his faded baseball aspirations to his grandma’s faulty gall bladder. He calls her often, including after games and when the team is traveling, to let her know the Broncos have safely reached their destination.
“One of the games he played he couldn’t get to me until 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Webster, 64, who is blind and has other medical conditions that require an aide. “I laid right there in bed and I waited. Just knowing that he’s out there doing what he loves, reaching for the highest of the heights, knowing that he’s working for tomorrow’s future in his life and the people around him and that he’s happy, that keeps me going.”
Despite Buckner’s violence-pocked childhood, or perhaps because of it, Webster said she could see in her Kenneth at an early age that he was unlikely to fall for the streets.
“You know how you can kind of see something within that child?” she said. “He was always interested in positive things. You could look and tell that there was something deep inside of him. It wasn’t easy for him. Nothing was easy for him. He said, ‘I know out there I have a plan for me and I’m going to find it.’ It’s like he knew. He watched everything through the eyes almost like an older person. I tell him when I grow up I’m going to be like him. He’s my idol.”
Buckner, who never seriously considered playing high school basketball, was a coordinated but unpolished baseball player who threw and batted left-handed and played first base. Former Wilson Coach Eddie Saah would try to find playing time for him, particularly against the weaker DCIAA competition. The Tigers were amid their running streak of 20 consecutive league titles, and Buckner’s skills were not as sharp as boys who had played a lot more baseball.
“[Kenny] Facebooked me the other day and said thanks for everything and that he was going to college,” Saah said. “I’m happy for him. [College] was a big accomplishment for him. He’s learning some things along the way about life, and he’s playing.”
Buckner had no parents to salute him as Boise State’s lone departing player on senior night, and his grandmother can only listen to his games with no sight to watch. Even so, he feels as fortunate as perhaps any player in the tournament and is on schedule to graduate in May with a degree in communications.
“God gave me another door that opened up and I played basketball,” he said. “He took two people out of my life that I don’t have anymore and he gave me the opportunity to do something else. It’s crazy every time I think from where I was at and now I’ve won a national championship in junior college and have that ring and now going to the NCAA tournament.
“I know [my parents] are up there happy with how my life turned out. I know they’re up there shining down and smiling on me. Everybody has a different hand of cards that they’re dealt. Mine played out different.”