Dating back to the summer, the Ohio State men’s basketball team never had forward Keita Bates-Diop at full strength. He began dealing with a mild discomfort in his left shin during summer workouts that progressively grew more painful.
Hoping the pain would subside, Bates-Diop missed about two months of the team’s summer workouts. That approach was to no avail, though, as the pain became more acute during preseason camp and the first couple of months of the season.
“As the weeks and practices and weight lifting and running went on, it was getting worse and worse to a point where at the end of the summer it was the worst as it had ever been in the summer,” Bates-Diop said Feb. 23. “(The staff) could tell something was wrong. I wasn’t playing like myself because like Coach (Thad Matta) said, I was playing at a high level in the summer until I was like, ‘There’s something wrong.’ (Matta) was like, ‘You’re not moving as well as you were a few weeks earlier.’”
To make matters worse, in the third game of the season, Bates-Diop suffered a right ankle injury vs. Providence on Nov. 17, meaning both his right and left legs were not at 100 percent.
The Normal, Ill., native did not play in the team’s next five games but returned to action vs. Florida Atlantic on Dec. 6. Bates-Diop then competed in the following five contests as well, which is where the stress fracture really took hold.
“I was talking to Vinny (O’Brien), our trainer, I told him – I think it was two or three weeks before the Illinois game (on Jan. 1) – it was getting worse and worse at the time. They told me to cut back in practice a little bit and see what happens.
“Didn’t work, didn’t help. It got worse and worse. Then something happened in the Youngstown State game (on Dec. 20), I think. I stopped funny and I was like, ‘Oh.’ I felt it a lot at that point. From those weeks on it was worse and worse. I was like, ‘I’ve got to call it. It’s going to get worse and worse throughout the season.’”
He and the staff ultimately decided it was time to shut it down. Bates-Diop, who was a junior this season, had season-ending surgery to repair the shin on Jan. 25. With the season now finished, the Buckeyes will apply for a medical redshirt on his behalf.
What exactly did the operation entail? Allow Bates-Diop to explain.
“So they went in through the kneecap,” he said. “They opened it up a little bit and essentially nailed a rod down. They said it was the longest nail that they’ve ever done. It’s about this long (roughly the length of his shin) in my leg.
“I didn’t feel it, obviously. I was asleep. But when I woke up it was excruciating pain because they didn’t nerve block me for blood-clot reasons or some medical reason. They nailed it in and put two screws in my (ankle).”
The 6-7, 235-pounder went on to explain that had he continued playing on the bum leg, there was a high possibility that he could have sustained a compound fracture, where the bone breaks the skin.
“I had already decided I wasn’t playing, and then when they (the doctors) said that I was like, ‘There’s no chance I’m coming back,’” Bates-Diop said.
The first steps in his rehab program are primarily focusing on strengthening his upper body, with getting back leg strength being another high priority. Before he will be cleared to run again, Bates-Diop explained that his regimen will include walking in a pool, shooting the basketball while standing and slowly making cuts like he would in a game.
Matta, who was amazed with the progress Bates-Diop had made at the time, said the tentative window for the forward’s recovery time could be up to six months.
“He looks great,” Matta said Feb. 22. “He’s actually walking. I can’t believe the kid has a rod in his foot and he’s walking. I’m still blown away with what he’s doing.
“But where he is in terms of a timetable and that sort of thing, I’ve never had a player who’s had this injury so I don’t know. But he seems like he’s in a really good place in terms of that. I think it was a four- to six-month recovery.”
When Bates-Diop met with the media to discuss his operation, the Buckeyes were 15-13 overall and 5-10 in the Big Ten, records that did not meet the team’s standards. Bates-Diop admitted that it was frustrating to be a spectator of the squad for most of the season, knowing that he could have helped the team if he were available.
“Injuries happen all the time,” he said Feb. 23. “I was looking the other day at all the different schools that have injuries. It’s a lot. You could probably name a school and somebody’s out. (Senior guard) Eron Harris at Michigan State just went out (knee).
“Something is happening every other week it feels like, someone’s going down with something. But it’s extremely frustrating because I know I could have helped and I wanted to help but I could’t. That’s probably the worst part.”
Watching much of the season from the sidelines, Bates-Diop noted that his perspective is what changed the most since the beginning of the campaign.
“You can’t really see everything when you’re playing,” he said. “Once you take a step back and look outside the box, you can see all the things you’re doing right and wrong at this point. I’m trying to give these guys my perspective because I’m different than a coach. I’m their friend, their brother, all that – the perspective on what I see and what I think is going right and wrong.
“I think with all the physical stuff, I was playing at a high level, so I think I can get that back. But looking from the outside in, now I can change my mentality toward the game. All that stuff I can teach these guys, especially the younger guys, on what to do and what not to do.”
While he was helping the team in every capacity possible this season, Bates-Diop admitted that this calendar year, which included his younger brother collapsing from a heart attack, has been arduous.
“It’s been very hard, it’s been very hard,” Bates-Diop said. “Just dealing with everything that I’ve been personally through and then the team, it’s just been a rough year and a rough few months since New Year’s.”
His 16-year-old brother, Kai, has since had surgery and has returned to school, the older Bates-Diop said.
During the nine games he did play this season, Bates-Diop routinely fielded questions regarding the progress of his shin injury. His typical response was that he was close to getting back to 100 percent.
With his surgery in the rearview mirror, he had a confession to make.
“I told you guys I was close to being back all the time but I was never,” he said while cracking a smile. “I seriously just lied. I was never at 100 percent, I was never close.”
This story was originally published in Buckeye Sports Bulletin, the newspaper “For The Buckeye Fan Who Needs To Know More." For four free trial issues of Buckeye Sports Bulletin with no obligation, click here.