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KENNESAW, Ga. — A celebration was going on around him, but Terrell Burden’s back was turned to the court. He was looking up into the stands for his mother. He was numb. She was crying. Four years ago, this didn’t seem possible. In 2019, he graduated high school without an offer from a Division I basketball program, and he was angry. His mother, Shandria, was there to try to calm him and assure him things would work out.
“He was so disappointed,” she said.
“Devastated,” he said.
This was their moment — actually, a moment for everybody who decided a few years ago to come to one of the nation’s worst college basketball programs, even if just as a last resort. Burden walked off the court at Kennesaw State’s Convocation Center, spotted his mother and mouthed some words to her as Shandria made her way down the stairs, tears streaming down her face. When the two met, they hugged and wouldn’t let go.
“It don’t feel real, mom. Oh my God. What did we do?!?” he said.
As much as we can appreciate what Kennesaw State and its coach and spirit guide, Amir Abdur-Rahim, did Sunday night, we’ll appreciate more next year or in five years or in 10. Three years after going 1-28 in Abdur-Rahim’s first season, the Owls won their first Atlantic Sun title with a 67-66 win over Liberty.
Embrace history. Embrace the coolness of these stories. The win clinched the program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament, where the Owls almost certainly will be a huge underdog — and so the hell what.
This is the mother of all artistic mutations: From 1-28 to 5-19 to 13-18 and 26-8 … and what team is every other college program in the state of Georgia looking up to now?
“Before the game, I wrote on the board in the locker room, ‘999,999,’” Abdur-Rahim said. “And they were looking at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said everybody in this program, players and coaches, was hand-picked because they had a chip on their shoulder. People had doubted us collectively 999,999 times. And they’re doubting us again today. So, for the 1 millionth time, we’re going to prove them wrong again.”
For the FIRST TIME IN PROGRAM HISTORY …
Kennesaw State is going dancing after winning the ASUN championship! 🦉 pic.twitter.com/yv6HCfX1ga
— ESPN (@espn) March 5, 2023
Burden closed it out because an implausible sports story deserves a poetic ending. The 5-foot-10-ish guard, unwanted by every D-I program until Kennesaw State offered a scholarship following a summer tournament, led the way Sunday. He drove the lane in the dying seconds of a tie game and was fouled with 0.7 ticks left. He stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to decide.
“I wasn’t nervous because I knew I had my teammates behind me,” he said.
“I could barely watch — I couldn’t breathe,” his mother said.
Terrell Burden, who led Kennesaw State with 19 points, three assists and two steals, was named the tournament MVP. (Dave Williamson / Atlantic Sun Conference)
Burden sank his first attempt to give the Owls the lead, as the sold-out Convocation Center erupted. He missed the second, but it didn’t matter. Liberty didn’t even have time to officially get a shot off. Game. Win. Fantasy.
Burden finished with a team-high 19 points, three assists and two steals. He was named the tournament MVP. He also was the one who helped calm his teammates during a timeout in the frazzled final minutes, telling them, “On three, everybody take a deep breath.”
“When Terrell said that, you could just feel the confidence go back into the team,” Abdur-Rahim said.
Burden was one of the players on the 1-28 team. He acknowledged there probably wasn’t a lot of belief in a turnaround that season. Abdur-Rahim recently told The Athletic it was so bad when he first took over in the spring of 2019 that when he texted players about a spring workout, one texted back, “Hey, is this mandatory?”
Gradually, the attitude and the buy-in shifted. Results followed.
“Coach was telling me and Armani Harris, don’t get used to this because it won’t be like this forever — we’re going to be on top,” Burden said as he sat next to his coach. “And what he said was true. … It feels great. This is my best friend here. I’ll never forget that day, getting that phone call (with an offer).”
Asked later in a quiet hallway if he had a message for all the schools who passed on him, Burden said: “It was a blessing in disguise. Thank you for not pulling the trigger on me.”
New winning is the best winning. It’s difficult to replicate that dizzying level of excitement. This was the Owls’ first game on national television. The Convocation Center was filled to capacity (3,805) for the first time, and it might’ve gone over that with some standing room. Floor seats were placed behind the brline for suddenly interested high-level parties who wanted to attend.
Mark Wasik, the school’s associate director of athletics communications, said he distributed 50 media credentials inside the building (not including ESPN technicians) and was in the gym placing name cards at seats until 1 a.m. because media outlets kept phoning for credentials. He taped 20 “boxes” on the floor for photographers and cameramen.
“Last year, we just had one photographer, from our staff,” he said. “Even the school paper didn’t cover us.”
The arena frequently echoed with sounds of fans singing the team’s rallying cry, “You don’t want to go to war with the Ow…wwls, with the Ow…wwls.”
“You don’t want to go to war with the Owls”
KSU takes the lead with 4:20 left in regulation. @11AliveNews pic.twitter.com/u0kLTVrcgw
— Reggie Chatman Jr. (@ReggieChatman) March 5, 2023
Abdur-Rahim has built this. He played hoops down the street at Wheeler High School in Marietta. He managed to get players to connect with each other, made them better and, in an era of frequent transferring, he convinced them to stay at KSU.
Half of the roster is from Georgia. After this run, more of the state’s talent will look at the campus on I-75 as a viable option. The Owls also are moving to Conference USA in 2024, which will mean tougher competition but in theory more built-in revenue from conference contracts (particularly football).
The school will need that money because larger but struggling programs that need a coach are going to come after Abdur-Rahim. The coach received a bump in pay and an extension through 2026-27, and he has already triggered several thousand dollars in bonuses in his contract. But assume the rest of that contract will go in the shredder.
When asked if the coach will get a new contract, athletic director Milton Overton told The Athletic: “That’s a foregone conclusion. We can build anything we want here at Kennesaw State. Yeah, there’s other bigger programs out there, but he’s at home here and he gets to drive the ship and do something that’s never happened before. We’re going to do what we need to do to keep our coach.”
T-minus 30 seconds until he starts getting mentioned for job openings. pic.twitter.com/RNRgt8z1Sd
— Justin Felder (@Justin_FOX5) March 5, 2023
Abdur-Rahim views the 1-28 season differently from others. It wasn’t a failure. It’s why they made it to Sunday.
“We were able to set a foundation in that one-win season and give these kids a vision,” he said. “When we came in and handled a loss as well as we handled a win, it meant the world to us.”
The coached choked up after the game. He opened his news conference with memories of his father, William, who died during the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020.
“You don’t understand what a father means to you until you can’t physically touch him anymore,” he said. “Every game day he would leave me a voicemail. After that first game against Creighton (in 2019), he talked for two minutes. He said, ‘That’s just one. But I can see you in some years. You know what to do. They belong to you.’ Man, I listened to that message every day. I share that with you to tell you this is not a fluke. It’s not a luck thing. This was a group of people who had one vision and one goal and allowed themselves to be pushed.”
Pushed to a place few saw coming.