It’s all fun and games, kids, until the moms start keeping score. Kevin Mays had given Stephanie Black plenty of ammunition with friends and family, having averaged 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds as a freshman at Maryland-Eastern Shore — one of the few bright lights on a roster that won two and lost 26.
“There’s a story,” said Mays, now a senior forward with Cal State Bakersfield. “My cousin’s younger than me; we actually got into college about the same time. He’s a pretty good student-athlete as well. But he focused more on his academics and I focused more on my athletics.”
And so it went. Until, at some point during Kevin’s first year at college, their respective mothers got together to compare notes and — well, brag.
“My son,” Stephanie said proudly, “was team MVP.”
“My son,” his cousin’s mom replied, prouder still, “made the Dean’s List.”
That one stung.
“I (saw) it in her eyes,” Mays recalled. “As proud as she was of me, it was almost like she wanted to say, ‘My son is a scholar as well.’ So I said, ‘Ma, I could do that. I could do that. If I put my mind to it, I could do it.
“I made the Dean’s List. And from then on, I couldn’t take my foot off the gas.”
Even if you don’t see it coming, you can hear the engine and smell the vapor trail. On the floor, Mays is the grinder’s grinder, 6-foot-4 with a 6-9 game and the No. 4 rebounder in the Western Athletic Conference (8.0 per game). Off the floor, the native New Yorker had reported a 3.0 cumulative grade-point average through this past August.
“(The challenge was) not just to stay in school — it was just to get something out of it,” said Mays, whose Roadrunners host Utah Valley Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ASN. “(I figured) ‘I’m doing it anyway, I might as well make the best of the situation, however it is.’
“When I wanted to quit, my mom wouldn’t let me. And the people around me, they just really stuck with me.”
The senior forward tops the Runners in boards, Sports-Reference.com’s Win Shares (3.1), and floor burns, a tough, defensive-minded program’s toughest hombre. And yet Mays is also one of the most thoughtful figures in Bakersfield circles, a teacher in training, mentoring local youth at clinics, a big brother and giant teddy bear.
“I was fortunate enough to have opportunities to be coached by a lot of good guys (growing up),” said Mays, who heads into the weekend averaging 12.2 points per contest. “I always told myself from a young age, (that) if I ever have an opportunity to give back and help youth like myself, that I’d always try to do that.”
One rope, many hands, all pulling the same direction. Mays’ father Kevin moved away when he was young, although the two remained on good terms. One youth coach, Dwayne Johnson first thrust a ball in the forward’s mitts when he was eight. Another mentor, Antoine Tutt, helped smooth out the rough edges.
“(Tutt) taught me the organized way of playing basketball,” Mays said. “Dwayne, he instilled the heart in me, the playing-hard aspect of it. Skill-wise and pushing me, motivating me, that was more Antoine.
“I was a handful, man. When I talk to people who knew me from my childhood, they can’t believe it. My mom’s older friends, they give two or three looks at me (and) they say, ‘No way (he’s) the same kid.’ I was definitely not supposed to be on this road that I’m on right now. I had a lot of people in my corner pushing me.”
Mentally. Spiritually. Physically. Mays’ uncle, Ramon Clemente, was a scrappy forward at Wichita State from 2007-09, a “Play Angry” type who helped set the tone for the early Gregg Marshall Era before the Shockers found their apex. Although seven years his junior, Mays grew up chasing Clemente around the playgrounds of Queens.
“A lot of people, (if) they both know of us, they say I kind of play just like him,” Mays said of Clemente, who averaged 7.5 points and 7.5 boards per game in Wichita. “I’m just a smaller version.”
In other words, when they went at it, they WENT AT IT. No fracture, no foul.
“Yeah, I’ll never forget,” chuckled Mays, who’d transferred into Bakersfield before the 2014-15 season after a year at Odessa (Texas) College. “We’re in the park, he’s dunking on me, I’m on his back. And he’s throwing me on the (floor) and I’m crying. He’s like, ‘Let’s go, get up.’ He definitely instilled that in me at a young age.
“But (Bakersfield) coach (Rod) Barnes taught me to tap into — I want to say aggressiveness, but I don’t want to say aggressiveness. I’ve got to do something to separate myself, being a smaller (forward). It’s just a will. A determination.”
A motor, built in the Big Apple, roaring through the southern California sunshine. Challenge him, push him, Mays pushes back. Last spring, the New Yorker was inducted into Kappa Delta Pi, an international honors society in education. Membership is restricted to the top 20 percent of those entering the field of education, and undergrads must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA for consideration.
“(Black) was ecstatic,” Mays said.
So ecstatic, in fact, that she flew out west to attend the initiation, gleefully hugging her son. The scholar.
“So that was a big surprise,” Mays said. “It’s definitely up there … because it was big for my mom. That was something she’d been trying to instill in me for a long time: Academics. It was big to see how proud she was for me.”
In fact, he could see it in her eyes. After all, it ain’t braggin’ if Mom can back it up.