Long Rebound

Times Staff Writer

Jason Keep would wake up, skin slick with sweat, his sleeping pills rendered ineffective as another night was ripped away by the same image:

An airplane careening toward the ground. Keep helpless, sitting with his panicked teammates as the snow came up to meet them.

Keep was one of the lucky ones on that January 2001 night. The plane on which he was traveling landed safely in Stillwater, Okla. But another went down in a snowy field 20 miles south of Denver, less than two hours after Oklahoma State had played at Colorado.

All 10 people aboard were killed, among them two of his close friends.

Keep transferred from Oklahoma State shortly after the crash, but despite a rejuvenated return to the court as a senior center for the University of San Diego this season, he recently wiped at tears as he talked about the tumult of that night and the days that followed.

"You've never seen more grown men cry at their weakest and lowest moments of their life," Keep said.

Sobering for a man who had led a controversial, often troubled life.

Keep was kicked out of high school, spent time in jail, worked his hands raw on an oil rig and under-performed at Oklahoma State before finding a home at San Diego.

After sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, Keep, 6 feet 10 and 280 pounds, punctuated his return with 30 points and 16 rebounds against UCLA last November. He finished among the West Coast Conference leaders, averaging 18.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and shooting 62.2% in pacing San Diego (16-11) to a second-place finish behind Gonzaga. The Toreros play San Francisco today in a WCC tournament semifinal.

"It's been a long road," Keep said. "It's taken me a long time to get here."

Keep was expelled his junior year from Moscow (Idaho) High for disruptive behavior and for cutting too many classes. After a few months at a remedial school in Bend, Ore., he transferred to Pullman (Wash.) High for his senior year.

Between those stops, he pleaded guilty to exhibition of a deadly weapon and two counts of battery in July 1996 for punching his girlfriend in the face and threatening her and another woman with a pistol, court records said. He was sentenced to 18 days in jail.

After high school, Keep bounced around for more than a year, laying carpet back in Moscow and working on an oil rig near the Utah-Wyoming border.

He again ran afoul of the law in December 1998, charged with malicious injury to property more than a year after $1,800 in damage was done to a motorcycle in front of a Moscow residence. Keep claims he did not vandalize the motorcycle, though his father, Tory, paid for the damages. Charges were dismissed.

"I put my parents through a lot," Keep said. "I was always rebellious. I was mad at the world."

It was Keep's mother, Diana, who reeled him back in. She called the coach at North Idaho junior college and asked if her son could try out. Hugh Watson didn't think twice when he met Keep -- it wasn't often a bulging 6-foot-10 kid showed up at his office.

"He blocked out the light when I looked up at him," Watson said. "It was a pleasant surprise."

Keep averaged 15 points and nine rebounds in one season at the Coeur d'Alene campus, after which Oklahoma State, Purdue and USC were among the four-year schools that came calling.

Keep chose Oklahoma State after Coach Eddie Sutton told him he'd be the next Bryant "Big Country" Reeves.

He became a crowd favorite, the Mark Madsen of Stillwater, cheered more for entertainment value than the 3.6 points and 2.0 rebounds he averaged as a sophomore.

His numbers weren't much better as a junior, but he smashed a backboard with a dunk in the final minute of a game against Arkansas Little Rock, delighting Oklahoma State fans. Teammates also favored Keep, who was more of an enforcer than a scorer.

"If you had a barroom fight and you had to pick from 100 guys at Oklahoma State, next to a couple of defensive ends, [Keep's] who I want with me," point guard Doug Gottlieb said at the time. "He's from Idaho and he tells us there ain't much to do in Idaho but fight."

Keep's aggression could not be contained on the court.

He moved into the starting lineup a few games into his junior season but was arrested in January 2001 for driving while intoxicated and was suspended for two games. When he was reinstated, he got into a shouting match with Sutton at halftime against Texas A&M; and was not allowed to return for the second half.

The plane crash was three days later.

Nate Fleming and Dan Lawson, Keep's teammates and close friends, were passengers on the twin-engine prop plane that went down.

Keep was Fleming's roommate on the road. He remembers helping Fleming's parents pack their son's belongings after memorial services. He was a speaker at Lawson's funeral.

Keep has a tattoo that honors Fleming and Lawson on the back of his brawny neck -- their jersey numbers, surrounded by angels' wings and broken glass.

"I took their memory and made it a permanent part of me," Keep said.

Keep got through it and, in a bright spot, was selected to the Big 12 All-Academic team a couple of weeks before the season ended. But he was nowhere near the court for the Cowboys' last few games.

He was kicked off the team for breaking unspecified rules the day before a first-round game against USC in the NCAA tournament. After the season, it was mutually agreed that he should leave.

"I was young, immature," Keep said. "I just wanted to play basketball."

He targeted San Diego, remembering a trip the Cowboys had taken a few months earlier to play San Diego State.

Keep, who will be 25 in May, has had NBA scouts evaluating him at nearly every game since the UCLA breakout. There were eight scouts in attendance at Loyola Marymount. Jerry West was at the Toreros' game at Pepperdine.

There have been setbacks -- Keep was thrown out of practice in December for talking back to Coach Brad Holland and was subsequently benched for the first few minutes of a game against Utah -- but he has behaved well on the whole.

"He was stubborn, set in his ways, thought he knew everything," Holland said. "Yet at the same time, he wanted someone to take him under his wing and care about him. When Jason came, he had no trust. I said I'll earn your trust, as long as you earn mine."

Now when Keep is cheered by fans, it's for his scoring ability.

"This is what I've always wanted to do," he said. "I want to show what I'm about."

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