By Jimmy Robertson
Most ACC basketball players pick up the sport before they enter kindergarten. In fact, many start as toddlers, tossing plastic balls in the garbage can or socks in the laundry basket.
Keve Aluma began playing basketball only when he started attending Stephen Decatur High School in his hometown of Berlin, Md.
And he hated it.
“I tried it when I was like 12 or 13, but I just didn’t really like it,” he said. “I didn’t get fouls and stuff. I still don’t really get fouls. That was my first time – my freshman year.”
Times certainly have changed for the 6-foot-9 Aluma, who figures to start for Mike Young and the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team this season and provide the post presence that the Hokies lacked a season ago
He played soccer as a kid and continued with that sport through his sophomore year at Decatur, but a growth spurt pushed him to 6-7 as a freshman, and basketball coach Byron Johnson noticed, seeing a raw, but potential star player every time the kid walked through the school’s hallways.
Johnson decided to invite Aluma to the gym just for a test spin. After seeing him grab the rim with two hands and virtually no effort, he went to work, selling Aluma and his mother on the possibilities of a future scholarship in basketball.
It eventually happened, of course, but the process to get to that point took some time. Kicking a ball into a net and throwing one through a cylinder are drastically different, as Aluma found out.
“Yes, it was terrible,” Aluma said. “I had zero clue what I was doing. I just basically ran around and played defense. I didn’t get the ball that much. Didn’t really want the ball, actually. But it was hard. I didn’t think I was that good at basketball, even going into my first year of playing college. I didn’t really get it, and it was still kind of weird.”
Hard work, persistence and quality coaching all helped make Aluma a Division I player. Quality genes also worked in his favor.
Aluma is the son of former Liberty University star Peter Aluma, who played for the Flames in the early 1990s and earned MVP honors at the Big South Tournament in each of his final two seasons. Keve and his father were not close, and the younger Aluma considers his stepfather, Bruce Copeland, as his true dad.
Still, he inherited his father’s natural skills, including his height and athleticism. His work ethic aided in his efforts, and he became better as a player, and others started noticing.
College coaches started Googling the town of Berlin, a small spot on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that sits roughly 20 minutes from the beaches of the more popular Ocean City. The summer before his senior season, Aluma received his first scholarship offer.
“I don’t know if I was surprised,” Aluma said. “After I got the first one, then all of a sudden, I started getting calls, and it was interesting. I didn’t really think it was real. But I was definitely interested and taken aback.
“My AAU coach was always telling me that he thought I could play at the next level,” Aluma said. “He was setting up coaches coming to watch me play and stuff like that, but I didn’t really expect it. Then once they came in, that changed my mindset a little bit.”
Aluma took an official visit to Loyola University Maryland, but Young – a terrific evaluator of talent – and his staff invited him for a visit to Wofford, where Young coached before taking the Virginia Tech job. Young’s personable demeanor, the school’s academics and Wofford’s tradition of winning sold Aluma, who committed on the visit.
“It was the basketball and an academic school,” Aluma said. “That combination of both gave me the best of both worlds.
“The drive was terrible; it was 9.5 hours [from Berlin],” Aluma said. “But that didn’t really play that much of a factor. I kind of knew that, at Wofford, they won a lot of games. I definitely liked that aspect of it.”
The winning continued at Wofford with Aluma’s arrival. He played in 33 games as a freshman, averaging a modest 2.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game during a season in which Wofford won 21 games. As a sophomore, he improved, starting 34 of the 35 games in which he appeared and averaging 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He helped Wofford to a perfect 18-0 Southern Conference record, the Southern Conference tournament title, and a school-record 30 wins.
“That was the best year of experiences with that team,” Aluma said. “That was just an amazing thing to be a part of. Going undefeated: We were such a good team. We were doing hockey subs [substitutions]. There was no selfishness. It was fun and great to be a part of.”
After the 2018-19 season, Young left to take the job at Virginia Tech. Shortly thereafter, Aluma decided to follow his coach and transfer to Tech.
He wanted to test his skills against the ACC’s best, but Wofford played tough nonconference schedules, and Aluma held up well in those games. So improved competition wasn’t his issue for leaving.
Like with a lot of players who transfer because of coaching changes, he wanted to play for the man who recruited him, developed him and believed in him.
“One-hundred percent,” Aluma said. “I was definitely not thinking that I was going to leave or that Coach was going to leave. I just expected everyone to stay there and for us to try and have another successful year. But when we started to see stuff on the ESPN app and all that, that Mike Young was possibly going to take that job, I was shocked, but it led to this opportunity for me. I’m definitely grateful.”
Aluma spent last season sitting out to meet the NCAA’s transfer requirements and simply adjusting to a different world. Wofford’s student population consists of around 1,800 while Virginia Tech’s sits at 34,000. A hike across Wofford’s campus takes around five minutes whereas Tech features a rather sprawling campus with the Drill Field as its heart.
On the court, Aluma served as a scout-team member for the Hokies while also getting ahead academically. Tech’s staff often lamented not being able to insert the 6-9, 235-pounder, but they certainly expect big things from him this season.
Actually, they hope he becomes an even better version of the player who scored six points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Wofford’s second-round NCAA Tournament loss against vaunted Kentucky in 2019. That game opened a lot of eyes, but Young urges caution at lofty expectations.
“I can tell you right now, if you think he’s going to average 16 points in the ACC next year, you’re wrong,” Young said. “But I thought when I brought him here, he’s another piece of the puzzle. He was a piece of the puzzle down there, and he’ll be the same here.
“I thought the year off would be invaluable for him physically, and it has been,” the head Hokie said. “I love his game, and he was very good for us in practice last year. Chester Frazier [a Virginia Tech assistant], if I heard him say it once, I heard him say it 50 times, he would make us so much better right now. He had a year in the smokehouse, as I refer to it, and he will be better because of that experience. I’m really excited about what he’ll bring to our roster.”
Aluma is excited, too, even though the COVID-19 pandemic continues, leaving lots of uncertainty in the sports world. Tech started practicing Oct. 14, and like other college basketball teams, hopes to start competition in late November. The staff and the players remain optimistic about the season, both playing it and enjoying success.
Tech will feature a much different team. Young added size in the offseason through the transfer market, an all-conference type guard in Kansas State graduate transfer Cartier Diarra and some young prospects on the perimeter, all of whom go with last year’s young returners.
“I think we’ve got a lot of good pieces,” Aluma said. “I’m just excited for us to get out there and start practicing and doing all those little things.”
Suffice it to say, Aluma’s transformation finds itself nearing completion, the former high school soccer standout turned basketball player now finishing his career in a coliseum where his natural father twice played and playing for a staff with two people (Ace Custis and David Jackson) who actually played against his natural father. The coincidence certainly is striking.
“It’s kind of a small world,” Aluma said.
For sure. Only a few short years ago, he got his kicks in on the pitch. Now, he’s hoping that he and the Hokies get their share of thrills on the court this season.
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