Now, the J.V. Raiders face perhaps their toughest challenge of all: Going on without teammate Jammal Kegler, who passed away unexpectedly Tuesday night.
J.V. Raiders coach Donald Pettigrew was in disbelief when he received the tragic news.
“When I heard about it, I couldn’t believe it because he had just played that night before. I talked to him before he left, while he was walking to the car with his mom. The last words he said to me were, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow coach.’ To know that Jammal is gone is unreal. He was truly a great kid.”
J.V. Raiders point guard Jalen Clarke said he had spoken to his teammate and friend over the phone Tuesday night following Richmond’s 74-42 victory over Scotland. Kegler, who was Richmond’s leading scorer, scored 14 points.
“I talked to him that same night after we won,” Clarke said.
“He called me and we both were talking about getting the same type of Jordans (shoes) together. He then asked me about the team pictures, and it really hurts that he isn’t going to get to see the pictures. I went and put the pictures on my MySpace page.”
Forward Trey Little said he and Kegler recently found out that they were related.
“We learned not too long ago that we were cousins and we both were happy about it,” Little said. “It’s just tough right now, knowing that he’s not going to be around us anymore.”
A ‘million-dollar smile’
Pettigrew said one of the first memories that pops into his mind when reflecting on Kegler is his “million dollar smile.”
Shooting guard Jesse Simpson, who Pettigrew said was probably Kegler’s closest friend on the team, explained that Kegler was the type of person people gravitated toward.
“When Jammal smiled, he would brighten up your day, especially when you were feeling down,” Simpson said.
“He just knew how to lift up your spirit. He was my brother and my other half on the court. I really thought I was dreaming when I found out what happened and I couldn’t get any sleep last night (Wednesday). He was innocent and it just doesn’t seem fair that he’s gone. I love him and there will never be another Jammal.”
Clarke added Kegler made everyone around him comfortable.
“Jammal loved to goof off and have fun,” Clarke said. “He knew how to make people laugh. I remember a time when he was at my house, and there was some orange juice in the refrigerator. He asked could if he get a little bit of it and he drank all of it up. He tried to act like he didn’t know what he did. But when I found out, what he did, I just laughed it off.”
A fun-loving player
According to Pettigrew, Kegler loved to have fun on the court.
“I remember when we played Lumberton and Jammal got a dunk, and he saluted our crowd in the stands,” Pettigrew said. “The referee came over and said, ‘No.4 (Kegler) if you salute one more time, I’m going to give you a technical.’ Jammal replied, ‘I’ll stop, Mr. Ref.’ It was just Jammal enjoying himself out on the court.”
Pettigrew added one of Kegler’s best highlights this season was when he dunked on a South View player. The play got his team and the crowd to their feet.
Little recalled an expression Kegler had everytime he posterized an opponent.
“He loved to say when he dunked on somebody that he was using them as a step ladder,” Little said.
Pettigrew admitted that he’s a tough coach who rides his players hard. But Pettigrew said even when he got on Kegler that there were never a problem between them.
“I’m the kind of coach that wears my emotions on my sleeves, and I get on these kids a lot,” Pettigrew said. “But if he did something wrong, he would say, ‘All right coach,’ and ‘I got you, coach.’ He never said anything back and he was just a thrill to coach.”
‘A joy to teach’
Derrick Watkins coached Kegler last season on the Richmond Ninth Grade Academy Gold boys basketball team. According to Watkins, Kegler always conducted himself gracefully as a student-athlete.
“I told my wife that this is what hurts the most:t Jammal was a rarity,” Watkins said. “A lot of times, these kids are a joy to see on the basketball court or on the football field.
“But they can be hard to deal with in the classroom. That wasn’t the case with Jammal. He had all the skills and abilities, but you never worried about him getting in trouble in school or getting kicked out. He wasn’t the type of kid that walked around with his pants sagging, and Jammal could adjust to any environment he was in. Every teacher who knew him would say that he was a joy to teach.”
Richmond held its first practice following Kegler’s death on Thursday. Pettigrew said he was proud of his players’ effort during a difficult period.
“I love and admire these guys, for them to come out and still practice hard,” Pettigrew said. “It was different because I still looked forward to him coming through the door. We all just broke down crying when we huddled. But I know I’ve got to be strong for these kids. At the same time, I’m human too and it’s just going to take some time.”
Team plans to honor Kegler
Due to bad weather that forced the cancellation of games on Friday, the J.V. Raiders will play their first game without Kegler on Monday at Hoke. Pettigrew said the team will honor Kegler by taking his No. 4 white jersey on every road trip the rest of the season. The team will also give his home green jersey to his mother.
Pettigrew added that the team is going to wear special T-shirts in memory of Kegler, made by player Corey Smart’s father. The shirts will sub for the Raiders’ usual warm-up tops the rest of the season.
The Raiders will also wear a patch on their jerseys in honor of Kegler.
Pettigrew added that Richmond will continue to put Kegler’s name in the score book, though he knows that’s going to warrant a technical foul before the game starts.
“It doesn’t matter,” Pettigrew said. “It always seemed liked Jammal scored the first two points and when we score, it will be his two points. He still is part of this team.”
Simpson said the thing that Kegler was looking forward to the most after the season was playing AAU ball. The first tournament is in March.
Pettigrew and the players agreed that Kegler loved to play the game. Pettigrew said Kegler’s best game this year was a 34-point effort against Douglas Byrd.
A bright hoop future
Pettigrew believes Kegler had the tools to go to the next level.
“I’ve seen a lot of great players, but he was he was the best that I’ve seen,” Pettigrew said. “I told him that I was pretty good, but he was 10-times better than I was. He definitely had the ability to be a Division-I ballplayer, which is usually rare in this area.”
The J.V. Raiders have gone unbeaten through their first 17 games. With five games left on the schedule, the team believes Kegler would want no less than for Richmond to finish with an unblemished record.
“I know he would want us to keep playing, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Pettigrew said. “We’re going to try to go for this undefeated season. Jammal always called the game ‘the show.’ We’re going to try to finish the show for him.”
Contact sports reporter Corey Davis at 997-3111, ext. 44; e-mail email@example.com