Photos courtesy San Diego State Athletics/Derrick Tuskan
Every story needs an ending. It’s not always the desired ending, or even the predicable one, but closure is essential. One chapter ends so the next can begin. As KJ Feagin approached the final chapter of his college basketball career last month, it appeared a storybook ending might be in the cards for the former Long Beach Poly Jackrabbit.
He was the starting point guard for a Top 10 San Diego State team, playing some of the best basketball of his life, and enjoying every minute of it. The defensive-minded guard had shaken off an early-season shooting slump and was turning heads along with the rest of his Aztecs teammates. National college basketball writer Seth Davis of The Athletic named Feagin to his annual All-Glue Team, bringing the point guard national acclaim for his unselfishness and his value to the team as a defensive stopper on the perimeter.
But on March 12, the storybook ending ran out of pages. The NCAA announced that the 2020 men’s basketball tournament had been canceled. There would be no resolution for Feagin or San Diego State’s 30-2 season on the court.
“I just didn’t know what to think,” recalled Feagin about hearing the news. “Everything happened so fast I didn’t get a chance to process it, but now that I have time to go through my thoughts, I’m bitter a little bit. Because the sacrifice was just for that tournament. Everything we did, every emotion and everything we put into (this season) was to make a run in the tournament. So for us to not have a chance to shut up our doubters and our naysayers that thought that we were just in the Mountain West Conference and didn’t play anybody, as a competitor I was mad about that.
“Nobody in the world got to see what this team was. It’s hard because we really thought we were the best team out there. I felt like on any given day we could beat any team in the nation. So it’s a bitter feeling because you don’t have any closure in the situation, you just have to move on. I think over time I’ll be able to appreciate these times more, but for right now I’m just feeling bitter.”
The sting was felt especially hard by Feagin, who was looking forward to his first appearance in the Big Dance. After graduating from Poly, he attended Santa Clara, starting a combined 79 games over his first three seasons before injuries derailed his senior campaign. Feagin established himself as one of the top players in the West Coast Conference, but the Broncos went just 55-71 during his four years there. As a graduate transfer at San Diego State, healthy and ready to prove himself on a larger stage, things had finally fallen into place.
“It was special from the jump,” said Feagin of his move to SDSU. “The transition couldn’t have been any easier for me. Everything here was a match made in heaven. I was around people that were just like me. I’ve never been on a team like that, where you know everyone on the team wants to win … At the end of the day, we were a brotherhood and we were willing to sacrifice our personal desires for the team. it was something beautiful to be a part of.”
Feagin brought with him a championship pedigree from his days at Poly High. As a junior in 2014, he helped lead the Jackrabbits to a CIF title while earning CIF-SS Division 1 Player of the Year honors. He said he was getting back to a similar mentality that he had in high school, and the results followed.
“The culture at Poly and what they teach you can help you be successful anywhere,” Feagin explained. “Not just in basketball but in life. Being a competitor and not letting somebody come into your gym and step over you. They need to know that when you play someone from Poly or you’re playing Poly, you know it’s going to be a tough day. So I just took that upon myself in saying ‘Whoever I’m guarding, they’re going to have a tough day.’ I wanted to get back to that, I think I got away from it at Santa Clara a little bit and I had a point to prove this year to show that I could be an elite defender. It was something mentality-wise that came back naturally for me and it showed on the court.”
On March 30, when the NCAA announced it would not be granting additional eligibility to athletes in winter sports, it was official that Feagin’s college career was over. But that doesn’t mean his basketball career is finished.
“I’m definitely pursuing the next level,” he said. “I obviously want to go to the NBA and I feel like I have NBA talent, but knowing the position I’m in right now I’m going to have to work my way up there. As far as what’s next, I don’t know and nobody really knows what’s going on right now … I’m in a waiting game but trying to stay on top of my game. I can’t get in the gym right now but I’m trying to stay in shape and handle the things I can, which is not much right now.”
Whether he’s playing in the NBA or somewhere overseas, it’s obvious that there are more chapters left in KJ Feagin’s basketball career. That doesn’t make the untimely finish at San Diego State any easier to stomach, but Feagin is already able to see that he was part of something special, even if it was destined to remain unfinished.
“Some days I’m not happy, and then some days I look back on what we did and I am really proud of it,” Feagin said. “I think the days I’m not happy are the days I’m thinking too much about myself … For me, I have to put myself back into those moments and realize that in those moments I did the best that I could and I should be proud of that happened this year … To the people that were with me every day, we knew how special this year was and we knew what we had in the room. At the end of the day I’m just really happy and proud to be a part of something like that.”