Written by Sam Lee, Sports Information Assistant
Photo by Rich Lam; Kaza Kajami-Keane capped off his two-year Carleton stay with great success.
As the Ravens completed their record-tying seventh straight national title with a 78-69 victory over the Ryerson Rams at the Halifax Metro Centre on March 12, one player on the court was ending a five-year roller-coaster ride.
Kaza Kajami-Keane, a Carleton men’s basketball senior co-captain, delivered a storybook ending to his university basketball career, winning the Jack Donohue Trophy as the MVP of the 2017 U SPORTS Final 8 Tournament and Carleton’s Male Athlete of the Year award. Leading the OUA in assists and propelling the Ravens to an undefeated 2016-17 regular season, Kajami-Keane’s time at Carleton was full of excitement and triumph.
Behind the accolades, however, was a long and arduous journey for the six-foot-one point guard, who had bounced around to multiple teams before finally finding a home with the Ravens.
Kajami-Keane began his post-secondary basketball career south of the border at Illinois State, but his two seasons with the Redbirds were unspectacular, and his reduced role in his second season prompted him to make a change.
“I went to high school in North Carolina so my parents didn’t get to see me play too often,” Kajami-Keane recalls. “My dad wanted to see more games, and we’re all pretty close.”
Additionally, Kajami-Keane said he said he wasn’t performing the way he wanted to on the court, and he knew he could do better.
“I felt it was better to move forward, to put myself in the best situation to be a basketball player,” he said.
So, with the support of his family, Kaza left Illinois State after two seasons and transferred to Cleveland State for his third year of eligibility. He enjoyed moderate success with the Vikings, and had earned a starting spot by the end of the season. Yet he found again that this was not where he needed to be to excel.
“Me and the coach at Cleveland, we had an agreement that I wanted to redshirt a year, since I had skipped a grade in high school,” Kajami-Keane explained. “But after my junior year, I was the only starter that was returning, and the coach told me that he needed me to be the leader of the team.”
Kajami-Keane said at that point, he needed to do what was best for his career: “As a coach, I can see where he was coming from, you need someone to control the team – but I didn’t want to go out that way. I wanted to learn and develop my game more.”
After spending three seasons playing in the NCAA Division I, he contacted Carleton head coach Dave Smart, who had coached Kaza while he was playing for Team Canada.
“(Dave) told me that I could probably play professionally if I played another year at Cleveland State, but not to the level I wanted,” said Kajami-Keane. “He told me that I could develop more at Carleton, and after that there was really no debate.”
So Kajami-Keane changed his jersey yet again, this time heading back to his birthplace of Ontario to finish his University career.
“It was tough at the beginning, especially with Dave (Smart),” Kajami-Keane said. “He wants a lot out of you, and sometimes you don’t even know if you can get to all his goals.”
His move to Canada did spark numerous questions, as many regarded the move as a step backwards, with U SPORTS being the historically weaker league compared to competition in the United States. Nevertheless, his new team’s success against American schools during the annual Can-Am Shootout proved that SPORTS is gaining ground on the NCAA, and rapidly.
“We beat Wichita State this past summer, and they ended up winning the Missouri Valley conference I used to play in,” said Kajami-Keane. “It shows you that guys are overlooking this level of competition.”
Kajami-Keane also commented that the rule differences between the leagues played a factor in his decision.
“CIS (U SPORTS) is a little faster, it’s a better pace for me,” Kajami-Keane said. “You get coached more here (at Carleton), you get more opportunities to train, stuff like that.”
Like the saying goes, the third time’s the charm, and Kajami-Keane’s third team proved to be the perfect spot. After winning the national title in his first season with the Ravens, he ended his final season of university basketball with a second championship, and numerous awards, including being named the U SPORTS Final 8 Tournament MVP.
When asked about his collection of awards, Kajami-Keane said they are encouraging, but not his source of motivation. “They’re always nice, something for my mom to put up on the wall,” he joked. “But playing here, it’s not about the awards. Imagining a guy like Phil (Scrubb), who’s won U SPORTS Player of the Year four, five times, it’s very humbling.”
Instead, Kajami-Keane said he was motivated by his teammates, and his desire to see them succeed.
“We dedicated the year to helping the first-year guys get their first ring,” Kajami-Keane said. “Last year, we had a guy like Gavin (Resch), whose main goal was to make sure that I won. I wanted to do the same thing for these guys.”
As for his coaches, Kajami-Keane credits them with transforming him into the player he is today.
“The Carleton program, it taught me how to be a man. (Dave) saw something in me I didn’t see myself, and he got me all the way here. It’s just about thanking him now.”
With a successful university career now behind him, Kajami-Keane – a two-time All-Canadian – says he plans to play professionally next year, and that he wants to keep improving and growing after graduation.
“At this point, I’m just trying to find an agent, go from there.” Kajami-Keane said. “I’m going to talk to Dave and see how he feels about all this, he has the experience.”
With no plans to stop playing the game he loves, Kajami-Keane’s plans are simple: “I’ll make my way up to the highest league I can.”