GCU senior Keonta Vernon grew up in Tulare, California, which has a population of 63,000 people. Tulare is set in Central San Joaquin Valley about 60 miles north of Bakersfield. “It’s a small town and everybody knows each other, so it’s just a lot of fun,” Vernon said.
This Saturday the Antelopes will play at Cal State Bakersfield, and for the 6’6”240-pound power forward, it will be a final homecoming game in front of family and friends. “The last 2 times I’ve been there, I had almost 100 people in the stands. It will be crazy especially with this being the last time I’m that close to home playing. I know we’re going to have just as big a crowd as they are, simply because I’m from Bakersfield and all of my family is going to be there. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
“he’s gotten smarter and realized he is a leader both verbally and physically. He shows it by how hard he plays every day and he just spreads the culture that we want”
Vernon’s first sporting love growing up was football, but basketball began to pique his interest as he got older. “I always liked it. I always played it, because it was something to do and my friends played it, but I didn’t get serious about it until 8th grade. We went on a trip to Las Vegas and actually won a big tournament. After that, I was like ok, I think I can do this for a living.”
As a sophomore at Tulare High School, Vernon started to get some notoriety on the hardwood when he broke a backboard with a dunk. “It was fun. We had to come back and play the game, unfortunately. We had to wait 5 days to play them again. After that, my exposure took off I guess you could say. We ended up going back home and everybody was going crazy when we got back.”
Vernon was still playing football as a wide receiver. His senior year he was getting college scholarship offers. Schools were projecting him as a tight end or defensive end, but Keonta had made up his mind to pursue basketball at the next level. That’s when the circuitous journey began before his arrival at GCU.
“Right out of high school I committed to the University of Wyoming. I was there for a year. I redshirted. Then I decided to transfer and go to junior college at the College of Southern Idaho. They had a really good team, went 31-3. We would have won the national tournament, but we ended up getting a lot of players hurt the last few weeks, myself included. (GCU Assistant Coach) T.J. (Benson) was on me, recruiting me from day one when I got to CSI. We grew a relationship. He actually told me he was glad I got hurt because he thought I wouldn’t have come to GCU. When I got hurt, I lost all of my offers and he was the one to stick by me and Coach Majerle. So it was kind of meant to be.”
When Keonta arrived in Phoenix for his sophomore season, the transition was less than smooth. “When I first got here I was a hot head. Me and Coach Majerle every single day going at it. Every game going at it. Even my teammates. I was just all about myself. I was selfish. . . . It kind of pushed me away from a team perspective, and after that DeWayne (Russell) talked to me, brought me in. And then me and Gerard (Martin) got close and the rest is history.”
GCU head coach Dan Majerle adds, “When he first got here he got in a lot of foul trouble, a lot of cheap fouls. It was hard to keep him in the game because of his foul trouble, but he’s gotten smarter and realized he is a leader both verbally and physically. He shows it by how hard he plays every day and he just spreads the culture that we want.”
Vernon, who averages 8.8 points and a team-leading 7.1 rebounds per game, learned his work ethic and so much more from his grandmother, Eileen Thomas, who passed away in 2016. “Words honestly cannot describe how important and what kind of impact she had on my life and my family’s life throughout the years. She took us in numerous times. She put food on our table. She did everything. She had 3 jobs. Worked at a hospital for 30 years. She went broke for us and for people she barely knew, she would take in and help them. When she passed away I went into a slump, a kind of depression. Then I sat down and asked what would she want me to do. So at this point, I’m just trying to pass along her legacy to be what she was to me to everybody else.” Vernon said.
Anyka Harris, Keonta’s mother, is his biggest cheerleader and will see her son play on Saturday in Bakersfield, while Vernon’s grandmother will be in his heart, or just below it, to be more precise. “I knew once she passed, I’d get my grandmother’s face tattooed on me.
The picture I put on there was when I signed with Wyoming, so it was me putting a smile on my grandma’s face. It had that attachment to me. I had to put it on me because now when I look at it, it’s kind of weird, but I talk to her. And every time I talk to her or about her, I get chills, I get goosebumps. It pushes me and motivates me in a way that I never thought I could be motivated.” Vernon said.
The senior forward is now motivated to finish the regular season strong, and then win the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas. The same place Keonta won his first basketball tournament as a youth, that started him on this path.
“At the end of the day the big goal is to win 1,2,3 (WAC Tournament games) and then you know what’s after that (automatic NCAA Tournament berth). It’s really time to put the foot on the gas. We want to make a run in the tournament and make some noise, and I honestly believe that we can. We’re a really good team and it’s going to be hard to stop us if we get everybody clicking at the right time.”