Making the grade: Aztecs basketball player Keshad Johnson flips the narrative academically

Making the grade: Aztecs basketball player Keshad Johnson flips the narrative academically


Here are Keshad Johnson’s statistics from last season at San Diego State: 7.2, 4.5, .553, 23.8.

That’s points, rebounds, shooting percentage and minutes per game.

Here’s another: 3.92.

That’s his GPA from spring semester.

He had three A’s and was awaiting a grade in one other class. It was posted early: A-. Johnson immediately messaged the professor and offered to rewrite a paper, or write an entire new paper, or submit an extra credit assignment of her choice. Anything to turn A- into what students call a “flat” A, giving him a 4.0 GPA and qualifying for a Malik Award given to Division I athletes at SDSU with straight A’s for a semester.

Since the Malik Award was launched in 1994 in honor of a longtime chemistry professor and former faculty athletic representative, only three men’s basketball players have received one — and only Nathan Mensah since 2005. Johnson wanted to be the fourth.

His sociology professor said she appreciated his enthusiasm and effort, but it wouldn’t be fair to offer him extra credit and not others in the class. The A-stood.

As the Malik Award winners were introduced during an end-of-the-semester banquet last month, Johnson texted Kelli Magargal, a member of the athletic department’s academic services team he works with closely: I want one of those.

“He’s already moved on and said, ‘Well, I’ll just get one next semester,'” Magargal says. “He’s on a mission.”

There were 43 Malik Award winners, 40 of them women, for 2021-22 among SDSU’s 530-odd athletes. None, likely, came from the socioeconomic background Johnson did in West Oakland, growing up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of one of America’s most dangerous cities. When Johnson was 10, his older brother was shot and paralyzed from the waist down in what authorities classified as a retaliatory strike by an area gang. The assailant later plead guilty and was decided to 43 years in federal prison.

Only one person in his immediate family has an undergraduate degree, a stepbrother. His mother got pregnant and dropped out of high school at 15. His father and two other siblings graduated high school and took a few classes at community college but got no further.

“It’s unheard of in a sense, coming from where I did,” Johnson says. “A lot of people feel like it’s impossible. There are a lot of roses from my neighborhood that haven’t blossomed. But if I was able to beat those odds and show people it’s possible, that could change everybody’s perspective. If I can do it, then they’ll know they can do it.”

It’s been a remarkable, resilient transformation from athlete-student to student-athlete to scholar athlete, out of the glare of the Viejas Arena lights, out of view of the television cameras, an arduous, unglamorous grind of first learning how to learn and then executing, just as he would a play diagrammed by coach Brian Dutcher on the locker room whiteboard.

“Just like he works at basketball, he works at academics,” Dutcher says. “If you’re a worker and a high achiever and a guy who wants to be good at everything, then that not only reflects how you play the game but how you work in the classroom. And Keshad is a perfect example of a guy who is wired the right way.

“I tell each and every guy who comes into the program that you’re going to spend the majority of your life not playing basketball, and that’s why academics are so important. You’re going to live most of your life without a basketball in your hands.”

Johnson admits it. He didn’t always understand that, didn’t always embrace that. He was the stereotypical high school jock, respectful to his teachers but did the minimum to get by — a necessary evil, a hoop to jump through to play hoops. His GPA hovered around 2.5, between a B- and C+, right in that meaty part of the curve, not showing off, not falling behind.

Then he got to SDSU and took an accounting class.

“I couldn’t keep up,” he says.

He tried several learning methods and realized he’s better when visually stimulated. He prints out reading material so he can note it in his own handwriting, a technique that helps imprint important points in his brain. He reads everything multiple times to fully absorb it. He uses flash cards. He keeps a meticulous to-do chart. He submits assignments early for feedback. He no longer procrastinates. He’s no longer intimidated to engage professors, even informing one of a mistake he noticed on a class syllabus.

You’ll see him at the airport, in the corner with his laptop plugged into a wall outlet, pounding away on a paper while awaiting a flight to Reno or Boise or Albuquerque. Or, once on the plane, cramming his 6-foot-7 frame into a seat next to Magargal, who accompanied the team on several trips last season because of the compressed schedule. Or sticking around in a hotel conference room after a film session for study hall.

Even when he doesn’t have to.

Johnson was so far ahead in his classes that Miss Kelli, as he refers to Magargal, told him he could skip study hall during the NCAA Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. He showed up anyway, because he wanted to be a positive role model for younger teammates and because, well, he admits this, too: He likes it.

“It’s to the point where it’s fun going to study hall,” Johnson says. “We’ll study but sometimes we’ll have conversations, about Native American history or some other event in history or maybe about current events. Sometimes you have to get away from basketball. It’s good for your mind.”

SDSU awards “Scholar Athlete” sweatshirts for those with a GPA of 3.0 for a semester or 3.2 overall. He did that three times and immediately set his sights on a Malik Award. At last month’s banquet, he was honored with the Aztecs Going Pro Resilience Award to recognize his academic improvement.

He’s on track to graduate next year with a degree in interdisciplinary studies focused on communication, sociology and recreational tourism. He’s taken multiple courses in sign language. He’s thinking about declaring a minor. If he exercises the NCAA’s “COVID” option to stay for a fifth season, he would enroll in a master’s program.

Most players skipped the first session of summer school and went home for May and June. Johnson stayed and took classes, as did roommate Lamont Butler (who had a 3.5 GPA last semester). Didn’t want to break the routine.

“Our job is teaching them to not need us and be independent,” Magargal says. “I’ve seen what Keshad has had to do to get to this level. I’ve seen the five or six types of learning he’s tried. I’ve seen him at 9 in my office working on a paper and then meeting his teammates at 9:30 in the JAM Center to practice. I’ve seen the weekends. I’ve seen the texts: ‘Hey, Kells, can you come in on a Saturday to help me research a paper.’

“I’ve just seen him become a grown-up and take 100 percent responsibility for his education. Instead of me saying, ‘What’s on your to-do list?’ he’ll reach out to me and say, ‘I’ve got a paper coming up in three weeks. I need to get started.’ It’s not me. It’s him. I’ve never had to push him, not once, ever.”

Life took care of that.

Johnson was 10 when his 14-year-old brother Kenny was shot outside his elementary school in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland. He could still see the dried blood on the sidewalk through his classroom window the next day.

“That’s when I grew up,” says Johnson, whose family moved out of West Oakland for his senior year of high school to a safer neighborhood in San Leandro. “I wasn’t grown, but that’s when I realized life is short and anything can happen. I knew nobody is invincible, no matter how good you are. The way life works, anything can happen to anybody.

“The fact that (Kenny) didn’t get to achieve his basketball dream and get the opportunities that I did, that’s just more motivation. It’s like I’m living two dreams in one. I’m doing it myself, and for him, for the rest of my family, for the all the kids coming from where I come from. It’s bigger than me.”

It’s a message his parents continually impart. That they didn’t attend college or, in the case of his mother, finish high school, had the reverse effect on their youngest son. He wasn’t going to SDSU just to become a pro basketball player. He was going to get a degree.

“The hard upbringing they had, the obstacles they faced, them not finishing college made them have a bigger chip on their shoulder to make sure I do it,” Johnson says. “There’s always the what if: What if basketball doesn’t happen, knock on wood? That’s what my parents tell me all the time: What if? They don’t shoot my dream down. They hope for me to make it, too. But you always have to have a Plan B, no matter how badly you want that Plan A. My life is set, even if I don’t play professional basketball. My life is set if I just graduate.”

The tattoo on San Diego State's Keshad Johnson's arm tells a story.

The tattoo on San Diego State’s Keshad Johnson’s arm tells a story.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He wears No. 0 as in “O” or Oakland, a constant reminder of where he comes from. Across his left forearm is a tattoo that says: “MISUNDERSTOOD.”

“Regardless of what happens with basketball, he’s changing the narrative,” Magargal says, her voice swelling with pride. “He tells me, ‘I’ve always been good at basketball, but I’m really good at school now, too.’ ”

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