BOZEMAN — To this day, when Keljin Blevins takes the basketball court, he envisions his father sitting in the stands.
Before each game, Blevins says a prayer, holding an intimate conversation with the late James Blevins.
And every time he competes for the Montana State Bobcats, Blevins is striving to make his father proud.
“There’s no bigger motivation than what happened to my dad,” Blevins said. “He was my No. 1 fan, never missed a game, was always in the crowd. To this day, I think of him sitting up there and I imagine what he would think. Every day, I want to make him proud.
“He will forever be my biggest motivation, whether that’s in basketball or anything else in life.”
When Blevins was in the middle of his first season playing at Southern Miss, his father died suddenly. A heart attack killed James Blevins completely unexpectedly. He was 45.
“It’s tough but I’ve been getting better at it every day,” Blevins said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t miss him but it’s not as tough as it once was.”
The tragic death left Blevins in a constant state of worry about the livelihood of his mother, Mary Burgess, who lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas nearly 400 miles Northwest of Hattisburg, Mississippi.
By his sophomore year, Blevins had developed into a starter for Doc Sadler’s Golden Eagles. But his heart still ached and the losing — SUU went 9-20 his freshman season and 8-21 his sophomore year — was wearing on the 6-foot-6, 200-pound hybrid forward.
Montana State head coach Brian Fish had a previous relationship with Sadler, so Blevins had a landing spot on the other side of the country. And he had a familiarity with the Big Sky because of his most famous family member.
Damian Lillard is the dream maker of the Big Sky, a former mid-major standout who’s meteoric rise hit a fever pitch last season when the Portland Trail Blazers point guard earned first-team All-NBA honors. Lillard, who will turn 29 in July, is Blevins’ first cousin.
During his career at Weber State, Lillard was the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year before earning league MVP honors twice. Despite never advancing to the NCAA Tournament, Lillard chose to forego his senior year, instead declaring for the NBA Draft.
He was the 6th overall pick by the Blazers and earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors. He is a four-time All-Star and a three-time All-NBA selection, earning second-team honors in 2016 and third-team honors in 2014.
To watch Lillard perform is to see poetry in motion. The 6-foot-3 point guard defines smooth. He uses one of the NBA’s best handles and one of its purest shooting releases to help the Blazers to the playoffs five years in a row.
But Lillard is a self-made man. The former 2-star recruit chose Weber State over offers from St. Mary’s, SMU, Santa Clara, San Diego State, San Diego, Fresno State, Bradley, Boise State and, ironically, Montana. Will Cherry and the Griz beat Lillard in the Big Sky Tournament championship game twice to deny Lillard a spot in the Big Dance.
Blevins and Lillard have been close since childhood — Lillard is five years older than his cousin — but when James passed away, Lillard came to the forefront of male figures in Blevins’ life.
“He was playing at a very high clip as a freshman when he lost his dad and I know it was very influential,” Fish said earlier this season. “His mom is a great, great lady. As a person, you need balance in your life and mom and dad bring different balance.
“To his credit and to Damian Lillard’s credit, Dame stepped in and became a male figure in his family and has become extremely close. I think that’s helped Keljin.”
Heads turned in Bozeman when Lillard sat courtside for Montana State’s game against North Dakota on November 27 two days before Blevins’ 24th birthday. Lillard and the rest of Brick Breeden Fieldhouse rose to their feet in a frenzy when Blevins ripped the rim off with a tomhawk dunk that has become his trademark this season.
“That was a moment I will probably never have again but that was one for the books,” Blevins said.
The slam helped MSU to a 76-69 win in the lone home game over a 55-day span during a brutal non-conference schedule. It was part of an 18-point night that showed Blevins’ improved game and impressive athleticism. And it was an affirming moment for a young man who has had to alter his identity without the presence of his father in his life.
“My dad was everything to me, everything to our family, the main provider and he did it all,” Blevins said. “Dame just stepped in and helped me when I needed it. It was a big thing for me. I can focus more on basketball and school and not so much worry about my mom and how she was doing. Everything has been taken care of. It’s a big part of why me and Dame are so close. He’s my guy, man. Love him to death.”
Lillard has helped provide stability to Blevins’ mom, who still lives in Hot Springs. She hosted Montana State’s entire team for Thanksgiving dinner before MSU’s game at Arkansas in November.
Lillard has also set an example for the relentless work ethic it takes to be one of the best in the world. Blevins has spent time over the last few years working out with Lillard, including spending the entire summer leading up to his senior year working out “three or four times a day, six days a week” with Lillard in Portland, Ogden, Utah and Phoenix.
Blevins, Lillard and an occasional other NBA player — Blevins remembers New Orleans Pelicans point guard Tim Frazier dropping by a few times — spent time grinding on their games at Clove Sports and The Facility, two of Portland’s top training facilities. The cousins also spent a week in Utah working out at Weber State. And they made a week-long stop at The Facility in Phoenix.
The workouts included two individual court workouts a day, weight training, pool workouts, lateral movement and agility training plus shooting drills every single night. Fish said Blevins came to campus after the summer “in the best shape of his life and the best shape of anyone on our team.”
“You would be surprised with how many guys in the NBA don’t work as hard as you think they do,” Blevins said. “But Dame is not that guy. I’ve never seen anybody with a work ethic like his and that has rubbed off on me and took me in the right direction. When we are working out, I try to go as hard as him and beat him at stuff.
“It’s had a big impact on my life. Watching him growing up has made me want to be as good as him. It’s had a tremendous influence on my life.”
Earlier this season, senior Tyler Hall became the Big Sky’s all-time leader in scoring and 3-point shots made in a career. During the conference season, junior point guard Harald Frey has been arguably the best point guard in the entire league.
But it’s been the powerful, explosive Blevins that has been MSU’s X-factor. The power forward struggled early, missing 28 of his first 29 shots from beyond the arc. But he hit a pair of 3s at Eastern Washington. He has made 12 of his last 20 since then.
Blevins is averaging 12.2 points and a team-best 6.5 rebounds for the surging Bobcats. That EWU game when Blevins first shook off his shooting woes ended in an 85-81 MSU loss part of a three-game losing streak. The Bobcats have won seven of 10 since then to enter the final weekend of the regular-season alone in third place in the Big Sky.
“Any time you tell a kid something to make them a better player, there has to be a certain point where success has to come so they buy into what you are selling,” Fish said. “Keljin has guarded better, scored better, scored at the same clip but more importantly, he’s been more receptive and being a good leader, talking up and holding people accountable. There’s a lot of the whole package Keljin has improved on and been better at.”
Blevins has led the Bobcats in scoring in three games this season, including in the game against UND in front of his cousin and at Arkansas in front of his entire family. But his role has been its best when he’s the third scorer in Montana State’s league-leading offense and a tone-setter with his thunderous dunks and startling athleticism.
“He struggled a bit earlier this season but we know how good of a player he is so we kept telling him to stick with it. It’s turned out great,” MSU senior Sam Neumann said. “When he’s playing well, we are playing well. He’s the head of the snake that way.”
When Blevins first moved to Montana, his initial impressions centered upon how cold it was, how hard it was for him to operate in the winter without a car and how much he missed his mom’s southern cooking.
Three years later, Neumann said “the guy who used to be shy has really come out of his shell.” Blevins has embraced his role on the Bobcats and his place in the community. Fish constantly praises him for the person he is as much as the powerful dunks he can provide.
Blevins found some comfort in eating at the Bozeman Cajun restaurant Café Zydeco. He’s learned to love the Bozeman community, a place he said he will visit during his life after basketball. He’s closing in on a degree in university studies. And his Bobcats are in the mix for their first bye in the conference tournament since 2002.
Through a college career that has spanned the country and been marred with tragedy, Blevins has persevered, helping him evolve into a man he hopes his father would be proud of.
“The time here, I’ve definitely grown as a man,” Blevins said. “It’s made me more mature, being out here more on my own than I have ever been. Experiencing something new and being able to adapt to a different culture, I’m just in a better state of mind all around. And that’s because of Montana State.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.