Greek League basketball standout guard Keith Langford, who missed the entire 2022-23 season after undergoing Achilles tendon surgery in May of 2022, experienced a triumphant return to competitive hoops on Thursday night at jam-packed Free State High School.
The 6-foot-4, 39-year-old 2005 University of Kansas graduate showed off his soft, left-handed shooting touch, hitting five threes while exploding for 30 points in the Red team’s 105-104 victory over the Blue squad in the 15th-annual Rock Chalk Roundball Classic KU basketball alumni game.
“I knew I was going to shoot, that’s it,” Langford said, referring to his game plan for his first game of competitive basketball in 13 months. “That’s been my philosophy. I know I’m going to shoot. Everything else, I let the results take care of themselves.”
Langford, who is retiring from pro basketball this year, not only led the winning Red team in scoring — teammates Svi Mykhailiuk, Mitch Lightfoot and Brandon Rush had 20, 14 and 12 points respectively — but also provided some late-game heroics.
The Red team trailed the Ben McLemore (37 points)-led Blue squad 99-93 with two minutes left. Langford drilled a three, then — after a dunk by the Blue’s Udoka Azubuike (20 points) — hit another three to cut the gap to 101-99.
Mykhailiuk cashed two free throws on a possession made possible by a Langford steal and the game was tied at 101 with 20 seconds to play.
After another steal, this one by Charlotte Hornets wing Mykhailiuk, the ball was delivered to Langford, who iced a three that barely beat the buzzer and seemingly gave the Red team the win. Langford, in fact, was mobbed by teammates in a pile-up on the floor.
“I had no idea,” Langford said, asked if he dreamed of being the hero of his comeback game from injury. “I was just throwing it up there, man.”
Most folks agreed Langford’s shot barely beat the buzzer and the exhibition game was over.
The refs, however, put 1.4 seconds on the clock, seemingly to provide drama for the fans who came out for the charity exhibition. Sure enough, after a timeout, the Blue team’s Wayne Selden (14 points) stroked a three to erase a 104-101 deficit and force overtime.
Editor’s note: The caption in the above tweet should read Wayne “Selden,” who hit the three-point shot.
Instead of a traditional OT, it was decided the head coaches of the Blue and Red squads would head to the free throw line to settle the score.
Seven-footer Greg Ostertag, the Blue team coach who played for Roy Williams at KU from 1991 to ‘95, missed his free throw.
Red team coach Calvin “Pony” Thompson, who played for Ted Owens and Larry Brown at KU from 1982 to ‘86, calmly swished his free throw to give the Langford- and Thompson-led Reds the one-point victory.
“Yeah I congratulated him,” Langford, who played for Williams and Bill Self at KU from 2001 to 2005, said of Thompson. “I said the only way I was going to come back is if I can play with Pony. He’s a legend. No doubt in my mind he was going to hit that. Seeing that exciting finish, hopefully that will invigorate the fans to come back and have this 16, 17, 18 times as well.”
Langford added that he was looking forward to next June’s 16th-annual Roundball Classic, which benefits area families battling cancer.
Thompson had no doubt he would make his tiebreaking free throw.
“We deserved to win it in regulation,” Thompson said. “The game was clearly over (on Langford’s three at the buzzer). I understand what they were doing. This is for the kids to have fun. We were talking about a tie. They wanted a (free throw) shootout, so I get the (traveling) trophy.”
Thompson noted “obviously it wasn’t fair for me to go against ‘Tag.’’’ Ostertag was not known for his proficiency at the line during a long NBA career. “That’s why I let him go first. I’d not shot the ball in 20-plus years. I knew a free throw was a layup for me. Not to be boastful, I figured we’d win it.”
“I appreciate his effort,” Thompson said of Langford. “We were trying to win the last four or five minutes. He played the whole time, kept us in the game and actually won the game for us.”
Langford — he works with athletes on skill development in Austin, Texas — said he’s content with ending a 17-year career that provided him a lot of money playing mostly overseas.
“I’m fine. I had my time. I want to give back a little bit more,” Langford said.
Of course, he acknowledged that in his mind there’s nothing like playing before a packed gym full of KU fans. He received one of the loudest roars during introductions.
“I just miss ‘em man,” Langford said of the KU faithful. “Playing basketball, … the fact I got to do it here, … just to feel this energy and vibe one more time. I don’t know how many more times I’m going to be able to get out here and play. I’m 39-years-old. This is priceless, you know what I mean?”
Langford finished his KU career with 1,812 points, No. 8 on the all-time scoring list. He’s No. 6 on the Jayhawks’ all-time list in career field goals (671), No. 10 in free throws made (368) and tied for 22nd in career games played (136). He’s tied for second in most career games played in the NCAA Tournament (16) and seventh in consecutive games started (98). Langford did make it to the NBA.
The undrafted player participated in two NBA regular-season games for the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007-08 season. He also played in the NBA G League and U.S. Basketball League.
Overseas, he played in Italy where his Virtus Bologna team in 2009 won the EuroChallenge championship in which he was named MVP of the Final Four. Playing for Emporio Armani Milano in 2014, he was awarded the Alphonso Ford EuroLeague Top Scorer trophy (17.6 points per game). He also was named all-EuroLeague first team.
Langford played in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv where he was named Adriatic League Final Four MVP in 2012. Playing in Russia for UNICS Kazan in 2016, Langford was VTB United League scoring champion (21.0 ppg). Langford, who had 42 points in a game, that season again won the Ford top scorer trophy. In 2019 while playing in Greece, Langford helped Panathinaikos win the Greek Cub title and Greek Basket League title. Showing no signs of slowing, Langford playing for AEK Athens was named MVP of the Basketball Champions League in 2020.
Also, Langford represented the United States national team at the 2015 Pan American Games, where he won a bronze medal. He also played pro ball in China one season (2017-18).
Final stats, scoring from Rock Chalk Roundball Classic
Ben McLemore 37, Udoka Azubuike 20, Wayne Selden 14, Michael Lee 11, Elijah Johnson 4, Silvio De Sousa 4, Tyshawn Taylor 4, Aqib Talib 4, Natalie Knight-Johnson 3, Conner Teahan 3, Jared Pile 0. Three-pointers made: McLemore 6, Selden 3, Lee 3, Knight-Johnson 1, Teahan 1.
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Gary Bedore covers all aspects of Kansas basketball for The Star — the current team as well as former players and coaches and recruiting. He attended KU and was born and raised in Chicago, as well as Lisle, Ill.