Thursday March 31st, 2016

HOUSTON — Khadeem Lattin had plans for this extended weekend in what he describes to his Oklahoma teammates, without a drop of irony, as the best city on earth. He and the Sooners would eat at Frenchy’s Chicken, his favorite restaurant. He’d guide them on a tour of the Third Ward, where he grew up. And he’d step on the court at NRG Stadium and complete a connection a half-century in the making: Fifty years after his grandfather, David Lattin, helped Texas Western upset Kentucky to win a historic national championship, Khadeem would pursue another title for the family tree.

He also held out some hope to go along with the plans: That his ailing grandmother, Brenda Fair, would get a chance to see him play in a Final Four. He’d taken a trip home to see her in February after his family finally told him about her cancer diagnosis. She was in good spirits then, he said, and still was this week. Fair texted Lattin after the team’s Elite Eight win over Oregon on Saturday with a simple message: Congratulations. I love you baby. “She’s very proud,” Lattin said Thursday, smiling, sitting at his locker stall.

It was a remarkable sight, because only hours earlier, a phone call in the middle of the night turned this business trip into something far sadder: Fair had died overnight Thursday, just hours after her grandson had come home again.

And Lattin, somehow, now had to try to win a basketball game or two.

“I didn’t sleep a lot,” Lattin said. “Life happens. There’s not a lot you can do. Just pray and know that she’s watching over me.”

He received the news from his father, Cliff Lattin, in the early morning. He then spoke with his mother, Monica Lamb, and shared the news with his roommate, redshirt freshman Jamuni McNeace. McNeace walked across the hotel room and hugged his friend, assuring him that the rest of the roster would give him what he needs.

But it will be left to Lattin to process a deeply personal loss during the most consequential moments of his basketball life; he expected that his grandmother did not have long to live, but he’d have to find a way to accept that she couldn’t live just a few days longer. “He knew it was almost time,” McNeace said. “It’s hard to lose people you love like that. But he’s at home right now, all his family members are going to be with him. He’s always positive. He’s going to turn this into something positive. He’s going to play his soul out for her.”

4:45 | College Basketball
Oklahoma, Villanova headed to Final Four

The Sooners don’t rise and fall with Lattin, a 6'9" sophomore forward who averages 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per game. He describes himself as the “trash man” of a national championship hopeful. “Pick up whatever I can, protect the rim, and rebound,” he said. “Be what your team needs.” So on the basketball end—which depending on your perspective is either critically important or not at all significant when compared to the death of a loved one—a distracted or distraught starter might not undercut Oklahoma’s chances of advancing past Villanova and to Monday’s title game.

But it might be moot anyway. For the moment, Lattin was auspiciously following his mother’s advice as he navigated the grief. Be serene, she told him.

So he recalled how his grandmother preserved Christmas by buying him and his sister a gift, whether it was walkie-talkies or remote control toys, regardless of what was happening with their parents. (“It was rough,” he said.) He burst out with excitement when approached by a reporter from News Fix, a local outlet. “What up News Fix!” he cried. “I watched you growing up!” And he was able to lose himself in general locker room silliness Thursday afternoon, doing a faux interview with McNeace about how Sooners star Buddy Hield pilfered his Mohawk haircut.

MORE: Hoop Thoughts: X-Factors who will decide the national semifinals

“It’s a miracle,” Lattin said. “I had my Mohawk coming in, right, and all of a sudden Buddy has a Mohawk. Hmmm.”

His balancing act was difficult enough this week, with the excitement of returning home and the urgency to bring home a ring while his family history loomed over the entire Final Four. The death of his grandmother was a brutal complication. But he convinced himself that she would be watching, and he is convinced that will allow him to stick to the plan.

“Just take the blows,” Lattin said, “and keep pushing.”

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