RADNOR — R.C. Kehoe was picking up his son from school when he swung by the gym at Archbishop Carroll to say a quick hello to Paul Romanczuk.
It was the fall of 2016, and Kehoe’s son, Tyler, had just transferred in for his sophomore year. Romanczuk was then coaching boys basketball, including a particular freshman who connected them both.
“Paul grabbed me and said, ‘you know the big kid over there. That’s Tairi,’” Kehoe recalled this week. “And I was like, wow. I hadn’t seen him really since he was born because Lari was traveling so much. It was a surreal moment. It was like wow, I don’t know if there any words to describe the feeling I had.”
Tairi Ketner is living proof of the uncanny connections that the Philadelphia Catholic League propagates. The junior forward at Carroll is following in the footsteps of his father, the late Lari Ketner, a standout at UMass who played in the NBA. In his days at Roman Catholic, Lari was Kehoe’s teammate, Romanczuk’s opponent, and eventually a close friend to both. And the chance to see Tairi blossom for the Patriots, who start the PIAA Class 4A tournament Friday night against Allentown Central Catholic, transcends the league’s parochial rivalries.
Tairi is the oldest child of Lari, who died in 2014 at age 37 after a battle with colon cancer. The last name holds weight in the Catholic League, a legacy Tairi is proud to carry.
“It’s a lot of pressure, knowing what my dad was like and what he meant to the PCL and how dominant he was, it means a lot to me,” Tairi said. “I just want to follow in his footsteps. … The stories that people tell me about how great he was, that always makes me want to follow in his footsteps.”
Lari is rightly a legend. After two seasons at West Philadelphia High, he transferred to Roman and helped the Cahillites win their sixth straight league crown in 1994, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the final win over North Catholic at the Palestra. In his senior year, Roman fell to Carroll in the final, an epic low-post battle between Romanczuk (16 points, 11 rebounds, 7-for-7 shooting) and Lari (14 points, 15 rebounds).
Lari attended UMass, ineligible as a freshman in the (now-vacated) Final Four run under John Calipari before three standout seasons under Philly native Bruiser Flint. He was picked 49th by Chicago in the 1999 NBA Draft — the same year it picked Elton Brand first overall — and played 25 NBA games for the Bulls, Cavaliers and Pacers before a season in the CBA with the Idaho Stampede.
Lari moved between the Midwest and Philadelphia after his playing days, working for two seasons as an assistant to former teammate Chris McNesby at Roman from 2009-11. He was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer, and though he fought the disease for more than a year, he died in 2014, when Tairi was 13.
“It was hard. My whole life, I did everything around him,” Tairi said. “Just from basketball to learning how to become a man, I learned the majority of things in my life from him. My little brother (Touari), I had to pass it down to him, and even my little sister (Triniti), she didn’t know him that well.”
The family moved back to the area in 2014, settling in Yeadon. Romanczuk, who hosted Tairi at basketball camps as a kid and respected the lure that Roman might hold, invited Tairi’s mother to visit Carroll, even if just to be Tairi’s runner-up school.
But Tairi liked what he saw and, with Roman not showing interest until after his freshman season, he landed on the idea of blazing a unique path.
“My whole circumstance was, ‘why want me now if you didn’t want me them?,’” Tairi said of Roman. “So I wanted to stay here and build something here, because Carroll hasn’t won (the Catholic League) since 1995 and the state championship since 2009, so I just wanted to build something here.”
Lari’s experience informs Tairi’s journey, even as others have stepped in to reinforce the message. Torre Harrison and Lari are cousins, though they grew up like brothers. Lari recommended Harrison to Romanczuk for an assistant job at Carroll, where he worked before taking over as the head man at Girard College.
Harrison supported Lari when they were young. When Lari returned to Philly, Harrison had him speak to kids at the group home Harrison worked at. And now Harrison, whose son Zahree is a standout junior guard at Cheltenham, helps fill the mentorship role for Tairi.
“That’s what keeps me with Tairi, is the pitfalls,” Harrison said. “I was sort of the one who told Lari, ‘hey, you’ve got to stay focused, you’ve got to do this and do that.’ And when I see those things, I always say to Tairi, ‘you are your father’s child. You sometimes fall into those same traps of, you have to stay focused and bring 100 percent. It’s not every other day, it’s every day. It takes a certain focus every day to get better and do the things you do.’ And he listens to me because he knows that his father and me went through it.”
Similarities between Lari and Tairi (or “Huss,” the nickname his grandmother gave him as an infant), are evident. Both are late-bloomers: While Tairi, who stands 6-7, doesn’t have the height that 6-10 Lari possessed, he’s putting together the pieces as a junior, like his dad. Tairi is third on the Patriots in scoring at 10.6 points per game, an old-fashioned, back-to-basket big.
“He’s got a quiet strength about him,” said Romanczuk, who stepped down as the Carroll coach after last season. “He’s got a physical strength about him that reminds me of Lari. There’s quite a few good attributes that he takes from his father.”
“Huss is just like Lari, underrated,” Harrison said. “Lari was bigger than Huss earlier, but no one really wanted to give him that chance because Lari wasn’t 100 percent committed in the eighth grade and the ninth grade. He didn’t get the love for basketball until his sophomore year, and I think with Tairi, he’s starting to get that love as a junior.”
Tairi has a chance to take it one step further. Where the Palestra and the city championship were the pinnacle of what Lari could play for, Tairi has states to look forward to. And he knows his dad will be watching, too.
“Us as a team, that’s all we want,” Tairi said. “We want to get to the state championship and get that ring because that loss against La Salle (in the PCL quarterfinals), that hurt us. So for us as a team, our only one goal is to get to the state championship, to Hershey and get that ring, and for me personally and for my dad, I want to follow his footsteps and do things that he wasn’t able to do. For me, bringing home a state championship would mean a lot to me, and it would mean a lot to my father, too.”
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