When the Mississippi State men’s basketball program announced Tuesday afternoon that former Fulton High School star Jalen Steele had chosen to forego his senior season and focus on graduating in the spring, all pointed to Steele’s injury-plagued career reaching an amicable split with a peaceful ending.
The aftermath that followed proved otherwise.
Steele’s mother, Terrara Kimber, and high school coach, Jody Wright, confirmed that Steele’s career was not over, that Steele was denied by Bulldogs coach Rick Ray a redshirt season to further rehabilitate a knee injury. They said Steele was encouraged to play or leave the program because there would be no scholarship for him for the 2014-15 season.
The 21-year-old Steele, the 2010 Tennessee Class AA Mr. Basketball and former two-time PrepXtra Player of the Year, will now finish out the school year, graduate in May and transfer without penalty. He took to Twitter to clear the air.
“All I wanted was a redshirt and come back stronger next year but they got what they wanted ..” one tweet read.
Steele suffered two torn anterior cruciate ligaments (one in each knee) and a broken wrist in three seasons at Mississippi State. He tore the ACL in his left knee as a freshman in February 2011. He missed eight games last season with a broken wrist, three games because of a suspension and then the final three games in March after the other ACL tear occurred along with a meniscus tear.
The school release Tuesday quoted Ray as saying the following, “What Jalen has experienced with injuries has been extremely unfortunate. He’s battled through a lot of adversity, and it’s important we do everything we can to support and help him earn his degree from Mississippi State.”
Kimber wanted “the truth” out about the situation, saying that Jalen — drawing upon his previous experience with an ACL recovery — didn’t feel comfortable returning to play at this time only six months removed from the knee injury.
“He has every right not to want to play this year,” Kimber said. “Coach Ray says, ‘No. I’m not giving it (the redshirt) to you. The doctor says you can play, you can play.’
“Jalen said, ‘Really, I want to redshirt this year.’ Coach Ray said straight out, ‘I’m not giving you a redshirt this year, because I don’t have a scholarship for you next year.’”
Rick Ray offered a reply by text message to the News Sentinel late Tuesday night.
“Just to clarify the Jalen Steele release. The release infers to some that Jalen’s basketball career is over. That is not the case at all,” Ray wrote. “Our medical staff recently fully cleared him to play. Jalen just wants to sit out this season because he feels physically and mentally he is not ready. We do not have any scholarships for that next season because of all our commitments.
“Therefore, he chose the option to graduate (we are keeping him on scholarship and continuing to provide him access to our athletic trainers and academic resource center) and play elsewhere next season. I respect Jalen’s decision and I have no ill feelings toward him. We wish him the best.”
Fulton coach Jody Wright called Steele’s time at Mississippi State “less than ideal” because of the injuries and coaching turnover. But this recent happening struck a nerve with Wright, who coached Steele and the Falcons to Class AA state championships in 2008 and 2009.
Steele averaged 8.0 points per game at Mississippi State.
“Well, I think in this business it’s about, as a coach, how you care about and for your players,” he said. “As a high school coach, you got guys coming in from middle school and you get them ready to go on to college. When you send a guy to college, you trust that that coach is going to take care of him.
“And, you know, I feel like in this situation Jalen Steele — who stayed in Starkville after everybody else left (after Rick Stansbury’s retirement as coach in 2012) — showed his commitment to Mississippi State. I feel like he was treated like a commodity by Rick Ray.
“Nothing more than a scholarship.”