Tennessee staff, players step up to support Tamari Key

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

When Kellie Harper walked into a press conference last week after a 30-point win, she sat down, tried to appear and sound normal and then made an opening statement about the game against Chattanooga. Afterwards, the first question of course was about the absence of Tamari Key.

“Tamari couldn’t be at the game for medical reasons, and I will update you guys when I know more,” Harper said.

The short statement after the game was expected. For privacy reasons, very little is ever said immediately after a game and a player’s absence can range from anything from concussion protocol to an illness to an internal team situation. The look on Harper’s face – her eyes appeared red as if she had been crying – revealed that whatever was wrong with Key, it was very serious.

The update came 48 hours later with a statement emailed to media that Key had been diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs and would miss the remainder of the season to undergo medical treatment. While a full recovery is expected for Key, any decision about her future in basketball will come later.

Harper’s coaching career began 22 years ago as an assistant coach at Auburn. She has been a head coach – her first top spot job was at Western Carolina – since 2004. A potentially fatal medical situation for a player was not something Harper had ever encountered until last week. What could have happened had Key suffered a pulmonary embolism is haunting.

“No, no, this is definitely a first for me,” Harper said. “I’ve had players get injured, miss the remainder of their season but nothing to this effect. It’s so scary. So very scary, and that’s why we are so grateful that we know what’s going on.”

When Tennessee returned to the court Sunday, the full staff wore T-shirts with Key’s image. The shirts are part of NIL opportunities for Lady Vols at Orange Mountain Designs in West Knoxville. (That particular shirt is here.)

Key, the all-time leading shot blocker in Lady Vols history – she passed a player by the name of Candace Parker – had never missed a game in her Tennessee career, a span that covered 90 of them. Of those 90 games, she had started in all but six.

“It was her first miss, and we want to make sure she knows she is supported through this as well,” Harper said.

Key watched her teammates warm up and cheered from the bench. While her world has been upturned, the 6-6 center also was relieved to have a diagnosis.

“It’s been hard to get this news,” Harper said. “The part that helps is knowing she’s OK and knowing that getting that diagnosis was a blessing.”

Key’s teammates welcomed the sight of her back in the arena last Sunday and on the bench with them. Key actually had gone through shoot-around before the Chattanooga game on Dec. 6 and was in the locker room getting ready when a test result came back, and she hastily left the arena. Her teammates learned the seriousness of Key’s medical situation after the game.

“Just having her on the bench is calming, because that’s my best friend, and she helps me through everything,” senior guard Jordan Horston said. “Seeing her and feeling her presence is all I need.”

Tennessee coach Kellie Harper and Tamari Key wait for an interview to begin at SEC Media Day in Alabama in October 2022. (Tennessee Athletics)

The diagnosis came as a relief for Key, too, as she had struggled all season to get her footing. The reason why is obvious now – she was struggling to get oxygen in her lungs – but the worst side of social media appeared. Some “fans” derided Key on Twitter and Instagram and flooded her social media accounts with insults. Key responded in a story that can be read here.

The insults ranged from the immature to the grotesque as some fans attacked her appearance, mocked her, called her derogatory names and took shots at her long eyelashes, hair and nails. As Key struggled in games, the comments accelerated and took a toll on her. Getting a diagnosis of a disorder that could have killed her if it went undiscovered and untreated definitely would bring relief. She would know it wasn’t her fault.

Key, who had a persistent cough in a Dec. 4 post-game press conference, had tried to push through the fatigue and breathing difficulties for her team. Flu and respiratory infections had started going around campus. Athletes are conditioned to persevere. But on Dec. 6, she had to be hustled into the emergency room at UT Medical Center.

Perhaps some fans learned something going forward about berating athletes, but just as cream rises – and Key will when this is over – detritus settles to the bottom, so don’t hold your breath.

Key is a beloved teammate. Like Horston, she stuck with her commitment to Tennessee after the coach who recruited her, Holly Warlick, departed and met Harper a few weeks after she was hired in 2019. While the rhythms and normalcy of basketball can bring relief, the news about Key rattled the players.

Tennessee plays tonight at home against the University of Central Florida at 6:30 p.m. before a West Coast trip to Stanford and then Christmas break. The team will have one more home game in the last month of 2022 on Dec. 27 and the home SEC opener against Alabama on New Year’s Day. The schedule is here. Pick a game. Get to the arena. This team would welcome the support.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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