STILLWATER — As time wound down on Oklahoma State's crossroads victory at Kansas, Jéan-Paul Olukemi sat arm-in-arm with teammates on the Cowboys bench, face beaming in a giddy anticipatory grin.
And Olukemi didn't look one bit out of place, despite his mismatched warm-up gear or his forget-me-not status as an injury victim long lost for the season.
It's been that way all along for Olukemi, as he's watched the Cowboys rising win total and stature with no hint of bitterness for his own season gone awry.
“This team is really close,” said Olukemi. “I think going on that Spain trip, we really became like brothers. We have a love for each other and no matter who's down, or who's going through anything, there's still great feeling for your brother.
“That's how I think it would be in a real family. And that's how it is with us.”
Olukemi has needed his basketball family, for all he's been through.
He tore ligaments in his right knee a year ago, robbing him of the Big 12 Conference portion of the schedule, then sweated through not only rehab, but a difficult appeal process with the NCAA to regain eligibility for this season.
Back from all that, Olukemi opened the season in the starting lineup for another go at his senior season. But in OSU's second game at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, he landed awkwardly in the lane, this time blowing out his left knee.
“I was devastated,” Olukemi said, “because I got an opportunity to play again, the NCAA granted my full year back. I was really just so excited, like a little kid at Disneyland, being able to play the game I love so much.
“Then when it was taken again, it crushed me. But God doesn't give you anything you can't handle. I'm just continuing to pray and do everything I can on my end.”
Olukemi is back at the rehab, 2 to 2 1/2 hours a day spent strengthening not only his knee and leg, but the rest of his body, too.
And he's back with his boys, providing support and encouragement and even a bit of constructive criticism, too, if necessary. He'll be there in Kansas City on Thursday night, too, when the Cowboys take on Baylor in their first game in the Big 12 Tournament.
“I'm telling them, ‘Stay focused. Don't let the crowd get to you.' Stuff like that,” Olukemi said. “Even during timeouts, I'll run out there and tell (Marcus) Smart, tell Markel (Brown), whoever's out there, ‘Block out. Keep your head in the game. Don't let the refs get to you.'
“I just try to encourage them and cheer them on in any way possible.”
Said teammate Brian Williams: “You'd think he's about to check in, the way he acts over there.”
Travis Ford said he couldn't be more impressed.
“It was so disappointing, because I've never had a player work harder than he has to come back,” said OSU coach Travis Ford. “JP worked so hard in the offseason, to the point where the trainers went out of their way to let me know how hard he was working to get back.
“We were counting on him being a major factor on this year's team. Him going down like that could have been very deflating for him, a very negative moment. He has never — and I'm talking about the moment he got injured and knew he was done for the year — he has never pouted. Never said ‘Why me?' Never felt sorry for himself.
“He's been very positive. And I've been very impressed with how he's handled everything.”
There are likely more hurdles to handle ahead.
Olukemi hopes to petition the NCAA for a medical hardship that would grant him a sixth year; a sketchy scenario considering the NCAA's reluctance to grant him extra time through the last appeal. And the Cowboys could be up against the scholarship limit if all those eligible to return for 2013-14 indeed come back.
Still, Olukemi is optimistic, seen in his decision not to go through Senior Day festivities Saturday.
“Trying to come back. Definitely,” Olukemi said. “That's where that's at for me. And crossing the bridges as they come.”