In Kansas City, Kansas, an improbable hoops renaissance
Eric King, the boys’ basketball coach at Washington High School, has removed his suit coat and is bent at the waist, clapping his huge hands together. He looks, for the moment, like an obstetrician in a hurry to get to the next delivery room.
Standing in a corner of the gym, Nancy Browne, Washington’s athletic director, watches as the sweat spreads across the back of King’s red shirt. She’s thinking about the ways football teams keep cool on the sidelines. “We need one of those misters,” she says.
Washington is a grueling place to play, even when the gym is half-empty. Sound explodes in the barrel-vaulted ceiling; air loses its flow. Tonight, the noise and heat are on full blast. The Kansas City–Atchison League title is on the line, so fans of both Washington and its opponent, defending state champion Sumner Academy, are packed into the 11 rows of bleachers on either side of the court.
Washington’s Wildcats race out to a 10-2 lead, and the first half ends with Tra’Vaughn White, the team’s best player, draining a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Sumner, which came into the game with a 15-2 record, puts up a fight in the fourth quarter. But Washington — undefeated in league play and icy with purpose — rebuilds its lead and wins 83-68.
In the locker room after the game, King and his “fellas,” as he calls his players, savor the moment in a tightly formed huddle. “League champs, baby!” the coach cries, his voice sandy after competing with crowd noise all night.
King is in his sixth year at Washington. Tonight’s league title is his first, but it hardly comes out of nowhere. Last year’s Wildcats made it to the state tournament, and during summer-league play, the fellas went 25-0. “We knew we had a good team,” King says.
Washington isn’t known for them. Only one banner hangs in the school’s gym, above a clock that keeps bad time. The maroon-colored fabric recognizes a boys’ bowling team — the only squad in the school’s history to win a state title in any sport.
Washington’s ascendance has helped shape the idea that boys’ basketball in Kansas City, Kansas, is experiencing a renaissance. It’s not the late 1950s and early ’60s, when Walt Shublom coached Wyandotte to 10 straight state-championship games. It’s not even the ’80s, when the district moved the Wyandotte-Schlagle rivalry to Kansas City, Kansas, Community College to accommodate the crowds.
Still, tonight’s game is a near sellout between two teams with legitimate state-title hopes. (Washington competes at the 5A level; Sumner, which has a smaller enrollment, is a 4A school.) And it ends with one coach wondering whether his shirt belongs at the dry cleaner or under glass. “I may just hang it up and never wear it again,” King says.
It’s not often that trophy cases in urban schools get new artifacts. Once powerhouses, inner-city athletic programs now lack the elements — coaching, facilities, equipment, stability — necessary to compete with suburban and private schools. A high school in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District last won a state title in boys’ basketball in 1979. KCK schools, by contrast, have won eight state championships since 1984.
But the success doesn’t translate to all sports. The district’s girls’ basketball teams are largely inconsequential, and Washington’s football team went 0-9 last fall. Yet boys’ basketball has managed to remain relevant.
“Basketball is almost a lifestyle,” says Heath
Cooper, who until recently worked as the head coach at Harmon, another KCK program on the rebound. Cooper says KCK is the first place he coached where his players got upset if snow canceled practice.
“It is everything,” he says. “It’s bragging rights. It’s pride. It’s family.”
And it’s malice.
“I really hate Sumner,” White says after his 27 points help Washington beat Sumner, keeping the Sabres from winning their fourth straight league title. “I don’t know what it is. Even since, like, middle school, I have never liked Sumner at all.”
Daniel Parra, the head coach at Sumner, hesitates to make the comparison. He knows it will sound ridiculous to draw a similarity to Duke and North Carolina.
But one thing KCK’s schools share with college basketball’s biggest rivalry is proximity. Wyandotte and Sumner are within walking distance. It’s only a seven-minute drive from Schlagle to Washington.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Parra says. “There are no secrets in this city.”
Parra took over at Sumner in 2007, after the retirement of Randy Springs, who’d won six state titles at three different high schools. Springs coached at Wyandotte High in the 1980s, when the rivalry with nearby Schlagle was so intense that team buses used to get stuck in the traffic on the way to the gym.
KCK “was the place to be for high school basketball” back then, says Chuck Minor, the head coach at Schlagle from 1979 to 2001. Minor arrived at Schlagle at the dawn of a new era. Sumner, then the district’s all-black high school, reopened as an integrated magnet school in the fall of 1979. The school’s black students dispersed throughout the district, and the basketball teams took on a different look. Minor says he did not coach a white player until he left Schlagle for a job at Kearney High School in 2001.
Not much has changed. Now an assistant coach at Bishop Miege, Minor was watching Washington’s players warm up before a recent game. As Brandon Huhn, a blond senior, went through layup drills with his teammates, Minor sounded as if he had just seen an elk in his front yard. “So don’t tell me Washington has a white player,” he said. “Wow!”
Washington is now the “cool” basketball school in KCK, according to Nick Sloan, the 26-year-old publisher of the Kansas City Kansan. “Kids like a winner,” Sloan says. He also credits King for creating a sense of identity. The players warm up wearing black T-shirts with “Play hard! Act right!” printed across the back.
King, 41, grew up in Louisiana. He played forward at Grambling State University before finishing his degree at Dana College in Nebraska. A job fair brought him to Kansas City, Kansas. He teaches physical education at
Argentine Middle School, where he coached the basketball team for seven dues-paying years. He coached Washington’s girls for a year before taking over the boys’ team in 2005.
He wasn’t an immediate success. In his fourth season, the Wildcats went 10-12. But while the team looked mediocre on the surface, momentum was building: That year’s squad relied heavily on a group of raw but talented sophomores, including Tra’Vaughn White. Last year, as juniors, those same players took Washington to the state tournament for the first time since 2004. The trip to Topeka lasted only a few hours, however. “We played terrible,” White says. “We played like we were star-struck.”
The loss became a motivational tool. White and his teammates played in summer leagues all over town, never losing a game. In December, before conference play began, they won the Leavenworth Tournament, beating Hogan Preparatory Academy, a traditional power, in the final.
Listed at 5 feet 11 inches, White uses his strength to attack taller defenders. He added muscle between his sophomore and junior seasons, watching what he ate and performing countless “squat things.” He often lurks along the baseline, waiting for the defense to lose sight of him. He likes to attack the basket, figuring that a shot taken close to the rim has a better chance of succeeding. “That’s the easiest way to score,” he says.
Kalen Allen and the Hibler twins, Myles and Michael, are the other Washington
seniors who played a lot as sophomores. Myles starts, and Michael comes off the bench, an arrangement explained in large part by the fact that Myles, at 6 feet 6 inches, is 4 inches taller. “One robbed the other one in the womb,” says the boys’ father, Michael, who usually finds a seat in the front row of his sons’ games.
The team also features a shot-blocking specialist, Rakim McCoy, and a 5-foot-6-inch point guard, Jervon Hooks. What Hooks lacks in size — a portion of the No. 35 on the front of his oversized jersey disappears into his shorts — he makes up for in speed and tenacity. He’s also annoying, in the best possible way. During the Sumner game, he tagged along when the opposing point guard huddled with Parra on the sideline. Wanting privacy, Parra gently pushed Hooks in the chest as he spoke to his player.
Hooks transferred from Harmon after the 2009-10 school year, tired of sitting on the bench. He has integrated easily, having played on rec-league teams with Washington’s core group when they were in elementary school. Hooks’ father, Jerome, coached one of them.
“These kids have played against each other since they were little-little,” Cooper says. “All the kids know each other and know each other’s game.”
Players developing reputations on the playgrounds isn’t unusual. The unique thing about KCK is the way the kids amass into tribes. Some basketball players even identify themselves by the middle school they attended. “If you’re an Argentine guy,” Parra says, “you’re an Argentine guy until you die.”
Once players experience varsity basketball in Kansas City, Kansas, the games outside the league taste a little stale.
Sumner finished its regular season 17-3. But because all three losses came in league play, the season felt like failure. “It’s almost like we’ve lost a ton of games,” Parra says. “It’s almost like we’re 12-8.”
The players didn’t care that they entered the postseason having lost fewer games than last year’s team, which left the 4A tournament in Salina with a big trophy. “They care that we lost to Washington twice,” Parra says.
Parra, 39, grew up in KCK and attended Bishop Ward, a Catholic school that’s less than a mile from Wyandotte High. Baseball was his best sport — he played at the University of Louisiana–Monroe — but he wanted to coach basketball. He was an assistant at Washington and the head coach at one of the middle schools. He coached Sumner’s girls before taking over from Springs.
On game nights, Parra looks like he’s coaching a college team. He wears pinstripe suits and has three assistants. Beefy and demonstrative, he stamps his feet when he gets frustrated.
The team that Parra coached to a state title in 2009-10 dominated. (Sloan suspects that the team could have won the 5A and 6A tournaments.) But the departure of four seniors left Parra with a group of mostly untested players with a halfhearted commitment to playing defense. “This group I have to stay on,” he says.
The team’s point guard, a 5-foot-10-inch blur named Benny Parker, started on last year’s title team. This season, he had to learn to play without Reese Holliday and Davonte Chaney, who took their games to the University of Toledo and Coffeyville Community College. “This year, I was that dude,” Parker says.
Sumner’s status as a magnet school creates an unusual dynamic for its sports teams. Coaches are able to attract athletes from across the district. But the academic requirements — students have to pass an admission test and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average once on campus — mean that only a portion of them can get in and stay there.
“This is a tough place to be if you don’t want to be here,” Parra says. “The academics here are tough. If you’re coming here just to play basketball” — he winces — “you may not make it.”
Parker knew from an early age that he was going to attend Sumner. His father, Stan, was a member of the first four-year class to graduate from Sumner after the court-ordered desegregation. “I had no choice,” Stan says.
Parker plays on an elite AAU team, traveling to Indianapolis, Louisville, Las Vegas and other stops for summer tournaments. Stan Parker and his wife, Veronica, have tried to make every trip. “Even though the team is sponsored, the parents aren’t,” Stan, a bank manager, laments.
But by the Parkers’ calculation, the time and money they spend on basketball help keep their son’s future from veering off course. “I’d rather pay for that than have to worry about legal fees and stuff like that,” Stan says.
The Parkers sat in the stands at Piper High School as their son and his teammates competed at “substate,” an eight-team regional tournament to determine which local school would advance to state. Piper’s large and comfortable gymnasium — the bleachers have plastic, rump-contoured seats — reflect the wealth that resides just outside the boundaries of the Kansas City, Kansas, school district.
In a second-round game, Sumner trailed an inferior Tonganoxie team by one point at the end of the first quarter. During the timeout, Parra tore into his players for allowing so many easy baskets. “Play some defense!” he yelled. The team went on a 13-0 run to begin the second quarter and ended up winning, 90-65.
Two nights later, Sumner faced a more substantial challenge, meeting Basehor-Linwood in the same gym. The standing-room-only crowd watched the Sabres play what Parra felt was their best defensive game of the year. The 62-51 final meant that Sumner was heading back to Salina for the state tourney.
Parra walked off the court holding the hand of his 6-year-old son. In the locker room, he began planning for the state tournament. “We pack for four days!” he told his team.
Parra’s success has come with whispers that he wants KCK all to himself. Last October, six weeks before the season began, the principal at Harmon told Heath Cooper that he and his assistants no longer had coaching jobs. Cooper was shocked. He had taken over a program that hadn’t won a league game in seven years. In 2009-10, he led the team to an 18-4 mark.
Yet there he stood, stripped of his whistle, just a science teacher with a big hole in his afternoons. The principal offered no meaningful explanation. “When we asked for more detailed reasons, she wouldn’t give us reasons,” Cooper says. “She’s just said, ‘We’re heading in a new direction.'”
The principal at Harmon is Sylvia Parra, Dan Parra’s mother. Naturally, parents and hoopheads developed a theory that Cooper had been too effective, that he represented a threat to Dan Parra’s ego. Adding to the suspicion that personal feelings were in play, Cooper was replaced by Dave Gonzalez, the head coach at Schlagle and one of Dan Parra’s oldest friends. The two shared an apartment when they were bachelors and were working as assistant coaches.
District officials decline to discuss the changes in coaching assignments. Jerry
Flanagan, the districtwide athletic director, tells The Pitch that he does not have “HR responsibility.” (Sylvia Parra did not respond to requests for comment.)
Once this season rolled around, Cooper told himself that he wasn’t going to go to any Harmon games. But in December, Metro Sports hired him to provide commentary at a tournament that featured local teams. Cooper called a game prior to Harmon playing. He wanted to leave, to avoid seeing his old team playing without him, but a parent asked him to stay. “It’s almost like you’re watching another guy take your date to the prom,” he says.
He left at halftime.
The acoustics in Washington’s gym make the tubas in the pep band sound like big ships coming into port. From its perch in the mezzanine, the band is more likely to break out Bruno Mars or Dem Franchize Boyz than Gary Glitter. Eric Green, the director, played trumpet in the marching band when he attended Southern University. Now in his fifth year at Washington, he brings what an assistant principal calls “swagger” to the enterprise.
Caprice Jappa has also worked to enhance the Washington game-day experience.
A somewhat unlikely spirit leader, she doubles as the school secretary in charge of attendance and truancy.
Jappa’s spirit outreach has gone beyond students. She suggested to the school’s teachers that they’d have fewer problems in the classroom if students saw them wearing the Washington colors on Friday night. Dozens of teachers have become regulars at games, home and away. “Now the kids just expect them to be there,” she says.
Jappa’s son, James, is a sophomore on the team, so the Wildcats’ underclassmen frequently spend the night at her house. The upperclassmen, meanwhile, tend to congregate at senior Kalen Allen’s. “They just love each other,” she says.
It helps the boys’ camaraderie that their basketball games usually end well. As
Michael Hibler puts it: “Winning really helps the relationship.”
All this winning-fueled love filled the gym on senior night, as the players were recognized for their scoring records and achievements in the classroom. (Michael Hibler is a 4.0 student.) But when the ceremony ended, the players went into intimidation mode. Before tipoff, several Washington players stretched at the half-court line, facing their opponent. The formation resembled a chessboard on which one side was poised for attack.
Washington preserved its undefeated conference season that night, beating Harmon. The postseason began with a 38-point rout of Turner on the Wildcats’ home floor. “We have unfinished business,” coach King said after the game.
It’s 30 minutes before tipoff, and the Dancing Dynasties, the Washington dance team, are running baby wipes over their bare skin to make it sticky enough to hold a dusting of silver glitter that matches the color of their lamé pants.
The Washington band, cheerleaders and dance team rode in comfort to the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka for the 5A state tournament. Earl Watson, a Washington alum in his 10th year in the NBA, paid for charter buses in recognition of his school’s success.
With a record of 20-2 after substate, the Wildcats are the No. 2 seed in the eight-team bracket. They handle Emporia, 80-61, in the opening round. “I have a group of fellas who are seniors, who have been here,” coach King says after the game. “We know we can get to the state championship and win it.”
Day two pits Washington against Lansing, a team that went 17-4 before arriving in Topeka. The Wildcats look loose. During the player introductions, Michael Hibler gives Jervon Hooks a mock airport-security pat-down.
Washington trails by three at halftime and falls further behind in the third quarter. At one point, Myles Hibler misses a wide-open layup. Along press row, Nick Sloan, who has followed Washington closely all season, presses his fists against his forehead.
In the fourth quarter, Tra’Vaughn White demonstrates the abilities that allowed him to break Watson’s career scoring record at Washington. He shoots a jump shot from the baseline that draws Washington into a tie. He steals the ball and completes a pass to Myles Hibler, who puts the Wildcats in the lead, which Lansing never regains.
After the 68-63 win, Washington fans are chanting “Wash House” as King and White meet with reporters behind the scorer’s table. King says: “Hear that crowd? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what it’s all about — for the school.”
White finished the game with 34 points, an outpouring of talent and urgency. “Our last game’s tomorrow, win or lose,” he says.
The final takes place on a Saturday. The Watson charters make their third trip from KCK to Topeka in three days. Leaving nothing to chance, Green, the band director, sits in with the students, trumpet in hand.
McPherson High School, the No. 1 seed, awaits. A public school in central Kansas, McPherson has won 10 state championships. Its side of the arena is at least three times as full as Washington’s when the ball is tipped.
The size and skill of the McPherson players look like nothing Washington has seen the previous two days. McPherson pushes the ball on offense. Washington struggles to find a rhythm. Three starters get into foul trouble, forcing King to go to his bench. The first half ends with McPherson leading by nine, a hole that stays dug. Final score: McPherson 79, Washington 68.
The locker-room door stays closed for several minutes after Washington has received its runner-up medals. Alex Chapman, an assistant coach on the girls’ team, finally emerges. “It’s depressed in there, man.” The players finally come out, their cheeks stained by tears.
King is the last to walk out. His remarks are typical of a coach on the losing side: Salute the victor but let it be known that officiating distorted the picture. “We couldn’t get going,” he says. “Everything we do is a foul or under the microscope. And they’re walking and everything, but it’s a good play. It kind of took us out of the game.”
Down the tunnel, the parents and school staff cheer when Rakim McCoy passes through the security doors, unsmiling but holding the second-place trophy above his head. Caprice Jappa stops Michael Hibler and whispers a wish for another set of Hibler twins with four years of eligibility. Jerome Hooks, Jervon’s dad, seeks out the juniors and sophomores. “I expect to be right here again next year,” he tells them.
The appearance of coach King elicits
an ovation. “Our hero!” the Hibler twins’ father announces.
While Washington’s dream was ending, the team Tra’Vaughn White claims to hate was winning a couple of hours down Interstate 70, finishing up the 4A final in Salina. Sumner overcame an awful start — down 16-2 early in the game — and beat Ottawa, 66-60, for a second-straight state title.
The following afternoon, White isn’t thinking about the upcoming week of spring break or the junior-college coaches who waited outside the Expocentre locker rooms to talk to him. Instead, he’s killing himself over the fact that KCK hadn’t crowned two champions. He updates his Twitter account: “Heart never hurt this much in my life.”