Seattle Grows Basketball Stars

South Seattle is still a tight community. But riches and glory from outside have not gone unnoticed by parents eager to win attention for their own children, nor by kids dazzled at the stars who regularly return to the neighborhood to play ball. Photo by Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times

The Seattle Times

Daryll Hennings is trying to talk about the meaning of his work in youth sports, about basketball being a route to college for inner-city kids. But his cellphone keeps interrupting. Text messages from professional athletes and college coaches stream in, squeezed between constant calls from parents trying to get their children — some barely past their ABCs — onto Hennings’ squadron of elite teams.

” ‘I’ve got a second-grader who’s incredible’ — I hear that two or three times a day — and it’s not just low-income families anymore,” he says. “I’ve got millionaires saying this stuff to me.”

It’s understandable. During the past 15 years, Seattle has vaulted more than a dozen basketball players to national status — including Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Aaron Brooks and Terrence Williams — most of whom played for Hennings. Scores more have earned scholarships to universities, and Hennings, who never had much of an athletic career himself, has built the Central District’s Rotary Style program into a state legend. A junior drives three hours north from Vancouver to play twice a week on the 11th-grade team. A fourthgrader comes from the Tri-Cities.

The hoopla and hype are still mind-boggling to this 39-year-old former paralegal, who grew up in South Seattle and remembers driving through the neighborhood during his early years as a coach, taking a car-full of kids to practice because it was the most reliable way to get them there.

Back then, little more than a decade ago, Seattle was still a nonentity on the national basketball scene, and only one coach — Ed Pepple at Mercer Island High — regularly got his players into the spotlight. Those opportunities seemed a world away from the playgrounds and rec programs of Seattle’s black community.

Dads like Errol Melonson didn’t mind. The camaraderie that built among sports families in the Central District and Rainier Valley was its own reward. “We’d rotate snack duty, hold barbecues — it just became a community thing,” Melonson says. “It wasn’t all about basketball. Everybody was just excited to watch their kids growing up and playing together.”

When he first became involved in youth sports, it was no surprise to see Jason Terry — then a star at Franklin High School and now an NBA champion — ambling down the aisles at Safeway where Melonson worked, chatting with neighborhood fans. A few years later, Garfield High School’s Brandon Roy, today with the Portland Trail Blazers, was doing the same. After both men and a half-dozen other locals achieved such fame that Sports Illustrated profiled Seattle as a hidden wellspring of talent, Melonson’s pride overflowed. He still has a stack of the magazines at home.

“I’m so glad they’re recognizing our talent now,” he says. “I’m just so happy that Seattle’s getting noticed.”

South Seattle is still a tight community, a place where nearly everyone is linked through either school or family. But riches and glory from outside have not gone unnoticed by parents eager to win attention for their own children, nor by kids dazzled at the stars who regularly return to the neighborhood to play ball.

At Rip the Cut, an annual tournament held this year at Cleveland High School, Rainier Beach alum Terrence Williams, now of the Houston Rockets, felt comfortable enough to slide around the perimeter of the court in his stocking feet; the Atlanta Hawks’ Jamal Crawford lounged in the bleachers, and Nate Robinson’s mother arrived in blue jeans and Converse sneakers, hugging every other person she saw.

Such star accessibility is double-edged. On one hand, it keeps the prize within reach, proving to kids that, with work, their dreams are attainable. On the other, it has fed a hunger for fame so strong that purists worry the glitter of stardom is splintering the very community that gave rise to so many phenoms in the first place. Consider Tony Wroten, the Garfield star who last year was given a passing grade for a Spanish class that didn’t exist — primarily to maintain his athletic eligibility for college.

“It’s a gift and a curse, with real beauty — and some ugliness,” says Donald Watts Jr., 34, son of Sonics legend Slick Watts, and himself a top-ranked player in high school. Watts, who heads the boys basketball program at West Seattle High and runs a summer camp devoted to the game, has seen parents eagerly shelling out $65-an-hour for private trainers to work on their kids’ speed and agility, obsessively monitoring online rankings and fixating on admittance to certain select-league teams like Rotary Style and the Bellevue-based Friends of Hoop.

Both squads hold competitive tryouts, culling the best athletes from schools around the region — where most are also playing for their home teams — and parents sometimes believe that donning a select-level jersey is their child’s first step toward playing in the NBA.

“It’s just not true,” Watts says. “It’s so goal-oriented now. It’s not really about the love of basketball.

“You see these kids get rated nationally on websites, but as individuals, when basketball is a team sport. So it’s not quite the tight community here that it used to be, and I think that’s going to have a negative effect on the people coming up.”

Several years ago, while watching Martell Webster and Marcus Williams playing in the same gym, Watts could not disguise his frustration. “They were not speaking to each other,” he says of the two stars. “There was this animosity. It’s like ‘I’m Rotary.’ ‘I’m Friends of Hoop.’ Or ‘I’m Nike, I’m Adidas.’ No, it should be, ‘I’m a kid.’ ”

Dan Jurdy, the longtime director of athletics at Rainier Beach and now head counselor, has thought much about the effect of basketball on his community. “No doubt about it, sports is powerful,” he says. “It can change lives. The question is: Are we using the kids for the ego boost and the celebrity? Or are we using the sport to motivate the kids?”

Jurdy’s office walls are slick with photographs of him posing next to basketball stars and college coaches — nearly every PAC-12 scout makes annual visits to the struggling campus on South Henderson Street. Yet he knows that most of the young people coming through his door will never see a professional locker room, let alone a college gym.

“We, as a system, don’t tell families the truth enough,” Jurdy says. “A lot of parents come in thinking it’s easy to get a college scholarship. It’s not. I think sometimes we’re afraid to bust dreams.”

Still, despite these long odds, the lure of basketball glory — and a free college education — continues to tantalize families.

“How many people do you know who can just write out a check for $100,000?” asks Tamikya St. Clair, whose son, Sekou Wiggs Jr., is a senior at O’Dea High School and has scholarship prospects at several universities. “You give up a lot of time for this stuff as a family, and there’s sort of that expectation: We’re going to get something out of this.”

Her child, a gangly 16-year-old with a mouthful of braces, spends most weekends either practicing for, playing in or traveling to basketball tournaments. He has managed to keep cool despite constant letters, texts and Facebook “friend” requests from college coaches courting his interest. But in quiet moments, Wiggs can’t help thinking of Brandon Roy, whispering to himself: “He came from here, and if he can do it, I can do it, too.”

The glitter of Las Vegas, which Wiggs first visited at 13 to play in a tournament with Friends of Hoop, has only fanned those dreams. He was agog at the glamorous hotels. Then came the free Nike sneakers. And then, he remembers, a phalanx of scouts: “I saw all these college coaches lined up around the court, and I thought, ‘OK, this is the start of my college road.’ ”

For all the undeniable success of Seattle’s local stars, coaches here work mightily to point out that there are legions of young men like Chris Holmes, whose lives have been shaped by basketball, even without celebrity status.

Holmes never had much interest in school, and after his mother died, leaving him an orphan at 8, the boy only spiraled further. “He just had no will at all,” says Lakema Bell, who adopted the child. “I had to find something to keep him going.”

Basketball provided an answer. Nearly 6 feet tall by sixth grade, Holmes dominated his middle-school team and went on to excel on the court at Franklin High, where he made varsity his freshman year. “You’d swear there was money on those games, the way the crowd was,” Bell says. “It was that intense.”

Though her son’s painful history nagged — Holmes has never met his biological father and says he is not even sure where his last name came from — none of it mattered when he was playing ball. Holmes flew to Las Vegas, Memphis and Houston with Rotary, stayed in luxury hotels and dreamed of sports stardom. “I was all about the NBA back then,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can’t wait to be one of those guys on TV.’ ”

But poor grades scuttled the scholarship offer he received from Eastern Washington University, and the young man settled instead for Tacoma Community College. Most athletes, hoping for a lastminute offer from a top-tier school, would have played their final eligible summer with Rotary. But Holmes chose a different route, opting to remain at home and care for his baby sister.

“Everyone understood,” says the quiet young man, who tattooed the name of his birth mother along the length of his arm. “It was all for family.”

His unorthodox decision appears to have paid off. Now 21, Holmes likely will never reach the athletic heights he once dreamed of. But after two years of working on his grades and cleaning the weight room at TCC to cover his tuition, Holmes received an offer to play for Central Washington University this fall. He will enroll there as a junior, en route to a degree in engineering.

“Basketball saved my son’s life,” Bell says. “It kept him from becoming a statistic. He’s not on drugs or in jail or dead.”

Aside from the considerable influence of his adopted mother, Holmes credits various coaches — particularly Jason Kerr at Franklin — with keeping him from those evils. “Kerr had me in his office doing study halls every day,” he says. “And he’d call me at home all the time, just asking, ‘Is everything OK, do you need anything?’ ”

Providing such guidance for kids is standard. But, increasingly, the siren call of basketball is forcing coaches to educate parents as well. Each year, Mike Bethea, who heads the boys team at Rainier Beach, sits down with mothers and fathers mesmerized by the possibilities.

“I’ve got to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m not a savior or anything. I’m just the coach at Rainier Beach. I have no scholarships to give out.’ But parents are looking at me and seeing, ‘This guy put three guys in the NBA and a bunch of his kids are playing overseas. He’s our ticket out.’ ”

The power of a man like Bethea is hard to overstate in a community where 79 percent of students are considered low-income and pro-sports earnings (like Jason Terry’s, estimated at $76 million to date) are widely known. With a quick smile and mild manner, the coach tries to downplay that influence. But there is no denying that Bethea’s decisions could make the difference between a kid being seen as a rising star and not.

Back at Rotary, where the competition has become so ferocious that 450 boys now vie for 80 team slots, dads have been known to offer favors — say, airline tickets to Vegas for the whole team — if their son makes the squad. But Hennings is adamant: Rotary staff have made a pact not to compromise the integrity of the program, he says. Still, the calls persist, as does interest from Nike, which spends upward of $30,000 to cover the team’s costs for footwear, uniforms and travel.

“There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of negative press about all this, and I understand why,” Hennings says. “But we are getting kids into school. We are giving them experiences — even a kid that doesn’t go to college. They’ll remember that trip to Memphis in the seventh grade.”

Nike, of course, cares primarily about catching the next star and recently shifted its sponsorship away from Friends of Hoop toward Rotary, because of that team’s winning record. To maintain it, Hennings must engage in player recruitment that is low-key but deadly serious. Wiggs, the senior from O’Dea, received numerous texts from the Rotary coach politely, if persistently, beckoning him away from Friends of Hoop.

“It kind of got to be too much for me,” says the teen, who eventually turned to his dad, a former University of Washington football star, for help.

After his own tour through the trenches of youth sports in the 1990s, Sekou Wiggs Sr. knows these  machinations better than most, and he manages everything from his son’s social life to scholarship prospects with a sharp eye on the future. Nevertheless, he chose to remain with the slightly less glamorous Friends of Hoop.

“A lot of kids jump around nowadays from team to team, but I’m a little old-school,” he says. “I believe in loyalty, respect and being good to the people who are good to you.”

The older men sitting courtside during open gym at Rainier Beach — slapping each other on the back, embracing as if at a family reunion — likely would have approved of Wiggs’ emphasis on community. Beach alums Reggie Moore, Aaron Dotson and D’Vonne Pickett, all of them now noted college players, were shooting with up-and-coming sophomore Marquis Davis. Terrence Williams, fresh from his NBA season, was expected at any moment, and 5-year-olds from the neighborhood Big Brothers program were sliding all over the floor. But even here, in a setting thick with old friendships and long history, tensions were evident. When Tony Wroten arrived — semi-incognito, with a towel draped over his head — all eyes turned toward the new star.

He played with power and grace but, wary of media after a decade of frenzied attention, kept mostly to himself. Watts, the Sonics scion, has been watching Wroten’s celebrity-in-the-making for years and believes that the teenager’s heady ascendancy is evidence of a sports scene wrestling with its own extended adolescence.

“We’re a little immature about how we handled all this,” Watts says. “We allowed it as a community to be about the hype, rather than the fundamentals. But when it all fizzles out — when the shoe companies pull out and Sports Illustrated isn’t doing stories on us anymore — you’ll still have the community that was here to begin with, and we’ll build it back up again.”