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.