Kevon Looney heads back home.

His home­town of Mil­wau­kee helped shape Looney into a role model for all

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Me­d­ina mme­d­[email protected] ba­yare­anews­group.com

MIL­WAU­KEE » This is Kevon Looney’s home­town, where he sharp­ened his work ethic, formed his re­siliency and in­spired count­less kids.

When Alexan­der Hamil­ton High re­tired his No. 5 jer­sey on Thurs­day, though, Looney’s mind didn’t fo­cus on him­self or his ac­co­lades. Nor did he think ahead to when the War­riors (17-9) play the Mil­wau­kee Bucks (16-7) to­day. In­stead, Looney’s thoughts were with the per­son who wasn’t there among his friends, coaches and fam­ily mem­bers.

Wati Ma­jeed, a long­time child­hood friend, died on Oct. 14, two days be­fore the War­riors’ sea­son opener. Ma­jeed, who is friends with Looney’s older brother, Kevin, died at age 28 be­cause of com­pli­ca­tions from a seizure. Since then, Looney has masked his in­ner pain by re­main­ing a de­pend­able War­riors big man with his hard work, unas­sum­ing per­son­al­ity and adapt­abil­ity.

“I would love for him to be here. But sadly he can’t,” Looney said in a somber mo­ment. “So I’m go­ing to ded­i­cate my sea­son to him.”

Be­fore every game, Looney writes “R.I.P Wati” and “Long Live Wati” on his shoes. Looney then prays on his late friend’s be­half. Dur­ing each game, Looney of­ten thinks about him. So with Ma­jeed at­tend­ing every one of his prep bas­ket­ball games and of­fer­ing end­less ad­vice on per­fect­ing his craft, Looney plans to re­turn the fa­vor.

He could not at­tend Ma­jeed’s fu­neral be­cause it con­flicted with the War­riors’ sched­ule. So on Thurs­day, Looney vis­ited Ma­jeed’s gravesite to “give my good­byes.”

Be­fore that, War­riors coaches and team­mates saw why those at Looney’s alma mater view him so af­fec­tion­ately.

“Four years ago, he was play­ing on this court. Now he’s start­ing at cen­ter for the War­riors,” coach Steve Kerr said to the crowd. “Kevon is a great bas­ket­ball player. But we don’t just ap­pre­ci­ate his ta­lent, but also his dig­nity and the way he car­ries him­self every day and how hard he works. He’s be­come a pro­fes­sional in a cou­ple short years.”

Af­ter­ward, Looney smiled and beamed at hear­ing those words and see­ing his War­riors coaches and team­mates see him proudly hold­ing up a re­tired No. 5 jer­sey.

“It says a lot about our chem­istry and how good of a locker room we have,” Looney said. “We have the best play­ers in the world and MVPs on our team. For them to come to my lo­cal high school, sign au­to­graphs and take pic­tures of the kids, they didn’t have to do any of this. But they came to sup­port me. I was very happy for that.”

It seems fit­ting for Looney to share his grat­i­tude. Dur­ing his child­hood and four years with the War­riors, Looney has done the same thing for his home­town.

“It shaped me a lot,” Looney said. “Be­ing from Mil­wau­kee is a badge of honor. Guys joke with me that Mil­wau­kee is one of the worst NBA cities, but I take pride in be­ing from Mil­wau­kee.”

Help­ing those in need

Looney will not spend Thurs­day only bask­ing in his jer­sey re­tire­ment cer­e­mony or griev­ing over Ma­jeed’s death. Looney and Bucks for­ward Ster­ling Brown hosted a fundraiser at lo­cal ar­cade “Up Down” that night to ben­e­fit the fam­ily of San­dra Parks, an eighth-grade stu­dent who was shot and killed on Nov. 19 by a stray bul­let. Last sum­mer, Looney also hosted a “Pause 4 Peace” rally at a lo­cal YMCA. He brought the War­riors’ 2017 cham­pi­onship tro­phy and had guest speak­ers ad­dress­ing the im­por­tance about us­ing non-vi­o­lence to solve con­flicts.

“As a young guy, you don’t like lis­ten­ing to adults and older peo­ple,” Looney said. “You think they’re just old and don’t know what they’re talk­ing about. As a young guy, it seems to help when you hear some­body who is like you and has been through the same things as you.”

Looney was once that kid. Grow­ing up, Looney’s par­ents re­quired him to com­plete his home­work and chores be­fore he could play bas­ket­ball.

“It’s guid­ing him through that process of life,” said Looney’s fa­ther, Kevin. “Do what’s nec­es­sary first, whether you like it or not.”

Just as he has done through four years with the War­riors, Looney ful­filled his job de­scrip­tion without com­plain­ing. Af­ter all, Looney saw his fa­ther work two jobs: full time in so­cial ser­vices and part time as a coun­selor at a res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ter for lo­cal youth.

But be­gin­ning as a se­cond grader, Looney and his par­ents con­sid­ered it im­por­tant for him to join the Run­ning Rebels, an AAU bas­ket­ball pro­gram and lo­cal tu­tor­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that could pro­vide an­other out­let in re­in­forc­ing those les­sons. It would also shield Looney from the poverty, crime and drugs that plague the in­ner city in Mil­wau­kee.

“If it wasn’t for bas­ket­ball, I’m not sure it’s some­thing Kevon wouldn’t have been ex­posed to,” said Shelby Parrish, Looney’s head coach with the Run­ning Rebels. “He was a great ex­am­ple for some of the younger kids that didn’t have fa­ther fig­ures.”

Two or three times a week, Looney at­tended tu­tor­ing ses­sions. Once he be­came a se­nior at Alexan­der Hamil­ton, Looney de­voted half of his school sched­ule to­ward tu­tor­ing stu­dents. He backed up those ges­tures with his own study. Looney main­tained a 3.8 grade-point av­er­age through­out high school. Last sum­mer, Looney do­nated money to the or­ga­ni­za­tion to re­fur­bish its court. He of­ten has helped the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ini­tia­tives with help­ing the home­less and of­fer­ing Thanks­giv­ing meals.

“He’s all about the team and win­ning. It’s never about him­self,” said Ward Jenk­ins, Looney’s man­ager and an­other coach with Run­ning Rebels. “Kevon is a great bas­ket­ball player, but he’s a 10 times bet­ter per­son than a bas­ket­ball player.”

Mak­ing the tran­si­tion

Dur­ing that time, Looney leaned on Ma­jeed for an­other source of pos­i­tive in­flu­ence. Ma­jeed at­tended every one of Looney’s mid­dle school and high school games as well as plenty of his AAU ex­hi­bi­tions. Af­ter all of those games, Ma­jeed pro­vided both en­cour­ag­ing and crit­i­cal feed­back on Looney’s per­for­mances. Looney also joined his older brother and Ma­jeed at lo­cal parks for more bas­ket­ball drills and in­struc­tion.

“I al­ways hung around them and tried to stay out of trou­ble,” Looney said. “They brought me un­der their wing.”

So did the Run­ning Rebels, who molded the qual­i­ties the War­riors love about Looney

How does Looney re­bound so con­sis­tently? He learned dur­ing Run­ning Rebels prac­tices, when play­ers were re­quired to box out in drills. If a player missed one, he ran laps as pun­ish­ment.

How does Looney adapt to vary­ing per­son­nel and roles? Dur­ing his se­nior year, Looney logged nine-hour work­outs that en­tailed study­ing an­gles so he could ex­cel on help de­fense, forc­ing a turnover or cre­at­ing an open shot.

Looney blos­somed quickly. He com­peted at the Nike Camp and LeBron James’ skills academy. His AAU team com­peted for cham­pi­onships in Las Ve­gas. At Hamil­ton, he was a four-year var­sity let­ter­win­ner, the 2014 Ga­torade Player of the Year and a McDon­ald’s All-Amer­i­can. Looney pro­duced count­less high­lights of dunks and de­fen­sive stops on both teams. He re­mained ma­ni­a­cal about go­ing to the weight room every sin­gle day, even dur­ing the sum­mer.

“This dude got me in shape be­cause I’m go­ing to the gym with him,” Parrish said. “Yet, he’s al­ways been a real hum­ble kid. He walked around like a nor­mal guy the whole time even as a McDon­ald’s Al­lAmer­i­can and all-state player. He al­ways hung out with spe­cial needs stu­dents and all of his teach­ers loved him.”

Be­cause of his af­fec­tion for his home­town, it would only seem nat­u­ral that Looney would want to con­tinue that path in col­lege. Not the case. Even with re­ceiv­ing in­ter­est in Mar­quette and Wis­con­sin, Looney chose UCLA be­cause of its his­tory. Even if he ap­pre­ci­ates the tough­ness he built through walk­ing out­side in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, Looney in­stantly fell in love with Los An­ge­les’ warmer cli­mate.

“I wanted to go on my own path that took me to the West Coast,” Loone said. “Hope­fully kids grow­ing up know they can play any­where in the coun­try. You don’t have to stay home. I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing dif­fer­ent in life.”

The next step

Looney only needed one sea­son at UCLA be­fore declar­ing for the NBA draft. Af­ter the War­riors se­lected him at No. 30 in 2015, Looney soon ex­pe­ri­enced some hard­ships, though. He played a com­bined 58 games through his first two sea­sons be­cause of two hip in­juries that re­quired surgery.

Looney has re­mained healthy since, im­prov­ing his con­di­tion­ing and be­com­ing one of the team’s de­pend­able role play­ers. Amid in­juries to All- Star DeMar­cus Cousins (left Achilles) and third-year cen­ter Damian Jones (torn pec­toral mus­cle), Looney has started at cen­ter the past two games. In those games, he is av­er­ag­ing 11.0 points on 78.6 per­cent shoot­ing, 5.0 re­bounds and 4.0 as­sists in 27.0 min­utes. For the sea­son, he is av­er­ag­ing 6.2 points on 62.3 per­cent shoot­ing and 5.3 re­bounds in 19.6 min­utes.

Looney could at­tract enough of­fers as an un­re­stricted free agent next sum­mer that the War­riors could not re-sign him. Then again, that’s what the War­riors ex­pected to hap­pen last sum­mer. Though Looney fielded some in­ter­est from Hous­ton, the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers, Philadel­phia and At­lanta, he re­turned to the War­riors on a one-year deal at the vet­eran’s min­i­mum.

To bring his ca­reer arc full cir­cle, though, would he ever con­sider play­ing for the Bucks? Af­ter all, Looney’s dad took him to about two or three Bucks games per year as a child.

“I con­sider the West Coast home, but Mil­wau­kee is still a spe­cial place,” Looney said. “Hope­fully one day maybe I’ll end my ca­reer there. What­ever hap­pens, hap­pens. But I haven’t thought about it yet.”

Those around Looney sound in­trigued with the pos­si­bil­ity. His fa­ther, how­ever, does not en­vi­sion Kevon want­ing to make the move for rea­sons be­yond want­ing to thrive un­der the War­riors’ cham­pi­onship cul­ture. As Kevin Looney said, “he thinks he can have an im­pact in other ways be­sides play­ing.”

Looney’s im­pact was on dis­play Thurs­day as he of­fered an en­cour­ag­ing mes­sage to youth at the events at his high school and the fundraiser. And Mil­wau­kee’s im­pact on Looney showed while griev­ing over a loved one who helped make this all pos­si­ble.

“He ( Ma­jeed) was a very im­por­tant per­son to the Mil­wau­kee com­mu­nity, his fam­ily and our fam­ily. It’s been hard,” said Looney’s brother, Kevin. “It’s a day-by-day thing. But I’m just glad what Kevon is do­ing with bring­ing it to light and bring­ing his name out. That’s what he would’ve loved. He’s a self­less per­son that al­ways pro­moted pos­i­tive things and he al­ways sup­ported Kevon well be­fore he was an NBA prospect.”

DOUG DU­RAN — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

The War­riors’ Kevon Looney is play­ing this sea­son for Wati Ma­jeed, a long­time friend who died two days be­fore the team’s sea­son be­gan.

CAR­LOS OSORIO — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Alexan­der Hamil­ton High in Mil­wau­kee re­tired Kevon Looney’s No. 5 jer­sey on Thurs­day, and Looney’s War­riors team­mates were there at the cel­e­bra­tion.

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