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MILWAUKEE – This place represents Kevon Looney’s hometown, where he sharpened his work ethic, formed his resiliency and inspired countless kids.
When Alexander Hamilton High School retires his No. 5 jersey on Thursday, though, Looney’s mind will not wander toward himself or his accolades. Nor will he think ahead to when the Warriors (17-9) visit the Milwaukee Bucks (16-7) on Friday. Instead, Looney will think about who won’t be there among his friends, coaches and family members.
Wati Majeed, a longtime childhood friend, died on Oct. 14, exactly two days before the Warriors’ regular-season started. 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 pain by remaining a dependable Warriors’ reserve 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, too. 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 since it conflicted with the Warriors’ schedule. So on Thursday, Looney plans to visit Majeed’s gravesite “and give my goodbyes.”
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. Being from Milwaukee is a badge of honor,” Looney said. “Guys joke with me that Milwaukee is one of the worst NBA cities, but I take pride in being from Milwaukee.”
Looney will not just spend Thursday basking in his jersey retirement ceremony or grieving over Wati’s death. Looney and Bucks forward Sterling Brown will host a fundraiser at a local arcade, “Up Down” on Thursday evening to raise proceeds for 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, including a full-time job in social services and a part-time 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 problems that plague the inner city in Milwaukee, including poverty, crime, drugs and unemployment.
“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.”
For about two to 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 GPA throughout high school. Last summer, Looney then donated money to the organization to refurbish its court. He also 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.”
During that time, Looney leaned on Majeed for another source of positive influence. Wati 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 Wati 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 my wing.”
So did the Running Rebels, which molded the qualities the Warriors love about Looney. How does Looney rebound so consistently? He learned how to do so with the Running Rebels’ practices. During those sessions, players were required to box out on drills. If any player missed one, they 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 both the Nike Camp and LeBron James’ skills academy. His AAU team competed for championships in Las Vegas. At Hamilton, he became 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 All-American 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 University of Wisconsin, Looney chose UCLA because of its vaulted history. Even if he has 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,” Looney 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.”
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.
Since then, Looney has remained healthy, improved his conditioning and became 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 in the past two games. He has averaged 6.2 points on 62.3 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds in 19.6 minutes.
The reason for Looney’s resiliency traces back to his hometown when he braced freezing temperatures. Even if he enjoys the warmer weather in the Bay Area, Looney still enjoys bracing the elements when the Warriors travel out east. Friends and family often tease Looney for blasting air conditioning in his home.
“It makes you tougher,” Looney said. “If I can walk in zero-degree weather to school and walk everyday in the snow, I can go at practice at 8 o’clock [in the morning].”
Because of his makeup, Looney could attract enough offers as an unrestricted free agent next summer that the Warriors could not re-sign them. Then again, the Warriors sensed that might happen last summer. Though he fielded some interest from Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia and Atlanta, Looney 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 hometown Milwaukee 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, him, does not envision 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 will exert that influence here on Thursday. It will start with recognition when his jersey is hung up in the rafters. It will continue with offering an encouraging message to youth both at his alma mater and his community event. And it will conclude with grieving over a close friend that helped make this all possible.
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