Subscribe to the Mercury News and East Bay Times for $40 a year and receive a free Warriors championship coffee table book.
MILWAUKEE – This is Kevon Looney’s hometown, where he sharpened his work ethic, formed his resiliency and inspired countless kids.
When Alexander Hamilton High School retired his No. 5 jersey on Thursday, though, Looney’s mind didn’t focus on himself, his accolades or all of his coaches and teammates attending. Nor did he think ahead to when the Warriors (17-9) play the Milwaukee Bucks (16-7) on Friday. 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 Wati 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 Wati’s funeral because it conflicted with the Warriors’ schedule. So on Thursday, Looney visited Wati’s gravesite to “give my goodbyes.”
Before that, both 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 here is starting at center for the Warriors,” Kerr said to the crowd. “Kevon is obviously a great basketball player. But what we appreciate about him is not just 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.”
Afterwards, 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 MVP’s 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.”
Looney did 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 a 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.”
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 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.”
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 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 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,” 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.”
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 aveaging 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 them. 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 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.”
Subscribe to the Warriors HQ podcast.