Whitworth College basketball is back in the Top 25 - eighth, to be exact. If you can name any of the first seven, you’re really paying attention. Perhaps too much.
For while the Pirates certainly play for keeps, they also keep it play. A national ranking is a just and compelling reward, but hardly allimportant. Just as reassuring is seeing the school president lend a hand to the halftime free-throw contest and the associated students buy a round of ice cream for the house after a home game.
The game knows its place here. Players, too.
And Whitworth is very much Kevin Wright’s place, though the Pirates’ captain wasn’t always certain of that. The 100 city blocks between his parents’ house and campus once seemed like such a stretch.
It still can - when a basketball road trip takes him 300 miles away from his 2-year-old daughter, for instance. Or when he must ask for time off from his city parks job because he’s qualified for nationals in track. Or when an appointment with the pediatrician conflicts with a class.
His plate is full, but everything on it is nourishment.
Shelby Lyn Martensen-Wright was born 25 months ago and is, in the words of her gushing father, “the light of my life, the twinkle in my eye, all of those things.” Her impending arrival in 1992 convinced Wright to take a year off from school if for no other reason than “I didn’t want to be on the road (with the basketball team) when she was born.
“It couldn’t be something I missed. It’s the biggest thing in my life to date - seeing her born and holding her. I held her in one hand, she was so little.”
With the joy has come some heartache. Devoted parents though they are, Wright and Jannell Martensen split up about three months ago. Shelby lives with her mother, and there are times when road trips and practice rob time with her father.
“I get down about it,” Wright admitted. “I don’t get to see her as much as I’d like and that bothers me, but Jannell is a great mother and she’s understanding about basketball and the time it takes.
“There are a lot of responsibilities, but we get a lot of help from our parents and the guys on the team are helpful, too. And the time I get with her is so special. She comes up with new words every day. I got her a little hoop and we play, or we just dance in the front room. In the end, it’s more fun and precious than it is work and responsibility.”
This is fairly consistent with Wright’s views on most things. His summer job with the parks department is fun, he says, because it keeps him outside. Basketball is a kick not only because the Pirates are winning but because “there are a lot more friendships on this team than any I’ve ever played on, and that makes you play better.”
It seems reasonable. The Pirates went to 13-6 with a weekend sweep of Lewis & Clark and Pacific, and Wright’s contributions were noteworthy. On Friday, the 6-foot-5 senior had 19 points and 11 rebounds and held Northwest Conference scoring leader Dinari Foreman to half of his 26-point average.
This couldn’t have been projected out of high school. He wasn’t an all-city type during his days at Lewis and Clark, and wound up at the Community Colleges of Spokane mostly because the SCC campus is just a walk through Chief Garry Park from his house.
He was a better player at CCS than he was in high school, and is a better player now - though the jump from junior college wasn’t without some trauma.
“He felt when he first came here that he didn’t fit,” said Whitworth coach Warren Friedrichs. “He’s a blue-collar guy who has great parents and what he thought he’d gotten into was an academic school where everybody was well-to-do and strictly religious. Well, we’ve got all kinds here and a guy like Kevin is always going to fit.
“He’s got such a heart. He’s the kind of guy who will play those slots in Montana, hit the jackpot and give all his free ones away.”
His gifts don’t stop at the heart. He’s Whitworth’s best natural rebounder and has range out to the 3-point line - and when basketball season’s over, he moonlights on the track.
Last year, he placed ninth in the decathlon at the NAIA national championships. His best total - 6,225 points - isn’t going to scare Dan O’Brien, but it makes you wonder what he might do with more concentrated training.
“The coach sent me a schedule - I see their first meet (was) Saturday,” Wright laughed. “But by the time the season’s over in basketball, I have about two weeks to get qualified in nationals.”
Some of it comes easy - he’s a 195-foot javelin thrower who just missed national qualifying in that event, and was a 56-foot shot putter in high school. But the lack of technique work kills him in events like the pole vault, where he’s stiffpoled 11 feet, and the high jump.
“I went 6-4 in high school, but I’ve never gotten over 6 feet in college,” he said. “I have no form.
“I love them both, basketball and track. The problem is, you just get to play more basketball. It’s easier to get in a pickup game. You don’t find too many people who want to go throw the javelin or the shot for fun - who want to get a meet going or something.”
A good thing, for the Pirates have something going in basketball. Friedrichs took Whitworth to the NAIA tourney in 1991 before it was split into two divisions, and the voting in the Division II poll isn’t all that makes the Pirates believe they can go again.
“We can live up to what they’ve got us ranked,” insisted Wright.
Seems reasonable. Kevin Wright has lived up to a lot already.