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Kevon Looney - Family and Basketball

Kevon Looney was the baby the doctors told his mum not to have.

Victoria Looney was already nurturing her first son, Kevin, when she and her husband, Kevin ‘Doug’ Sr., were expecting their first daughter, Summer. The pregnancy was riddled with complications, so difficult it nearly killed them both.

Thankfully, the story ended happily. But once pregnant with Kevon, that painful history could have prevented all that has occurred since his birth. An unbreakable bond with a brother. Two NBA championships with a generational team. A family connection that is both genuine and endearing.

Before all of that, the message was clear.

“They told me not to have him”, Victoria says.

Of course, it would never be that simple. “I told them, ‘let me go and pray and I will come back with an answer’. When I went back and they asked me what I was going to do, I said I am going to have him.”

The doctors told Victoria they hoped her God was right.

“Today he is an NBA player”, she says with a smile.

Victoria and Doug had installed tremendous belief in their final child - “our baby”, as his mum calls him - before day one.

“Our family are really close”, Looney himself says.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, when Looney made the decision to play for Tom Diener at Alexander Hamilton High School on the south side of the city, a family meeting was called and the coach was invited into their home. The night before Looney committed to UCLA - albeit unbeknownst to his family - the table was shared again. On draft night in 2015, the Looneys filled the green room in New York City and on signing with the Golden State Warriors with the final pick of the first round, his parents moved out to Oakland, stationing themselves in Walnut Creek.

They transport him with care, follow him passionately, direct him wisely. It is all they have ever known, for all of their children.

“His parents are outstanding people, very humble, quiet, unassuming”, Diener says when recalling his time with the family. “You will not find anybody that does not like Kevon Looney, or his mum and dad.”

Diener would know, for he cried over the phone when informing Doug that he was leaving for another coaching job after three years with Kevon.

A 4.0 student who barely speaks and always listens, Looney had that rare understanding for a youngster that earning good grades garnered high reward and perfectly complemented a well-thought-out practice regime. He was competitive enough to want to beat his peers in class as well as on the court, his stationary out first and books packed away last before returning to the gym.

All of it boiled down to family values, which promoted effort and integrity.

“We used to have family meetings if there was something we were concerned about”, Victoria says. “What we didn’t understand we talked about, and we communicated until we figured it out.

“The boys had to be in bed by 10. My husband would get up at five o’clock in the morning to take Kevon to high school practice, then come back home and get dressed for work. I would then pick him up”, Victoria says, her 24-hour doting schedule including a reminder to Looney to bend his head when he went down to the basement for laundry.

No matter the time or distance of travel, basketball was the destination.

“Everywhere he went, he carried a basketball”, she says.

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Looney fell in love with the game because of his brother Kevin, who is six years his senior.

“Kevin would always take Kevon to go and play with him, and Kevon would follow him pretty much everywhere”, father Doug says.

Kevon had a hoop in his backyard as early as he can remember, and would always be ready to take visitors on one-on-one. He spent most of his hours at the local court, also his first school at Stewart Elementary. The brothers would head to the park, lacing either Jordans or regular sneakers depending on how good their grades were at the time, their parents rewarding them accordingly.

Scrimmaging was a daily ritual, a multi-hour smorgasbord of observation and initiation for Looney.

“Kevin was a shooter”, Looney says of his brothers’ game. “He had no conscience. He is older than me so I could not get any shots. He made me play defence.”

It was tough love, but loyal nonetheless. “Kevin would come home and say, ‘Kevon can play’ or, ‘Kevon gonna be a baller’”, Victoria says.

His parents used to mark his height on the wall of their duplex, drawing a line every month to track his growth. “When he got taller than his dad, it was a happy day for Kevon”, Victoria says of the moment he surpassed six foot six and his idol, Kobe Bryant.

Having moved out of the house years ago, she wonders if the marks are still there.

Kevon would slowly gain the height advantage, but throughout childhood it was Kevin who held the park as his own. He would make sure to pick Kevon, with the catch being that his little brother had to stand in the corner and go after all the rebounds.

“Most of the time I was the smallest and holding the guard-type players, and that really helped me out as I moved on because I was always able to defend”, Looney says, who in a charming way uses the term ‘holding’ for all descriptions of defence. “That was my way to stay on the court and if my guy kept scoring, my brother was going to tell me about it.”

At a young age, Looney was learning how to slow up the hierarchy. He would have to guard bigger players, smaller players, faster players, a familiar reality in last year’s playoffs when he often had to switch onto a body like Anthony Davis in the second round or James Harden in the Western Conference Finals, expressing himself within his new and defined role on the Warriors.

It seemed like he was always planning for that moment ahead, his diligence and work ethic offsetting a quiet personality.

“Kevon was real shy”, Doug says. “Not only amongst his peers and adults but even his game at first. But he did become different on the court in time”.

That shyness didn’t exactly hold itself back if Looney came home from the park in defeat, something he has rarely experienced after three years in the NBA. “He would get so upset that tears would come to his eyes”, Victoria says. “We would be like, ‘stop crying, man up’. He would say, ‘mum, I do not like losing’”.

So much so that the last time Looney triumphed against his dad at chess, he told him he was tired of beating him and gave it up. Always end on a win.

There was no trophy for that victory, but the Looneys’ walls were once plastered in silverware, Kevon the owner of so many that his bedroom was not big enough and the collection spread into the living room. Today they are covered in family photos, and for Victoria she has one particular favourite. It shows Kevon in fifth grade, a basketball under his arm and a smile that shows one tooth missing.

“That is the beginning of who he was”, she says.

And what he became he always knew. When Looney was 10 he had a visit to the family dentist in Milwaukee for a teeth clean. Dr Buress asked him what he wanted to be, “and Kevon told him, ‘I want to be an NBA player’”, Victoria says.

With that now a reality, the dentist has Looney’s jersey hanging in his office and watches Warriors games regularly, in awe of his patient’s achievements.

But what has he witnessed so far?

Having played just 58 total games in his first two NBA seasons because of overlapping hip injuries, Looney is coming off a 66-game, 13.8 minute campaign for a championship team. He made defence his calling card before last season in order to establish a role on a Warriors team overflowing with talent on both sides of the floor, similar to his park days but a sea change given only a handful of years ago he was the talent.

2018 NBA Finals - Game One

High school Looney played and trained as a guard, defended the guards, was a guard. He was a scorer, too, and while now largely pegged as a defensive specialist in the NBA, Looney is hoping to build on his defensive versatility by returning to his offensive ways.

As a youngster, Looney studied the game religiously, keeping his elementary teachers happy by reading NBA books he rented from the library until he discovered YouTube, he and his brother obsessed with Kobe Bryant.

“My favourite move was his fadeaway from the post”, Looney says. “Kevin was imitating Kobe and I was imitating him.”

His mother adds: “People around school and AAU used to say he was like Kevin Durant, and when I told that to Kevon he would be like, ‘oh no, I’m like Kobe’. Now that he is actually playing with Durant, I am like, ‘how do you feel now?’”

He may have the answer.

Coming off hip surgery before Durant’s debut season with the Warriors, Looney’s first action was a four-on-four scrimmage with his teammates just before training camp. They were playing to 11 points with no coaches or officials around, just the Bay Area sunshine in their faces and a resting Draymond Green sitting on the sideline ready to call people out.

“It was really my first time playing full court off the injury, and guess what? I had to hold KD”, Looney says.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.”

Durant did not miss a shot and, as if he would not anyway, Green got involved.

“Draymond was on the sideline talking smack, talking mess like, ‘Man Looney, you getting ran out, you cannot hold him at all, where you at?’ I was like, ‘Alright, you come and hold him’. That was all I could say but I really took that to heart. I have got to be able to hold him, I cannot just be out here … I do not care how good he is, I have got to be able to hold him a little bit.

“That really stuck with me and really made me want to focus on defence too.”

Looney, who now picks up Durant a lot on defence in formal practices, frustratingly faced injuries and a role that remained similar to his rookie season following Durant’s addition. He observed from the sidelines how James Michael McAdoo would be getting into the game ahead of him, playing spot minutes but fulfilling a specific role for head coach Steve Kerr.

And so after a difficult season personally - one that ultimately ended with his first championship parade - Looney turned to a near Paleo diet, daily scrimmages at UCLA in which he played full court two-on-two, and a refusal to eat his beloved Doritos in order to condition himself as a defensive specialist. He weighed himself every day, took very personally comments from coaches who told him they watched him cover ground so well in college and in order to be a great defender in the NBA he had to get into shape.

“Focus is the word I would use to describe him”, Doug says. “He knows how to dial in and focus on what he has to do.”

That he did. Looney lost 30 pounds last summer, adamant that he would find his role for the 2017-18 season. He showed particular improvement in March of this year, averaging 21.1 minutes, 6.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals, an encouraging line for a player who nearly averaged a quadruple-double his senior season at Hamilton. Looney started the final four games of the Western Conference Finals and game one of the NBA Finals, as the Warriors won another championship. And yet something still lingered as his third summer in the NBA arrived.

“I miss shooting”, he says.

“On our team we have such great shooters and such great scorers, guys don’t tend to hold the big men like that so I’ll be like, ‘man I should shoot this’.

"But then I’m like ‘nah, I’m going to hand it off to Steph’, and he usually makes it, so I don’t feel bad about it.”

When injuries started piling up for Golden State last season, Steve Kerr went to Looney and told him he had to shoot more, specifically the mid-range shot that Kerr knew he could hit.

“That is the same intermediate game I fell in love with when I first saw him play in open gym in eighth grade”, Diener says.

Looney adds: “I do remember shooting 41% from three in college, and I was proud of that”.

He might recall the 22 threes he hit at UCLA, but one thing he seems to have forgotten about are his eating habits. Looney insists that he skipped breakfast all the way up until he reached the NBA, where Warriors trainers forced him to eat something. He started getting a smoothie and two eggs, but is still not that enamoured with it either way.

Just don’t mention that to his mum.

“No he didn’t say that! Yes he did have breakfast!”

Victoria shouts to her husband, “he said he didn’t used to eat breakfast!”

“Yes he did. He used to eat waffles and pop tarts and pancakes. Oh my … I am going to have to get on him on that one, how can he say that?”, and laughing, she says, “he is going to get in trouble for that one.

“I used to serve him breakfast in bed. He didn’t tell you that?”

If Looney was accepting a tray of food before he stumbled out of the sack, that would almost always be followed by a daily dose of offensive basketball graft.

“I used to do a pull back between the legs crossover dribble move”, Looney says of his younger days. Chuckling, he adds: “I was not a Steph Curry behind the back kind of guy, but I had the pull-back dribble.”

Diener, who coached Looney for his first three years at Alexander Hamilton, was astonished at Looney’s ability to play what he calls ‘point centre’.

“He would bring the ball up, he could shoot it from the outside or go inside and post up”, he says.

“He would play all over the floor. He is a perimeter player, he really is. But then he would have games in high school where he would block 20 shots. He has always been such an intelligent defensive player, a la Bill Russell, in terms of knowing spacing, distance and angles. But now that he has gotten much stronger, his foundation, base and footwork are so much better.”

Diener never played zone defence and took pride in teaching Kevon how to play on and off the ball, but the most telling thing about his best asset and why so many believe he has only scratched the surface in terms of his all-around play in the NBA was the decision Diener made for Looney’s offensive role.

“I am a pretty disciplined coach and I do not like turnovers”, he says. “My point guard has to be smart, and that meant Kevon had to play point. I just was not happy with anybody else.”

Looney was learning how to break a press and run an offence while routinely being triple teamed and hacked by opponents. “He never got a technical, he never yelled back at the officials, he would never complain”, Diener says.

Temperament in check, Looney played on.

“Ball handling was always natural to me, always something that I worked on”, Looney says.

Looney was running full court ball handling drills while wearing a weight vest to try and minimise the amount of times he fell over in contact and Diener, who always focused heavily on Looney’s physical development, had extra homework assignments for Looney.

“He told me to watch Magic Johnson and Penny Hardaway and study how they dribble”, Looney says.

Being the listener that he is, Looney obliged. “I actually did go and watch those guys. Definitely a lot of Penny Hardaway, and I watched a lot of Scottie Pippen on YouTube because he played a lot of point forward.”

Speaking of YouTube, Doug Looney remembers coming home from work one day and his youngest son running up to him with a message.

“Kevon said, ‘Dad, I want to show you this’. He had watched Hakeem Olajuwon’s ‘dream shake’ on YouTube, then went and perfected it. I told him he had to translate it into a game. Well, he was in sixth grade playing AAU, and he did it in a tournament. I was with another friend and we just looked at each other and said, ‘man, that was beautiful to see’”.

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game Five

Looney put together great performances on a regular basis, Diener describing him as “one of the most consistent kids you will ever find”, and that went a long way to him being named Wisconsin Mr Basketball and selected as a McDonald’s All-American.

Diener had years earlier cold-called then-Duke assistant coach and current Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski, telling him he had a ninth grader he thought he would be interested in. That got the ball rolling, and once recruiting started in earnest, Looney and his family presided over their choices before whittling the list down to five finalists: Duke, Tennessee, Florida, Michigan State and UCLA.

A reminder of his ability outside of the gym, the first two schools to send letters to Looney were actually Yale and Harvard.

“He did not consider them, he said they are not basketball schools”, Victoria says. “I was saying to him, ‘Harvard, dude! We are talking about Harvard!’”

As it were, Looney would throw a curveball anyway. Diener thought he was going to Wisconsin, while his parents were sure it was Duke.

“We had a family meeting and he asked us the night before, ‘do you want to know where I want to go?’, and I am thinking I already know where you want to go, you are going to Duke. So I did not ask him.”

The next day, Looney sat between his parents and told the media where he was going to school. “He pulled out a UCLA hat and I almost fell to the floor”, Victoria says.

It was his wish to play with positional freedom as he had in high school, and despite a belief he could play some point forward in college under head coach Steve Alford, a backcourt of Bryce Alford and Norman Powell meant Looney was for the first time in his career - the first time in his life - told to be a big man.

“At UCLA he wasn’t provided a lot of opportunity to shoot and score”, Diener says. “I get his role in Golden State, they have so many weapons, but I think people are going to be surprised as his role develops and he is given more opportunities.”

After one college season in which he averaged 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds, Looney declared for the NBA draft. His dabbling into playing as a full-time big man had him thinking less about what he was not able to do in college and more about simply getting an opportunity to change that narrative in the NBA.

2015 NBA Draft

The Looney family were in the green room on draft night, a place where players go to wait, sweat and hopefully feel satisfied at the end of it. There were far more doses of the first two on the evening of 25th June, 2015, the expectation going in that he would be selected between 15th and 20th.

“#15 had been called, then the Milwaukee Bucks passed at #17”, Victoria says. “They didn't pick him and I was like, ‘whoa, hold up, Milwaukee don’t want you either, as much as you did for that city?’”.

Finally, with the 30th and final pick of the first round, the Warriors called his name. His father Doug told him that he had done it, while mum came up with the line, ‘you might be the last, but the last shall be first’, a nice touch as he joined the champion Warriors.

Soon afterward, Looney sat next to GM Bob Myers and said at his opening press conference: “I am a good playmaker, versatile, and I didn’t have to show that at UCLA”.

Myers, meanwhile, laid out the reasoning for their latest weapon: “This draft pick speaks to the way we play, the way we think the NBA is going”.

The way they thought was the way it went, positions made redundant while the league pushed back its three-point line to almost half-court. Looney was entering the NBA when it was most open-minded about positions, and while circumstances have slowed him throughout his first three professional seasons, evidence has begun to show that he can guard all five positions and, while needing work on that end, be mobile enough to provide an offensive contribution when comfortable and confident.

That has been and will be made easier by his veteran winning teammates, who shift his directive from watching his brother on the park to consciously asking for advice.

“I speak a lot with Andre [Iguodala] and Draymond [Green] about guarding smaller guys and what our opponents like to do”, Looney says.

“Andre always tells me I do a great job of sliding my feet and knowing where to be on the court, but I will take it to another level if I talk and be loud because that intimidates the other team and helps everybody else out.

“With Draymond, say we are playing against Anthony Davis, I will ask him, ‘which way do you like sending him?’, or ‘what’s his favourite move?’, and he always tells me. During the playoffs, he was telling me that if Eric Gordon goes left, he is much harder to guard and gets a head of steam going, so try and make him go right. That is something that helped me in that series.”

New Orleans Pelicans v Golden State Warriors

As for facing Gordon’s teammate and the league MVP James Harden?

“There are a lot of things running through my mind when I am guarding James Harden. ‘Don’t reach’, because if I do that once everybody on the bench is going to yell and go crazy at me. And secondly, I always hear Draymond in the game yelling to ‘press up, press up!’”

Doug Looney was watching all of this in real time.

“I would ask him afterward stuff like, ‘why are you so far out if you think he is going to drive?’”, Doug says. “He told me the game plan was to make Harden drive and not give him that three-ball, make him earn his points. I was a bit more understanding after that and instead told him to make sure he always forces him to his right hand”.

Doug always grades his son after games and gave Kevon a B for every playoff series last season. Low in comparison to Kevon’s school days, it is high given his father’s grading system stretches from A to F.

Kevon’s dad has always been engaged with the game, and he remains the all-time rebounding leader at Schreiner University in Texas with 953. He and his wife are at Oracle Arena for every home game, and they watch the other half on their TV at home.

Without fail they hold a pre-game prayer, which kindly asks for two outcomes. “Number one that he gets in, and number two when he does get in that he does well. When we see it go well, well we just jump for joy”, Victoria says.

Winning a second championship with the Warriors was the peak of such joy, and though they say the first one is always the sweetest, it did not work like that for Looney.

“I told him after the Finals, ‘you hung in there and you found your niche and your role’”, Doug says.

“It was so exciting to see him have a role this year. Seeing what he can accomplish from the type of ordeal he put himself through last summer, I think he will be even more diligent towards his workout and his diet.

“We have not seen the offensive side of Kevon yet, and I think that is something he is going to be able to show this coming year”.

There will be struggles along the way. Diener is still shocked that Looney is shooting just 56.8% from the free throw line for his NBA career, a surprise given he was Hamilton’s technical foul shooter.

But because he is a Looney, Kevon will always be able to rely on his family to use the past as something that can help a bright future.

“When he was in fifth grade, he took part in an elementary school competition”, Victoria says. “He shot and made 30 free throws in a row, and on the last one the lights in the gym went out. I told him, ‘you made the lights go out dog’. Whenever I need to, I will say to him, ‘do you remember fifth grade?’

“He knows what I am talking about. He has worked so hard to get here and he will not stop now. Kevon was so dutiful, so faithful to the game.”

It has been another busy summer for the Looneys. Kevon pondered his future, family meetings made easy given their closeness in the Bay Area.

“Two rings later, we can truly say thank you to the Warriors”, Victoria says. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for believing in my son when nobody else did. I truly love that organisation and they have been a blessing to this family”.

Being the mother that she is, not even Warriors nostalgia will quell what she is really thinking right now.

“Write down that mum quote, ‘he did have cereal when he did not have hot breakfast!’

“I am getting ready to call him right now, acting like we didn’t have cereal.”

Kevon Looney fielded plenty of calls this summer, but that might be the toughest. Ultimately, he just wants to prove his family and coaches right.

“On the Warriors team, a lot of the time I just play the five position”, Looney says. “When other guys got hurt this year, I got to play the four and I think I played pretty well in that role and I think that really set me up for coach to trust me on the court in multiple situations. Even in the playoffs he [Steve Kerr] would play me and Jordan Bell together, and I think I can play more than just the five.

“I think I can play the four and I know I can hold the three, too”.

Kevon Looney will endeavour to conform even more to the NBA’s modern game because it’s the version he always knew. He is working hard to know it again.

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