FRANKLIN, Ohio -- There was a moment late Saturday night when Brian Bales couldn’t hold back the tears.
Bales, the Franklin High School basketball coach and athletic director, reflected on the journey the two-time Ohio Mr. Basketball has taken from Warren County to being an All-American in just his second season at Duke.
“You are thinking about this young man that you’ve coached for four years,” Bales told WCPO.com this week. “He’s just special to me in a lot of different ways -- more than just a basketball player. It’s just a neat story.”
Bales is more than a high school coach to the potential NBA first-round selection. Bales and his family are neighbors and longtime friends with Luke’s parents, Mark and Jennifer.
It was Bales’ wife, Jayme, who cooked for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski when he made an in-home visit to the Kennard home in Franklin in April 2014.
That was just a few weeks after Luke verbally committed to the Blue Devils in front of 1,000 supporters in the high school cafeteria during March of his junior season at Franklin.
The spotlight followed Kennard after that public announcement. He never batted an eye at being under a microscope in high school or at Duke. He’s the same Luke.
“He’s the kind of kid who was never too big for anybody or anything,” said Centerville football coach Rodney Roberts, who coached Kennard in football for three years at Franklin. “He is one of the most humble human beings I’ve ever met in my life and that’s what I appreciate about him the most.”
Kennard still texts with his former high school coaches and teammates. It seems everyone in Franklin will be watching Duke this NCAA Tournament.
“He just creates a sense of the community just being so proud,” Franklin football coach Brad Childers said. “He is a Franklin guy.”
Duke (27-8), the No. 2 seed in the East Region, plays No. 15 Troy (22-14) at 7:20 p.m. Friday in Greenville, South Carolina.
This weekend may be one of the final opportunities to watch Kennard in a college uniform. It remains to be seen if he will return for his junior year.
Out of this world
Discussion of a whether Kennard will declare early for the NBA Draft isn’t on the agenda this month. But his stock may never be higher.
“He’s off the planet with his shooting percentages,” Bales said.
After watching Duke win the ACC Tournament, Bales thought about the high-intensity shooting drills inside the school gym when the left-handed shooting Kennard made 80 to 90 percent unguarded.
Kennard would get frustrated at anything under 80 percent, said Taylor sophomore guard Evan Crowe, Kennard’s former high school teammate and longtime friend.
“He’s the most competitive human being I’ve ever met in my life,” Roberts said. “I used to tell this to coaches all the time. If you were ever walking down the hallway to go to the restroom he would beat you there and he is going to finish before you and he is going to be out the door before you. Just because that’s the way he is. It doesn’t matter if he is playing 'Angry Birds' on an iPad or checkers or whatever. He competes with every ounce he has every time he is doing something.”
Bales was a listening ear this offseason. Few know about the conversations. Kennard persevered even when his role was questioned before this season in Durham.
“I was with him for some lows during his freshman year,” Bales said. “We had some really neat talks.”
Even through talk of whether he would be a starter entering this season, it was Kennard who stepped up his game -- and delivered.
Crowe said there was never any doubt when he worked out with Kennard last summer. He didn't let outside noise distract his mission.
This past weekend at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn was an accomplishment to behold.
“It was awesome,” Crowe said of Saturday night. “I am so proud of him. He’s arguably the best player in the country.”
Earlier this week, Kennard was named a second-team All-America selection by the United States Basketball Writers Association. He’s already garnered second-team All-America honors by the Sporting News.
Kennard leads Duke in scoring average (20.1 ppg.) while shooting 50 percent from the floor, 44 percent from outside the arc and 85 percent from the free-throw line.
“Oh geez, I’m not sure you could have a better year,” Bales said.
— Brian Bales (@brian_bales) March 12, 2017
Kennard is one of two players nationally -- and the only major-conference player -- to average at least 20 points while shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent for 3-pointers and 80 percent from the line.
Kennard is finishing in the paint. His up-and-under moves are very tough to defend.
“He seems so comfortable out there,” Bales said. “He seems like the game is coming to him very gracefully.”
Kennard wants the ball and his Duke teammates are looking for him to make shots. They have also sought his leadership.
Kennard makes his team better. Those at Franklin know that is vintage Kennard.
“That’s exactly what happens when I sit back and watch the (Duke) games on my recliner,” Childers said. “It’s the same thing I watched him do in high school.”
Kennard’s high school jersey hangs in the Franklin gym. He gave a signed Duke jersey to A&G Pizza -- a restaurant that is packed with fans watching Duke games. It’s sure to be crowded Friday night.
It’s the place where he watched his McDonald’s All America Game selection his senior year at Franklin. Three years later it will be a Duke watch party this March Madness.
“I think the whole city and probably the entire Warren and Butler counties are getting behind that young man,” Childers said. “I was at a function in Trenton last night and someone asked me about me. Just unbelievable.”
Kennard returns to Franklin when he can. He signs autographs and poses for photos when he returns.
He spoke to some Franklin students via FaceTime after a Duke practice before Christmas. He attended a football game in the fall. He mentions Franklin when given the opportunity.
Those who know Luke appreciate his devotion to his hometown.
“It makes you proud to see good things happening to good people,” Roberts said. “Most importantly through all of this hoopla and the attention he’s getting on the national stage -- the greatest quality about Luke is just the type of person that he is. “