He was 7 feet tall — or close to it. He had signed to play at Kentucky. He was, according to just about everybody, one of the top 50 high school basketball prospects in the country.
It was spring 2012, and Willie Cauley-Stein, then a towering senior center at Olathe Northwest High School, had a lot going for him.
Of course, there was one thing he didn’t. We’re here to discuss this.
In early April of that year, when The Kansas City Star selected its All-Metro high school basketball teams, it did not deem Cauley-Stein worthy of the first or second team. Yes, that’s right. One of the best 50 high school seniors in America, a 7-footer headed to a blue-blood program, was not thought to be one of the 10 best players in a metro area of about 2.3 million people.
Who was the genius that decided this? Well, actually, thanks for asking. It was me.
You probably know the rest of the story. On Monday, Cauley-Stein, now a junior starter at Kentucky, was chosen to The Associated Press’ All-America team, making him a unanimous first-team All-American. He will play in the Final Four this weekend in Indianapolis. He will attempt to lead No. 1 Kentucky, 38-0, to an undefeated season and an NCAA title. He could be the most important piece on a team primed for college basketball immortality. In a few months, he will walk across the stage at the NBA Draft and become a lottery pick.
But three years ago, Cauley-Stein was relegated to a brief note in the “Honorable Mention” section, next to Conner Crooker of Blue Valley North and Izaiah Grice of Lansing.
In hindsight, of course, I’m willing to admit that we may have really blown it with that year’s All-Metro selections. Then again, Cauley-Stein may have gotten exactly what he deserved. And this, perhaps, makes his transformation from All-Metro snub to college basketball monster all the more amazing.
But first, let’s start here: Why did we snub a future All-American?
When you cover high school sports The Star, there is a special pride each year in selecting and compiling the newspaper’s All-Metro teams. The teams are the best of the best, from all across the city. But the exercise is especially important during basketball season.
The Kansas City area has always produced its fair share of Division I talent, from Lucius Allen to Alec Burks. Every winter, you can go to a high school gym on a Friday night in any corner of the city — Missouri side, Kansas side, whatever — and you will usually find a game worth watching. On an old bookshelf in The Star’s newsroom, you can find a binder containing old clippings of The Star’s All-Metro teams. The binder goes back decades. And if you flip to the right page, you can read about the high school exploits of Anthony Peeler, Earl Watson, Tyronn Lue and the Brothers Rush and Releford.
The process is ever-simple. At the end of each high school season, the high school staff comes together and whittles the city’s best players down to three select groups — first team, second team and honorable mention. In the spring of 2012, that meant that I was sitting down with Tod Palmer, a fellow high school writer at the time. And Cauley-Stein presented a difficult conundrum.
A native of tiny Spearville, Kan., a speck of a town located just northeast of Dodge City, Cauley-Stein had arrived in the Kansas City area before his junior year of high school. He moved in with the family of former Chiefs Pro Bowler and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Will Shields, whose son, Shavon, was already a standout player at Olathe Northwest High School. The move was made, in part, to help cultivate Cauley-Stein’s basketball career.
But during his junior year, Cauley-Stein (who was still going by Willie Cauley) was able to play only half the season. Olathe Northwest lost in a Kansas 6A substate final. And Cauley-Stein showed flashes, like a two-handed reverse dunk against rival Olathe South. But in most moments, he was still a work in progress, an athletic center with nimble feet, raw skills and a frame that had the definition of a wire hanger.
On the day Willie Cauley-Stein publicly committed to play at Kentucky, he donned a Rasta Wig as he strolled onto a football practice field at Olathe Northwest, the fake braids flowing in the wind.
It was a Monday afternoon in late October, and the night before, Cauley-Stein had called Kentucky coach John Calipari to say yes to the Wildcats. I was in my last full year of covering preps for The Star, and I had driven over to Olathe Northwest to ask Cauley-Stein about his decision. He had turned down heavy overtures from then-K-State coach Frank Martin, who had recruited him since he was an unknown in Spearville. And the fact that there was a top-50 big man going to high school 35 minutes away from Lawrence, and this kid was going to Kentucky? Well, that was slightly unusual.
“Every time I closed my eyes, it’s what you’d see — Kentucky,” Cauley-Stein said then. “It was just a gut feeling.”
He then talked about Calipari.
“He repeatedly said that it’s hard to play there, but the people that go and play there become great,” Cauley-Stein said. “And the chance to go in there and get better and leave early is really good. That kind of got me intrigued a little bit.”
That day on the football field, Cauley-Stein towered over his teammates to a cartoonish degree. In football cleats, he stood over 7 feet tall. With a helmet on his head, his dimensions were unlike anything you would ever see on a football field. In moments, under the Friday night lights, he was simple uncoverable, a human cheat code posting up against 5-foot-11 high school cornerbacks.
“Pretty salty,” Olathe Northwest football coach Todd Dain used to say.
That season, Cauley-Stein led the state of Kansas with 1,265 yards receiving on 65 catches. For his efforts that fall, Cauley was selected to one All-Metro first team. It just happened to be for football.
Full disclosure: This is not the first time The Star hasn’t honored a young high school athlete who would go on to make something of himself.
Here’s one famous story.
In the mid-1990s, a young shortstop named Albert Pujols was finishing his high school career at Fort Osage High School in Independence, raking line drives all spring before heading to Maple Woods Community College. Pujols would become one of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived. But he was not first-team All-Metro. According to Star lore, David Boyce, a high school writer at the time, downgraded Pujols because of a rash of errors in the infield.
Yes, we’re serious sticklers for the fundamentals.
So, yeah, perhaps snubbing a future baseball Hall of Famer is worse than relegating Cauley-Stein to honorable mention status.
But by his senior year, Cauley-Stein was still fighting through his own limitations. On defense, he could be a dominating presence. In one memorable game, Olathe Northwest held Missouri power Rockhurst to just 22 points in a victory at the Hy-Vee Shootout, an event that pitted teams from Kansas against teams from Missouri. But for the second straight year, Olathe Northwest would fail to reach the state tournament. In hindsight, this is pretty amazing.
In addition to Cauley-Stein, Olathe Northwest also featured Shavon Shields, who would sign with Nebraska and average 15.4 points per game this season as a junior. That’s two high-level Division I players on one team, a rarity for Kansas City, especially on the Kansas side.
The Ravens were also competing in Kansas Class 6A, which contains just 32 teams. To reach the eight-team state tournament, Olathe Northwest needed just two victories.
Cauley-Stein and Shields lost in the substate finals again.
So here we are.
Three years later, after Cauley-Stein was selected first-team All-American on Monday, I went looking for The Star’s All-Metro team from 2012.
I remembered that we had bypassed Cauley-Stein for the first team, but in my memory, I believed we had put him on the second team. Then I saw the old newspaper clipping.
Honorable mention: Willie Cauley-Stein.
To look at the old newspaper clipping, though, is to see a list of players that have made an impact on college basketball. There was a combo guard from Lee’s Summit West named Shaquille Harrison, who signed with Tulsa and helped the program to an NCAA Tournament last season. There was Shields, also first-team selection, who has developed into a star at Nebraska. There was a sophomore guard from Blue Valley Northwest named Clayton Custer, a Division I prospect who won two state titles before heading to Iowa State. (He’s now transferring.) And there was a high-scoring point guard named Benny Parker (Sumner), who joined Shields at Nebraska. There was also a small-school state champion from Basehor-Linwood named Colin Murphy. He played for a while at Emporia State. Not to be confused with Kentucky.
The second team featured a pair of future UMKC teammates (Broderick Newbill and Martez Harrison) and a kid named Loomis Gerring of Grandview (now at Missouri State). So see, we didn’t totally blow it? That’s a perfectly respectable group, right?
OK, yeah. None of these kids, of course, are now consensus All-Americans. None of them will be lottery picks. None have developed into the most destructive defensive force in college basketball.
If you saw Cauley-Stein play during his senior year of high school, it was easy to see why John Calipari might be intrigued by this 7-foot project from Spearville, Kan. But who expected this? Well, not many.
On the day we relegated Cauley-Stein to honorable mention, I turned to a co-worker and pondered the decision.
“You know, if this kid turns into an NBA center, we’re going to look pretty dumb.”
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ll see.”