It is just past 8 on a Saturday morning, and Kareem Richardson is moving slowly. He pulls out his phone and fires off a text. He has another full day of recruiting ahead and wants to be at a gym in south Overland Park by a little after 9 a.m.
He’s not sure if he’ll make it.
The night before, the new basketball coach at UMKC had been in Las Vegas, boarding a red-eye flight at 11:45 p.m. after two days of recruiting in Sin City. Four days earlier, he’d been at the White House, talking ball with President Barack Obama and celebrating his role in Louisville’s NCAA title last April. Now the July recruiting period is almost over, a grueling three week blur of airports, hotels and AAU basketball events across the country.
Finally, at close to 9:45 a.m., Richardson enters through the back door of the Fieldhouse of KC, headquarters for the Hardwood Classic. Wearing a pair of plaid Adidas shorts and a blue UMKC shirt, Richardson snakes his way along the baseline and finds assistant coach Angres Thorpe. For a few brief seconds, they huddle and Thorpe scratches out a plan for the next 12 hours on a yellow legal pad.
Another few moments pass, and Richardson settles in to watch Mo-Kan Elite, an under-16 team from Kansas City. On his way to a sideline seat, Richardson passes Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who is also scouting the game. Tulsa coach Danny Manning is a few seats down.
“I might need a 5-hour Energy,” Richardson says. “We’re going to be hustling today.”
The same could be said about the entire summer. It was March 19 that Richardson was hired as UMKC’s sixth basketball coach. He has barely stopped moving since. In the last four months, Richardson celebrated an NCAA title, hired a staff, put together a last-minute recruiting class forthis
season — and then hit the road in July for three weeks of recruiting.
They say that July can be the most taxing month for college basketball coaches, and that doesn’t factor in the added obstacles at a program such as UMKC. For more than two decades, the Kangaroos have been an afterthought in their own city, never reaching a conference tournament championship game, let alone making the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s always been a lack in consistency,” says Matt Suther, a former UMKC player who started the successful Mo-Kan AAU organization in the early 2000s. “It’s just hard to create any momentum.”
For Richardson, the plan starts here, in gyms across Kansas City. One moment later, as the final buzzer echoes through the gym, Richardson bounds to his feet.
There’s another game across town, and he has more kids to see.
Twenty minutes across town, it’s just past 11 a.m. when Richardson steps into the foyer of Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee. Thorpe is waiting with bad news. The schedule has changed for the KC Prep Invitational, and the bulletin board with the new game times is nearly indecipherable.
“It looks like Chinese,” says Thorpe, who came to UMKC after three years as the associate head coach at Toledo.
As Thorpe sorts through the schedule issues, Richardson sits down to watch the Kansas City Keys and Hogan Prep guard Ahmad Wainwright. The game is sloppy and slow, and Richardson appears to be the only Division I coach watching. Wainwright plays only half the time, but he is still an intriguing talent. His brother, Ishmail, is a former Mizzou recruit who will be a freshman at Baylor this fall. And while Ahmad doesn’t have the size or skill of his brother, all the better for a program like UMKC.
Last summer, Richardson was on the recruiting trail for Louisville, a place where you don’t recruit as much as you just select. UMKC, of course, is different.
“At the mid-major level, there’s usually more kids to choose from,” Richardson says. “But then that’s where doing the research for your own style of play becomes really crucial. There’s a different mind-set. There’s more kids to juggle from, but you gotta really narrow that down and figure which kids are really highest on your list.”
After watching Wainright for more than 30 minutes, Richardson heads to a new court, where a Kansas City team is playing a squad from Tulsa. Kruger stands along the baseline, and Manning is here, too. Dozens of college coaches fill the bleachers behind the basket.
Most are here to watch Mitchell Solomon, a big and skilled 6-foot-9 center from Bixby, Okla. He has offers from Oklahoma, K-State and a host of other major schools. For Kruger, Solomon is a potential difference-maker. For Richardson, he’s just another big guy out there that UMKC will never recruit.
Instead, Richardson is watching a skinny 6-9 kid from a small town in Missouri. The kid is a little awkward, maybe even frail, but he is playing hard. For Richardson, that makes him a player worth watching.
“If a kid right away is going to be a senior, and he’s able to dribble, shoot and pass at a high level, then the Louisvilles and North Carolinas are going to get that kid,” Richardson says. “But maybe a kid does one or two things really well, then you’ve got a project down the road: Can you develop that third and fourth thing?”
If the large numbers can turn recruiting into a crap shoot, there are other problems that schools such as UMKC must overcome. Take the example of Blue Valley Northwest senior guard Ben Richardson (No relation).
For months, UMKC watched Ben Richardson, a 6-2 sharpshooter who spent the summer playing for Mo-Kan. The Kangaroos were even one of the first to offer Ben Richardson a scholarship, according to BV Northwest coach Ed Fritz. But then Ben Richardson landed on the national radar at Peach Jam, one of the most prestigious tournaments on the summer circuit.
Suddenly, the guard was a commodity. And UMKC had plenty of competition.
Coaches can’t comment on specific recruits, per NCAA rules, but it’s a heartache that every coach at a low-major program understands.
Sometimes, as Thorpe says, a player can just play ”too good.”
Richardson takes a bite of sausage pizza and looks straight ahead, squeezing in thoughts about the intricacies of the motion offense. It is lunchtime, still just four hours into his day, and Richardson and Thorpe need to slam a few pieces of pizza before heading to a gym.
Richardson says it feels like he’s had pizza about two dozen times this month, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He doesn’t look all that different than when he was a standout guard in Rantoul, Ill., in the early ’90s. He is 38 years old, but could pass for a few years younger. His father was a military man, so maybe it’s the good genes.
As Thorpe fields a call about an academic situation back on campus, Richardson begins talking about last season’s NCAA Tournament. Before Louisville’s second game, against No. 8 seed Colorado State, it was Richardson’s job to scout the Rams’ efficient offense.
It was old-school motion, he says, “none of that ball-screen stuff,” and members of the Louisville staff were terrified of what Colorado State could do to Louisville’s high-pressure style.
“We looked at those guys and we said: ‘How are we gonna beat them?’” Richardson says.
As Richardson finishes the story, he takes another bite of pizza, and his shiny NCAA title ring comes into view. It’s a different world here at UMKC, but it’s one that Richardson is accustomed to.
After finishing his college career at Evansville, Richardson spent more than a decade as an assistant in the mid-major ranks. Indiana State. Wright State. Evansville. One year at UMKC in 2007-08, and a three-year stint at Drake from 2008-11.
“Kareem cut his teeth at mid-majors,” says Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, one of Richardson’s best friends and a native of Kansas City, Kan. “He understands how to operate at that level.”
When UMKC came calling last spring, Richardson phoned Ray for his thoughts on the job. Ray, a graduate of Sumner, has been away from the area for more than two decades, but he was still familiar with the basketball landscape in Kansas City — and the challenges that awaited at UMKC. In the late ’80s, civic leaders thought a Division I basketball team could infuse downtown Kansas City with a sense of pride, providing something that was lost when the NBA’s Kings left town. But in nearly three decades, the idea hasn’t taken hold.
“You either grow up being a KU fan or a Mizzou fan,” Ray says. “And no one even talks about UMKC. And that’s (Kareem’s) challenge; he’s got to get people excited about UMKC, so when he goes into a local high school there, there’s not the perception that this is a third-class situation.”
When Richardson arrived, he went hard after three recruits from Kansas City. First was Frank Williams, Jr., a 6-6 junior college guard who played his high school ball at Raytown. In turn, Williams helped recruit Martez Harrison, 5-11 guard from Kansas City who had offers from a handful of bigger programs. Finally, Richardson landed 6-10 Isaac Kreuer, a Harrisonville native who flew under the radar while being home-schooled.
“We got to keep the local kids home,” Richardson says.
The program is moving its home games back downtown to Municipal Auditorium, and UMKC chancellor Leo Morton has pushed more resources toward the program. But for the plan to work, Richardson will have to win games on a consistent basis.
“Kids from the city love the city,” says Suther, the director of Mo-Kan basketball. “But it’s just that UMKC has kind of been an afterthought. We’ve had 40-plus kids go Division I over the last five years, and none of them at this point have grown up saying, ‘I want to go to UMKC.’”
“There has to be some momentum. If you made the (NCAA) Tournament, and some good players from here started going there, I think it’d snowball.”
Richardson finishes his final slice of pizza and prepares to head back to the gym. There are more local kids to scout, and more games to watch. And after today, there’s just one day left in the July recruiting period.
For Richardson and UMKC, it’s time to make something happen.