Late in the first half of Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament game against Cincinnati, 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein found an open alley, took a pass in stride and finished a flying slam dunk that became the signature play of the Wildcats’ victory.
The path that led to this beautiful basketball moment and so many others created by Cauley-Stein has reached Indianapolis, where the Wildcats are preparing for the Final Four and becoming college basketball’s first 40-0 men’s team.
But the path to Cauley-Stein becoming one of the nation’s top players and NBA prospects started in a tiny town in western Kansas, where he was raised by his grandparents, and traversed through Olathe, where he got an assist from one of the Kansas City Chiefs’ greatest players.
“He’s had a lot of people looking out for him and caring for him,” said Valen “Val” Stein,” Willie’s grandfather. “He probably wouldn’t be where he’s at now if it weren’t for that.”
Most of Cauley-Stein’s Kentucky teammates are products of a system that identifies talent at an early age and grooms players for big-time college and professional basketball.
Cauley-Stein grew up mostly outside of that world, even as he grew tall and agile in Spearville, Kan., where much of the working population in a town of about 800 commutes to Dodge City, 17 miles to the west.
Not ticketed for basketball stardom at an early age, Cauley-Stein’s development may have been delayed. It caused others to question his love for the game, a notion that brings a sharp response.
“If I didn’t love the game, why would I play at the University of Kentucky? Why would I ever come here?” Cauley-Stein said. “That bugs me when people ask me that, ‘Why don’t you love the game?’”
But because he was not immersed in the youth basketball culture, Cauley-Stein was free to set his priorities, which helped shape his personality and world view.
Kentucky lists Cauley-Stein’s major as art studio, and when the team played in the Bahamas before this season, he showed up in a T-shirt with his initials in block letters across his chest. Later he said it was his own design and has admitted to a yen for fashion.
“If you focus on one thing, you’re going to get bored with it or eventually get burned out if it,” Cauley-Stein said. “My grandparents taught me when I was younger to be involved in a whole bunch of different things.”
This was no problem for Kentucky.
“You know what that makes him?” said Orlando Antigua, the South Florida coach who recruited Cauley-Stein as a Kentucky assistant. “A unique person. That doesn’t mean he’s not a great basketball player, because he is.”
During his interview to become the basketball coach at Spearville High School, Jerrod Stanford got a rundown of the roster he’d inherit. The overall talent was good and an athletic, growing freshman was arriving.
“But, I remember being told he also had a lot of other interests and he might not go out for basketball,” Stanford said.
Sports were merely another diversion for a young Willie Cauley-Stein and his other brother, Bryce, who grew up in the home of Val and Norma Stein. The boys lived with their mother, Marlene, in Oklahoma City when they were younger, but her long working hours made her life difficult. The boys went to live with their grandparents in Spearville, and that became their home.
Marlene remains a large part of the boys’ lives and gets to as many games as she can, Val said. She and Cauley-Stein’s father, Willie Cauley, were basketball standouts, she at St. Mary of the Plains in Dodge City, which has since closed, and he at Dodge City Community College and for one season at the University of Pittsburgh.
Cauley-Stein entered the eighth grade standing 6 feet 2. When Stanford met him for the first time in June before his freshman year, Cauley-Stein had grown to 6-6.
When he suited up for the first time that season, he was 6-8.
“We printed a game program with the roster with heights one day, and the next day it was wrong,” Stanford said.
Under Kansas High School State Athletic Association rules, basketball players can play as many as six quarters per day, and Spearville got the most from Cauley-Stein, using him for half of the junior-varsity game and the entire varsity game. By the end of the year, Cauley-Stein was a varsity-only player and made all-conference.
His sophomore season would be even better. Cauley-Stein averaged 13.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks, and one game in particular stood out to Stanford, who is now an assistant coach at Fort Hays State.
Spearville’s Royal Lancers played Hoisington, which featured freshman big man Cody Stetler, who would go on to play at Houston Baptist.
In a big test, Cauley-Stein had perhaps the best game of his high school career, certainly his best in a Spearville uniform, with 34 points, 22 rebounds, six blocks and four assists in a 65-44 victory.
“He’d block a shot, get the rebound, start the break and hit anybody who was open or take it in for a dunk,” Stanford said. “It was one of those days when you knew he was going to be a special player.”
And it marked one of those moments when Stanford believed an earlier conversation with Cauley-Stein had paid off. Before the budding star ever put on a Spearville uniform, Stanford had mapped out a course of action.
“That first year, we had upperclassmen who could score, so I wanted for Willie to work on his defense and fundamentals,” Stanford said. “My thinking was, if he could become a great defensive player, learned the right way to block shots, guard ball screens in different ways, then he could be an average scorer and still get his college paid for.”
The idea would be to use the final two years of Cauley-Stein’s Spearville career to hone his offensive skills and bring it together in a total package.
It never happened. The Royal Lancers, in their first state tournament since 1997, went 21-1 during the season but were upset in the Kansas Class 2A first round.
Cauley-Stein had played his final game for Spearville.
Even with Spearville on the jersey, basketball prospects don’t go unnoticed. But they have to travel.
A big moment for Cauley-Stein occurred in the summer after his freshman season. Stanford took seven Royal Lancers to a team camp at Kansas State, and they knocked off several large-class schools from Kansas and Missouri, including a Raytown South team with Division I prospects, including future Baylor signee Ish Wainright.
That’s where Matt Suther, founder of the Overland Park-based MoKan Elite AAU program, first saw Cauley-Stein.
“You saw the raw athletic talent,” Suther said. “He hadn’t played a ton of ball in his life, but you could see the athleticism. He could run like a deer. He wasn’t very confident in his offensive game, but he could block shots with agility.”
Cauley-Stein joined MoKan and became good friends with one of his teammates, Shavon Shields, the son of former Chiefs star offensive lineman Will Shields, who’s headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer. Cauley-Stein would stay with the Shieldses on weekends.
The occasional visitor soon became a resident. Cauley-Stein moved in with the Shields family and attended Olathe Northwest for his junior and senior seasons. The primary reason: academics.
“I needed what the (Olathe) classes offered,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s why I moved.”
Cauley-Stein buckled down in the Shields’ home and was treated as one of the children, along with Shavon, Solomon and a daughter, Sanayika, There were curfews and discipline, and above all there was studying, guided by Senia, Will’s wife.
“She made all of the kids work hard in school,” Will Shields said. “There was no messing around with that.”
Shavon Shields and Cauley-Stein helped Olathe Northwest to a 20-2 record and a substate final in 2012. By then, Shields had signed with his father’s alma mater, Nebraska, and Cauley-Stein with Kentucky, though Kentucky coach John Calipari’s first impression wasn’t a memorable one.
He had visited an AAU game with Antigua, who along with current aide Kenny Payne had done the early recruiting of Cauley-Stein.
“I saw him at an AAU game and he got two points and, like, a rebound,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘He’s got a chance, but my gosh, two points in an AAU game,’ and other team wasn’t that good.”
Calipari’s subsequent trips to see Cauley-Stein changed his mind. It wasn’t a basketball game. There was a whiffle ball game (“He was a hell of a whiffle ball player,” Calipari said), a kickball game and a football game. He saw Cauley-Stein play wide receiver for the Ravens, and playing it well.
Transfer rules caused Cauley-Stein to miss the football season and first five basketball games of his junior year at Olathe Northwest, but he was terrific on the gridiron as a senior, catching 57 passes and 14 touchdowns. He was chosen to The Star’s All-Metro team and was a finalist for the Otis Taylor Award as the best wide receiver in the Kansas City area.
For Spearville’s eight-man team, Cauley-Stein caught seven touchdown passes in two seasons. Had he stopped growing in the eighth grade, Cauley-Stein might have become a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I love football,” Cauley Stein said. “Still do.”
While at Spearville, Cauley-Stein took unofficial visits to several colleges, including Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State. His official visits taken in fall of his senior year were to Kentucky, Kansas State, Florida and Alabama.
Kansas wasn’t in the picture. The Jayhawks signed Perry Ellis that year and had targeted Kaleb Tarczewski, who signed with Arizona, and were set with big men for the next couple of years with Jeff Withey in 2013 and Joel Embiid in 2014.
Kansas State was Cauley-Stein’s last official visit, and he committed to Kentucky soon after.
By the Rivals.com prospect rankings system, Cauley-Stein was the lowest-rated player of the four in Kentucky’s recruiting class, behind Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress, No. 40 nationally.
“The way he moved his feet, run and jump the way he did for his size, you don’t see that every day,” Antigua said. “You saw tremendous upside.”
From Cauley-Stein, there were nerves. The Wildcats were coming off the Anthony Davis-led NCAA championship victory over Kansas. Expectations are enormous for any player recruited by the program.
The team floundered to an NIT season, but Cauley-Stein had a promising year, getting 14 starts and making the Southeastern Conference’s all-freshman team. The next season, he blocked 106 shots, the second most in Kentucky history and missed the team’s final three NCAA Tournament games after suffering an ankle injury.
After the NCAA championship game loss to Connecticut, Calipari fully expected Cauley-Stein to depart for the draft, bum ankle and all.
“I hugged him and said, ‘Hey, congrats man,’” Calipari said. “The next day he came in said, ‘I want to come back.’
“I asked him why? He said. ‘I can graduate, I’m not ready to go to the league, and the third thing, I want to win a championship.’ Three very good reasons.”
Barring a major upset, the last one is about to become the first to happen. As for the NBA, the early projections have Cauley-Stein, a unanimous first-team All-American, as a top-10 selection, which would make him the earliest draft call by a former Kansas high school player since Danny Manning of Lawrence was drafted first overall in 1988.
Wherever he ends up, an NBA team will get a 7-footer from a small Kansas town who didn’t build his life around basketball but is playing about as well as any college player in the game and enjoying every moment.
“I couldn’t imagine not playing this game,” he said.