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His days growing up in Spearville sometimes feel like a lifetime ago to Willie Cauley-Stein.
He doesn’t think much about the odds of a 7-footer destined for basketball stardom emerging from the small Western Kansas town with a population of around 800.
Cauley-Stein has seen and done a lot of things since his days in Spearville: star for the University of Kentucky, be drafted No. 6 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, and most recently, sign a contract to join the Golden State Warriors.
But it wasn’t until he returned to Spearville this past spring to attend the funeral of the man who raised him, Val Stein, his grandfather, that its impact on Cauley-Stein was truly realized. Cauley-Stein took time to talk to The Eagle about Spearville after being introduced as a Warrior to the media at the NBA Summer League this week.
“Those were the first people who believed in me, the first people who allowed me to grow and allowed me to make mistakes,” Cauley-Stein said. “Giving back to my community, I don’t think I did that enough when I was younger. Now when I went back it was like, ‘What was I doing?’
“I have wasted so much money on material things when I could have been changing the community that brought me up. It didn’t even hit me until I didn’t have that contract anymore. I was like, ‘Hold up, wait a second. What am I trying to accomplish, legacy-wise?’”
The first plan of action for Spearville? Build a grocery store. Currently residents have to drive 17 miles to Dodge City for groceries.
“I’d like to put like a Dollar General or a Dollar Tree or whatever there,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve been wanting to go back now and just build stuff. Stuff they need.”
As Cauley-Stein has grown older (he turns 26 in August), his world view has expanded and so has his thinking about where he came from.
Before the face tattoos and legally changing his middle name to “Trill,” Cauley-Stein was a shy, quiet boy growing up in Spearville. His mother sent him to live there with his grandparents when he was a boy.
Spearville is where Cauley-Stein was raised, where he grew into his own and most importantly, where he learned how to play basketball. To this day, he credits his upbringing for the fundamentals he still uses in the NBA.
“Playing basketball in a small town in Kansas, you learn to play the game the right way,” Cauley-Stein said. “There isn’t any 1-on-1 iso ball. It was everyone is moving, everyone touches the ball and it doesn’t matter who shoots as long as it goes in. Growing up in that environment and learning to play the game the right way made that transition to college way easier. I already knew how to play the game the right way and some guys didn’t because all they knew was that 1-on-1 stuff.”
Cauley-Stein, who was already 6-8 as a freshman, was still raw as a basketball player when he reached high school, but his potential was undeniable. He averaged 13.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks for Spearville during his sophomore season, leading the Royal Lancers to their first state tournament since 1997 with the team finishing with a 21-2 record.
Back then, everyone in Spearville was convinced Cauley-Stein would be a star.
“I remember when I was like in the seventh grade, one of my friends was like, ‘Here sign this because you’re going to be famous one day,’” Cauley-Stein said. “I signed it and she still has it to this day. I looked at it and man, that was a terrible signature, like a really, really terrible signature.
“I didn’t really like thinking about stuff like that back then, but I think everyone else kind of knew.”
Cauley-Stein finished his final two years of high school at Olathe Northwest, a Class 6A school in the Kansas City area and a significant bump up from the past 2A competition. 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.
But Cauley-Stein continued to be a standout on the basketball court and even the football field, as he caught 57 passes and 14 touchdowns during his senior year to earn All-Class 6A honors from The Eagle.
“I still kind of miss being able to pad up and get frustrations out if you need to,” Cauley-Stein said laughing.
Cauley-Stein played three years at Kentucky, as he was part of the team his junior year that won its first 38 games before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. In the NBA, Cauley-Stein became a full-time starting center the last two seasons for the Kings. He averaged 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds in 2018, then followed it up by averaging 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds this past season.
His 4-year contract worth $15.4 million with the Kings expired after this past season, right around the time when his grandfather passed away. It was a crossroads for Cauley-Stein, both professionally and personally.
It was during that time when he realized he was motivated by the wrong things: clothes, jewelry, status. That’s why he signed a one-year contract with the Warriors, he wants to use this season as a springboard to earn a longer and larger contract next summer. And this time, it’s not for designer clothes — Cauley-Stein has things he wants to do his hometown.
Returning to Spearville provided that clarity.
“I needed it,” Cauley-Stein said of his return. “I was in a place where I was just sad. Being back home kind of got me motivated. Now I know what I need to do. It’s time to go back to work. I saw my people struggling and that hit home for me. I just got a lot of stuff I want to get done now.”