Sam Mellinger

Bud Lathrop, a bronze bust, and one last best chance to say "I love you."

Players from five decades honor Raytown South legendary coach Bud Lathrop

Hundreds of friends and former players of Bud Lathrop, former basketball coach at Raytown South High School come out to honor him on April 21, 2018.
Up Next
Hundreds of friends and former players of Bud Lathrop, former basketball coach at Raytown South High School come out to honor him on April 21, 2018.

Those hands have changed lives, many of them right here in this gym, but the old man wears winter gloves around the clock now. He gets cold easily. The worst is at dialysis, the appointments that save his life three times a week. But here, in this moment, surrounded by all this love and men he coached in seven different decades, he feels joy and pride and his wife thinks a little nervousness.

Enough warmth, too, because off comes a glove and Bud Lathrop grabs the microphone with his right hand to speak in the gym where they once broke fire code to watch his teams, the same place he swore he'd never return.

Lathrop is exactly 3 minutes into the speech, so not yet to the 955 wins or 35 conference titles or four state championships or the official who hosed him in Springfield. Later, the winningest coach in Missouri history will get to the kid who tried to quit, the one he told not to ride a motorcycle and, yes, even one he paddled, but in the middle of a thought about how much he loves his players, he stops short.

"And by the way, you know I haven't passed away," he said. "I still got the 50-year telephone. Three-five-three ..."

We won't include the rest of his number here, because if you know Bud you probably already have it. Your conversations probably end hearing him say I love you, but if you went to what they called the Lathrop Legacy Event at Raytown South High on Saturday, Bud wanted you to leave your number in the guestbook, just in case.

Some 250 or so people showed up. Bud coached boys basketball here the first 45 years Raytown South existed. That's a lot of lives. That's a lot of young men he's pushed, taught, screamed at, encouraged and made run wind sprints.

He used to tell each of them they had a friend as long as they lived. Those players grew up to be his doctors, lawyers, mechanics, financial advisers, his life. He wasn't much older than the kids themselves when he started. Now, he has pictures of some of their grandchildren.

They came here from four time zones to tell stories and see old faces and unveil a bronze bust that will sit in the hallway outside the gym longer than any of them are alive. It was part reunion, part celebration, part healing.

They had no blueprint for this because none knew of something similar. Retirement parties, sure. Plenty of coaches get that. This was different. This was more. Lathrop's 82nd birthday is Sunday. Nobody said this out loud, but there was a collective understanding about how time takes its toll on all of us.

"My dad passed away at 82," said Paul Clegg, class of 1965 and one of the event's organizers. "He always told me, if you have something good to say about people, do it while they're still here.

"I never said that to anybody, but in the back of my mind, I knew and everybody knew. This is your last best chance to let coach know how much you think about him."

Oh my goodness Bud Lathrop has lived a life already. His parents worked hard, taught him the same and when his dad went to fight the Germans in World War II, Bud lived on a farm with his grandparents. Horses, cows, corn. A river ran the next field over, and Bud and his friends swam in it so much they called it their bathtub.

Good athlete, too. A childhood friend joked the only way to keep Bud from shooting was to make him inbound the ball, but the truth is he seemed to make more than he missed as a star at Raytown High in the 1950s. He was good enough that Phog Allen recruited him to Kansas. Bud was a farm boy, though, and the campus felt too big.

"If I'd have known Wilt was coming," Bud said, leaving the thought there for a moment. "You know, that team needed a shooter."

This is how Bud talks. He's proud and funny, but often unintentionally so, and he remembers everything. Remembers specific plays from his days as a star guard for William Jewell, remembers the inbounds pass that cost him a game as a coach, and remembers watching a play as a high school student and telling his friends he was going to marry the gal on stage.

"He says that, but I don't know if it's true," said Gay Lathrop, and they'll be married 60 years in September.

Gay swears she didn't know what their life together would be when they started, which is sort of strange to hear, because to most of us Bud was always meant to be a mean, loving, intimidating, embracing, wildly successful coach.

They've got stories. Oh, brother, they've got stories. There was the time he was so mad after a game he made the guys practice an hour and a half when the bus got back to school, and that was after a win.

"The girls will still be there when you're done," Bud told them.

Or the time a kid came into Bud's office to quit. He threw his bag down on the floor. Bud picked it up and threw it back, saying: "You're not quitting anything," he said. "Now get out of here."

Or the time Bud drove back from Columbia in the middle of the state tournament because an old player was coaching his first-grade girl's basketball team and invited Lathrop to watch.

At one time, Bud was one of Kansas City's best-known sports stars, at any level. From 1967 to 1994, his teams won every conference title but one. After Chris Lindley's accident, Lathrop had the team over to his house, and asked them whether they'd respect all the work they'd put in. They finished that season as undefeated state champs.

The end was ugly. In 2003, his 42nd season at Ray South, he was suspended after a reporter from The Star saw him swatting players with a wooden paddle as part of a free-throw drill. That paddle was legend around Ray South, but even back in the 1980s he was told to knock it off.

The next year, he was suspended again, this time for language at practice, and told The Star he was quitting. He even cleaned out his desk. A few players helped him take his stuff to his Lincoln Town Car. But he'd threatened to quit before, too. He always came back.

He quit for good in 2006. His last team won the conference, again, and they had a retirement party in the gym where people said a lot of nice things but it wasn't the same. Lathrop had long lost trust in parts of the administration, and told friends he'd never go back to the gym.

We talked about all of this last week. Full disclosure: I was the reporter who saw the paddling in 2003. When the suspension came down, Bud was mad at a lot of people, presumably me included. But he called that night, said he didn't blame me, and even invited me over to talk about everything the next day.

I don't know exactly why he did that. Hopefully he thought I was fair. Maybe he knew the paddling was fine in the 1960s, but out of place in the 2000s. Mostly, I think he just wanted to be heard, to be understood. I've always thought it said something about who Bud is.

I think it's the same part of his personality that made him call me with one more thought after we'd talked for an hour or so this week to leave a voicemail.

"Hey Sam, this is Bud. Anyway, you know the players think they're honoring me. Well, I'm the one that's honored. To be able to tell them one more time how much I love them. So, it's my honor. Had some great kids, Sam, over all these years. OK, if you want to call Gay, she's home. Anyway Sam, OK. Yeah, bye."

Bud and Gay moved. Not far, but they did move. Happened about four years ago, after Gay's tailbone broke. They were in the car and saw a stray, pregnant dog, and stopped to help and somehow Gay twisted her back and her tailbone broke and, anyway, they wanted a house with no stairs.

Gay is caring for him now, same as he did with her through the tailbone and a cancer diagnosis, and if you see them together you see true love. They laugh at each other's jokes, roll their eyes at each other's quirks, and generally cannot see life without the other.

Bud calls her the greatest person he's ever known. Gay has kept a laminated newspaper clipping of Bud in her wallet for 40 years. She was a freshman in high school when they met. She looks at him now, slower and thinner with less hair than he used to have, and for decades she's told everyone she knows she sees the same face from their wedding day.

"This is just what you do," Gay said.

Bud spends most of his time in a blue recliner with a remote he uses to shift his weight and help himself up when he needs it. Ice chips and his cell phone and a landline phone — three-five-three... — sit on a small table to his right, ready for phone calls from old players and friends. Across the room is a quilt made for him out of a bunch of old Ray South basketball T-shirts.

"That's about my life in that quilt there," he said.

Some of his old players joke you never call Bud to talk. You call Bud to listen. Most times, listening takes an hour or so, and it's usually a mix of old stories from old games and the kind of advice young people are smart to hold onto.

"Life goes by so fast," he said. "Seems like only yesterday I was 30. I'm telling you this: Have fun. Go do the things you'd like to do. Because life is so short. When you're younger, you don't realize it. But most of the time I was doing the thing that I liked."

This week, one of his first players came by. Greg Hall is 72 years old now, a grandpa, but he still calls Bud "coach," and Bud still calls Greg, "one of my kids." They were about an hour into the conversation — into the listening — when Greg leaned in.

"You coached me all these years, so now let me coach you," Hall remembered saying. "Please, all of us, we just want you to relax on Saturday. Don't do too much. Don't feel like you need to look strong. Just sit there in a chair, shake hands and talk and let us tell you how much you've meant."

Gay knows her man as completely as it's possible to know another human being. But even 24 hours before the event, she didn't know if Bud could do that. He didn't want to look, well, old.

"He's proud," she said. "He's the one who was always in charge."

The men who love Bud Lathrop started showing up an hour early. They were white and black, some in their 20s and others in their 70s. Some needed help walking. Others carried small children. They wore suits and sweats, with memories as old as Mound City in the 1950s and as fresh as at Kansas City East Christian Academy just a few years ago.

Enough of them came that they ran out of programs and name tags. If Bud was apprehensive about how his time in this building ended, he shouldn't have been. Too many people love him, and besides, one of the organizers was the district's former head of human resources who spent much of the 2000s in court. If he was sheepish about his health, he didn't need to be. A coach's strength never really leaves the minds of those he touched.

"Uh oh," Clegg said when the mic went out during the program. "Coach is going to make me run wind sprints."

They brought in a backup, and when it was Bud's turn he used notes on a sheet of computer paper that Gay helped him keep flat. He professed love for at least 31 people by name, many many more by description, and to him that was the whole point of this weekend. But it wouldn't have been Bud if he didn't get into some old play.

This one came in a game against Oak Park, with Lathrop's team inbounding under the opponent's basket. The wrong guy took the pass, which ended up bouncing off a foot and the wrong way, turning a win into a loss, and no coach has ever won a lot of games without being bothered by the ones he lost.

"Anyway," he said. "I could tell you about a whole bunch of games."

He probably wasn't done talking, but the people who love him laughed a familiar laugh, stood to their feet and applauded. Bud handed the microphone over. The rest of the stories would be told to smaller audiences.

  Comments