WELLSTON, Mo. — The Normandy High School cafeteria doors opened to a startlingly similar face.
Same eyes. Same hair. Same smile.
Kevin McLemore stood no chance of blending in.
“Around here, everybody knows I’m Ben’s brother,” he said.
He doesn’t much mind the attention that comes with being Ben McLemore’s look-alike younger sibling. Instead, the Normandy High School senior credits the the University of Kansas star for giving him, and plenty of others in this neighborhood, someone to look up to.
“People tell me they aspire to be him,” Kevin McLemore said. “They want to be just like him. I tell them, ‘Yeah, you can.'”
In an area long on problems and short on positive role models, Ben McLemore — the redshirt freshman sensation who will likely turn his pursuit of this season’s NCAA Championship into one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft — has become an inspiration.
The sweet-shooting guard who leads the Jayhawks with 16.4 points per game is the sign young men with big basketball dreams need. He’s what some in the roughest parts of the St. Louis area seek, the affirmation that a better life can be achieved through the game.
For proof, meet Ben McLemore’s youngest brother.
The Normandy High campus is a collection of tidy red brick buildings nestled behind a black iron fence.
Clean concrete paths crisscross a grass courtyard. One leads to Viking Hall Arena, the school’s gymnasium that currently doubles as a theater for the production of The Color Purple. The other stretches toward a spotless cafeteria where Normandy recently held its winter sports banquet.
On this night, the members of the Vikings boys’ basketball team were the heroes. Players picked up their varsity letters and reminisced about a second-place finish in this season’s Class 4 state championship game, the first time a Normandy team had played for the title since 1951.
Dwight Whitfield stood in the back, behind the carrot sticks and chocolate chip cookies, his face toward the windows that overlooked the lawn. The husband of Wellston’s mayor, Linda Whitfield, said he knew what kind of trouble could be found just outside of those black iron bars.
Drugs. Gangs. Violence.
Whitfield has watched bad cut good kids down. He saw it happen to Kevin and Ben McLemore’s oldest brother, Keith Scott — who was arrested in 2008 and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for a series of felonies.
“He got caught up in something,” Whitfield said of Scott, the man who used to help him coach Ben and Kevin McLemore’s youth baseball team.
Normandy boys’ basketball coach Terrence Hamilton has witnessed it, too.
It’s why he got out of East St. Louis as a teenager and turned a junior-college basketball scholarship into two more years at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. He turned that into a short playing career in Australia, but returned after his knees went and he couldn’t keep up.
“Basketball has taken me out of the ghetto and around the world,” he said.
It also brought him back, complete with a new perspective and a college education. Hamilton encourages his players at Normandy to pursue the same.
“These are life-changing decisions,” he said, standing a few feet from his players. “The decision you make at 17 years old may be a $50,000 decision when you get out of college. You need to think about how much it impacts your family, how much it affects your adulthood — if you get a job. It’s more than just basketball. It’s a way out.”
Ben McLemore’s way out was a KU scholarship — one that landed him in Lawrence, Kan., after a flurry of moves that included two transfers to out-of-state schools. Previously, his hometown high school, Wellston High, had been closed after it failed to reach Missouri’s academic standards. His transcript had issues, and the NCAA declared him academically ineligible.
As Ben McLemore waited out a redshirt season at KU last year, Kevin McLemore — who joined former Wellston students in the merger with nearby Normandy High — continued his own battle with academics.
And it nearly cost him a chance to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
He had been banned from the gym.
Kevin McLemore skipped so many classes and caused so much trouble that Normandy’s athletic director, Daron Williams, told him he could no longer enter Viking Hall Arena.
Academic ineligibility kept him out of games for a year and a half — his entire sophomore season and his first semester as a junior.
“I think he thought the world owed him something,” Hamilton said. “He came in, was foolish in the classroom and had discipline problems.”
Then, something changed.
“All of a sudden, the light came on,” Hamilton said. “He started going to class. He started listening and paying attention. He’s made a remarkable turnaround.”
Part of the difference, Kevin McLemore says, was advice from an older brother who had bought into the importance of hard work in the college classroom.
“He said not to follow in his footsteps— with the grades,” Kevin McLemore said. “I got back on track. And he did, too. He’s my big brother. So, I’ve got to follow him.”
His grades improved and his eligibility problems cleared. Finally, he would get to show what Ben McLemore’s little brother could do.
Hamilton coached against Ben McLemore just once, back before Wellston High closed for good.
The Normandy coach had a game plan for the area all-star, a secret that led to a Vikings’ win.
He knew Ben McLemore’s weakness was his willingness to trust inferior teammates. He told his players to send two defenders flying at Ben McLemore every time he touched the ball. They hounded him, and he always passed. The result made Ben McLemore a non-factor.
“We ran people at him all night, and he gave it up,” Hamilton said. “I was glad he was so unselfish.”
When Kevin McLemore arrived, Hamilton encountered a different player. He is much smaller than his brother (5-foot-11, 160 pounds), but more aggressive.
“Kevin is really, really nasty,” Hamilton said. “He gets after you. Ben is more of a nice guy who kills you silently. Kevin wants to take your ball, be up in your face. He wants to yell and holler.”
The tenacious point guard made the most out of a year and a half of eligibility. As a senior, he earned All-State honors and averaged 13.7 points, 2.5 assists and 2.7 steals.
Due to the youngest McLemore’s rocky academic past, his next move will likely be to a prep school or junior college. But Hamilton believes that’s just a first step.
“In two years, Kevin will be a Division I point guard,” Hamilton said. “He has that kind of skill.”
The Ben McLemore effect is real.
Kansas jerseys are worn in Normandy High hallways and KU watch parties are scheduled in Wellston. The neighborhood basketball court where the hometown hero honed his jumper is full of those hoping to do the same.
“Ben’s success has rubbed off on everybody,” Hamilton said. “When you have someone like that you can actually see and touch, it makes you believe you can do it.”
That’s certainly been the case for Kevin McLemore.
He’s been to Allen Fieldhouse, where his ears went numb from the noise. He’s watched his brother overcome and succeed, then mirrored that success. He’s even signed autographs for strangers who base their requests solely on the assumption that someone who looks so much like Ben McLemore just has to be a star one day.
Maybe he will.
His family, his coach and his neighborhood are behind him. And his brother has shown him, and others, the way.
“I came from nothing,” Kevin McLemore said. “Now, I’m on the road to becoming something.”
You can follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter @Ben_Fred or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org