MONROE, Ohio — The gym at Monroe High School has 1,250 seats. An administrative decision was made that 1,400 tickets would be sold for last Friday night’s basketball game vs. league rival Franklin.
At 6:36, before halftime of the junior varsity game and about an hour before the varsity game, the public address announcer took to the microphone and asked fans already in their seats to "please scoot a little closer together. Please get comfortable with your neighbor."
Late arrivers who knew the right people were ushered to the balcony; others had to stand on the baselines, where some were two deep. Within 20 minutes, another announcement was made that the gym was totally sold out and people were being turned away.
They’d have to come see Luke Kennard on another night.
It’s possible that only 1,399 came to last Friday’s game. It’s not likely.
Luke Kennard poses with fans after a game.
Kennard is drawing crowds the way he draws double and triple teams. A junior at Franklin, just south of Dayton, the 6’5 (and growing) Kennard has emerged as one of the best college basketball prospects in the country. In the moment — and in these neighborhoods — he’s the best high school basketball player many have ever seen, possibly the best high school basketball player in Ohio right now and undeniably the reason all of Franklin’s games are attracting the attention of basketball people far and wide and the local fire marshal.
Twelve games into the regular season, Kennard is averaging a shade under 40 points per game. Franklin is 10-2, Kennard is totally re-writing the school record books with essentially a season and a half still left to play and even college coaches who come to see his games have to call in advance.
"It’s kind of picked up a little bit this year with the attention and the recruiting and all that," Kennard said after he scored 37 points to push his team to a win over Monroe. "I enjoy it. I’m used to it. After the summer and the exposure with the different colleges…I guess the word’s gotten out. I’ve just been working on my game."
He’s been working on his autograph, too.
Like just about every other young basketball player in America, Kennard wears Beats By Dre headphones before his games. Kennard usually has to take his off before he gets to the locker room, though. He’s almost always getting stopped and asked for pictures and autographs.
After games, the demand is even higher. Postgame interviews have to be conducted in the locker room because people are waiting for a moment with Kennard, and after road games a bus driver is waiting.
Luke Kennard signs autographs for fans after a game.
"This whole thing is a once in a lifetime deal," Franklin coach Brian Bales said. "It’s great for our community. It’s great for our school. Obviously, it’s an incredible chance for a coach, too. And he takes coaching. He works on his game. He loves his teammates. You couldn’t ask for anything better."
On the court, Kennard plays point guard. The ball being in his hands is best for the team; it happens that it’s best for the audience, too. In just about every game, Franklin and Kennard get not only a sold out crowd but the opponent’s best shot. The games with Franklin get circled on everybody’s schedule.
The two things he hears most often from opposing student sections are chants of "overrated" and "Justin Bieber." Once the games start, one usually becomes invalid.
"I get the Bieber thing a lot," Kennard said. "And I laugh at it. That’s pretty good."
The first sign that Kennard is special isn’t found in any numbers. It’s that he’s a darn good quarterback, too, a right-handed passer who can throw it 50 yards down the field.
He’s a left-handed basketball player. He’s adept with both hands and a good enough ball handler to think he could play point guard in college, too, if necessary, but he’s a left-handed shooter. He writes right-handed, eats right-handed, even prefers to pass a basketball right-handed. But he shoots it with his left hand.
And he’s making 45 percent of his 3-point tries on the season.
"Luke is an excellent shooter, but he’s more than that," Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Snow said. "He does everything well. He has an elite skill as a shooter, and when you have a complete player with good athleticism and an elite skill, it’s easy to see why every college program in the country would love to have him."
Luke’s father, Mark, said his son could dropkick a football when he was 18 months old. When Luke first picked up a basketball, he dribbled and shot it with his left hand. When Luke got older, Mark asked Luke to focus on dribbling with his right
"People say I’m nuts, but at three or four years old he not only always had a ball in his hands — he knew what to do with it," Mark Kennard said. "I never pushed it on him, but he never wanted toys. He wanted a ball."
He’s not playing elite competition in most of Franklin’s games, but he is the focal point of every defense. There are no concerns about his level of high school competition, Snow said, because he’s proven himself while playing for the King James AAU program in the spring and summer.
"Everyone’s seen him against the best of the best and put up big numbers then, too," Snow said.
A knee injury forced Kennard to miss a game at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach in December. Franklin lost to a powerful Cincinnati Moeller team, 88-34.
"He’s started 56 games for us and we’ve won 50 of them," Bales said. "That’s the ultimate stat."
The buzz is growing, but it’s nothing new. Franklin had an undefeated regular season when Kennard was a freshman, and one conference road game sold out before the end of the school day. Police were waiting outside the school to escort the Franklin team in, and Bales looked out the bus window to see people — "students and adults," he said — selling tickets they’d previously purchased, trying to make a buck.
"Scalping tickets for one of our games," Bales said. "I chuckled about that, then when we went in I saw a bunch of young kids in the school just star struck, watching Luke’s every move. That’s when it hit me that we were in for a ride."
This weekend, Franklin plays in the annual Flyin’ To The Hoop, a four-day, 22-game affair bringing elite high school basketball teams and prospects from across the country into the Dayton area. An Ohio team plays in 21 of the 22 games, many of which feature prep schools and basketball factories and big-city, big-dollar traveling teams — or maybe some combination of the three.
That’s not Franklin. Kennard is on course to become the school’s first Div. I college basketball player in more than 20 years.
In the crowd last Friday, folks who might have been total strangers before heeding the PA announcer’s wish to scoot a little closer talked about Luke’s dad, Mark, setting records at Franklin in the early 1980s, some of which were broken by Mark’s brother, Todd. Luke passed all of his dad’s numbers last season, and probably before the end of the first quarter this friday he’ll pass his uncle and become the school’s all-time scoring leader.
At one point, two men started running down the list of college coaches they thought they’d seen at Franklin games this season. It wasn’t an argument as much as it was a loose recollection; truth be damned, even if Kentucky and West Virginia and Florida weren’t in the building on the same night, some high-profile coaches had been around. Ohio state’s Thad Matta had posed for pictures, Kentucky’s John Calipari had been in more than once and the third-most prevalent color scheme in Monroe’s gym last Friday night, behind each team’s colors, was the Kentucky blue and white. Dozens of fans wore Kentucky sweatshirts or jackets, either hoping to attract Kennard’s attention or be prepared in case Calipari made another appearance.
"I’ve noticed that," Luke said, laughing.
Mark Kennard’s parents are from Kentucky. Luke grew up rooting for Kentucky, and he’s visited Kentucky for games this season. Luke said he doesn’t have a college favorite "but I do have a list…of five or six schools." He’d like to make a decision this spring but has enough on his plate now.
Averaging 40 points a game defies probability. One-thousand points in a high school career is quite a milestone; It’s not likely but it is possible that at his current clip, Kennard could have a 1,000-point season.
"I don’t have a certain number in mind, and I promise I have no idea what I have during the game," Kennard said. "I do what I can to help us win. When we need two, I try to go get it. "
After the games, he tries to oblige every picture and autograph request.
"He just gets it," Bales said. "He has that ‘it’ factor, and I don’t know if that sounds cheesy or it can be explained, but he does. He gets it."
Luke Kennard also carries a 4.3 grade-point average, is a member of the National Honor Society and laughs about being called Justin Bieber. He admits thinking about college but is busy loving being in high school.
"I think my job as a dad is to make sure he doesn’t feel like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders," Mark Kennard said. "And most of the time, I really think he doesn’t. He loves his teammates, loves competing, just wants to win the next game.
"I think he gets a little nervous before games when these coaches come in, and I understand. But once the games start, he just plays."
On the night North Carolina coach Roy Williams flew in early this month, Kennard broke his own school record with a 53-point game. He also had 16 rebounds. Last Sunday, Kennard and his father and some friends sat behind Ohio State’s bench for the Buckeyes game vs. Iowa. The next day, Louisville coach Rick Pitino came to Franklin to watch practice.
Mark Kennard said he’d expect a college decision "in May or June. We’ll see what happens in the spring."
For the Kennards, January, February and at least part of March are booked.