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March Sadness

He’s won more high school basketball games than any other coach in Missouri. But he’s losing his grip.


Raytown South High School basketball coach Bud Lathrop faces his team. His game plan covers the dry-erase board behind him, a series of now-useless scribbles.

It's a couple of hours before midnight on Friday, February 25. As they slump across rows of orange chairs, Lathrop's players can hear muffled cheers from the adjacent locker room. Sophomore George Goode fidgets with his cell phone. Junior Roderick Pearson, eyes watering, plugs a pair of thick diamond studs back into his ear lobes. Senior Paul Hawkins pulls his red jersey over his face and curls into a ball on the floor, crying.

Lathrop's coaching technique has earned him a double-edged reputation. After nearly a half-century of court time, he reached a milestone 900 wins in January 2004. But most people in town know him as the coach who got in trouble for using a wooden paddle on players who missed free throws during practice. That strategy -- results through physical punishment -- has tainted Lathrop's achievements and made him a celebrity in the sports-hungry metro; he's been a favorite subject of Kansas City Star sportswriters and a frequent guest on sports-talk radio.

This past December, Lathrop announced that he would retire from the Raytown South program after school administrators slapped him with a three-week suspension for cussing at his players. But he returned a few weeks later, saying he'd like to finish the year. Maybe even coach another. He wanted to be known as a winner, not a quitter.

During practice, Lathrop manhandles his players, pushing them into defensive formations like he's moving life-size chess pieces. He shouts at them nose-to-nose. His pep talks lean toward condescension: No one gets to wee-wee down their leg. Follow me and you'll be all right. Tonight, after his Cardinals fell behind 9-15 in the first quarter, he called timeout and yelled at the team to just shut up. The crowd laughed nervously. Then he elbowed sophomore guard Karl Parker in the chest so hard that people in the third-row bleachers could hear the pop.

Join the Cardinals and you learn one fact first: Your coach is the winningest in Missouri high school basketball history. He'll drill this into you all season. Other constant reminders: He's been coaching for 46 years, 44 of those at Raytown South. He closed out last season with a record of 911-291. He's produced 22 All-State athletes, more than all the other teams in his conference combined. He's earned 33 of the last 39 conference championships, 22 district titles, 4 state championships (1970, '72, '77 and '90) and sent 190 kids to college with full-ride basketball scholarships.

The gymnasium pays homage to Lathrop's legacy. Its hallways are lined with team photos, trophy cases and a 3-foot-by-5-foot photo of his 1990 state championship team. The names of his All-Staters hang on flag-sized banners from the rafters. In the stairwell from the locker room to the court, each step has been painted with a year he won the conference championship. In a ceremony usually reserved for retired heroes, the gym was renamed to honor him in 1995.

At games, the stands fill with characters from different eras of Lathrop's reign. Tonight, some students are dressed like the campus legend, clad in slacks and red-and-white polo shirts. A trio of now-middle-aged men from Blue Springs has been coming since the '80s, convinced that Kansas City pro teams were perennial losers and looking to cheer instead for a winner. Some nights there are other high school coaches, such as Steve Koesterer of Bishop Miege, who says Lathrop's games are coaching clinics. Sometimes there's former University of Missouri-Columbia coach Norm Stewart, who considers Lathrop a friend. And recruiters from pro-sponsored summer leagues and Big 12 powerhouses, such as Oklahoma and Kansas.

Tonight is the district championship against top-seeded Lee's Summit North, one of the last teams to stall Ray-South's drive to the state championship. The Cardinals' season has followed a Hoosiers-like script: After losing key players to academic ineligibility, the short-stature team played sound fundamentals, sparking a five-game winning streak to clinch the conference title and then sniping a larger, more physical team (Raytown Peculiar) to make it to the finals.

To prepare for tonight, Lathrop spent more than four hours in his basement studying game film. He had tried to learn every detail about his opponents, down to which players were right- or left-handed. His attack strategy would draw defenders away from the key to give his men an open runway toward the basket. To disarm Lee's Summit North's shooters, he had choreographed a defense -- one that collapsed instantly.

On the last night of possibly his last season, Lathrop looks tired. He limps when he walks, his face is craggy, his gray hair patchy, his eyes bloodshot. Among the kids surrounding him, some have tattoos, some wear headbands cocked on the backs of their heads, and some rap freestyle in the locker room.

Lathrop is a legendary disciplinarian. Tonight his kids didn't follow his instructions, and they lost. This was not the storybook ending he'd returned to live out.

Just about everyone has questions about whether the old man is still fit to lead this next generation.

In mid-December, Lathrop boxed up his office, pulling down the framed, sepia-toned pictures of former players and packing the few books on his desk, including memoirs by Gen. George S. Patton. He took the memorabilia home to his bunkerlike basement (another shrine festooned with news clippings and photos). He sat in his red-leather chair to contemplate his future.

It was the second time he'd gone AWOL this season, says assistant coach J.R. Hursman. A month earlier, speculation of early retirement had swirled when Lathrop stripped his office and missed a couple of practices. When he returned, he told reporters he had been resting and that the room had needed painting.

Then, in a practice, he settled an argument by telling a player, "You don't know shit."

That earned him a three-week suspension for violating a zero-tolerance policy he had agreed to after earlier missteps.

While he was gone, Lathrop had cataract surgery so he could read television game scores again, but he didn't want to stay home. He'd said he was through coaching, but because he hadn't signed a formal resignation letter, he gave officials notice that he'd be coming back.

Lathrop had threatened to quit five times before, according to news reports. In January 2003, he endured a five-game suspension after The Kansas City Star reported that he'd whacked players on their butts with a pingpong paddle for missing free throws during practice. According to news reports, he'd been using corporal punishment since the early '80s. "I look at it like disciplining my own son," he told the Star in 1982. "I feel like I do it out of caring for them." (Using his hand, Lathrop spontaneously demonstrated his "love tap" on a Pitch reporter; it smarted but didn't bruise.) Lathrop says his official suspension was for using abusive language.

After that suspension, Lathrop returned to lead his team to a 26-5 record, finishing second at the state championship in Springfield. He earned the Paul Lambert Award, given annually to Kansas City's most outstanding coach. The next season, the Cardinals went 19-9.

Lathrop calls the program he has created "a monster."

"Not an evil monster but the kind that teaches kids life lessons," he says.

But the kids have been learning their own lessons, and the monster has begun to turn on Lathrop.

During a midday practice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lathrop sat his team in front of the dry-erase board and wrote on it a list of fundamentals: passing, rebounds, shooting, dribble.

Then he wrote another word: unselfish.

Then he wrote NBA near the top-right corner and told his kids they'd never play at that level.

The NBA has become a place where slam dunks are more marketable than a complete game; as New York Times reporter Michael Sokolove noted in February, "The NBA is now the only pro league in which a player can become an endorsement king without playing for a winning team." The game is now dominated by players seeking SportsCenter-worthy highlights.

Still, Lathrop stays with his basic philosophy: Control the ball -- control the game.

Without a shot clock, a high school player can hold the ball until his opponent comes out to challenge, so Lathrop dusted off a play he designed years ago called the alleycat. Once his players established the lead, they would hold the ball at midcourt. The strategy paid off by racking up numbers in Lathrop's win column: Against Hickman Mills, his team won by nailing just ten shots and sinking most of its free throws. With a narrow lead against Center, Pearson held the ball more than a minute, weathering boos from the opposing crowd. Against Kearney, he repeated the act, holding the rock in the crook of his arm, tapping his slender fingers against his chin while almost five minutes of game time elapsed.

Lathrop didn't believe in his players' natural abilities, so he tried to out-think their opponents. He tells the Pitch it was the best coaching of his career.

But his players' frustration was apparent.

"The first couple minutes get frustrating because you don't want to hold the ball," Pearson said after they beat Kearney. "Sometimes you just want to go down there and shoot."

"Other teams can't score if they don't have the ball," said senior Jerell Barber. "I don't know how everyone else feels. I don't like it." Sports are about defining your abilities as well as winning, and under Lathrop's system, no one had the chance to prove he could dominate an opponent or showcase his skills.

"It is good for the team but not good for the individual," said senior Archie Thomas.

Pearson can glide through traffic for a finger-roll layup, and Thomas can take a pass under the hoop and then dunk from a standstill. But under Lathrop's system, their fast-break skills are nullified. Now the heckling of years past -- chants of paddle, paddle, paddle -- has been replaced with jeers and disgruntled shouts imploring the kids to just play ball!

"It doesn't have to do with winning," Lathrop told his team at practice on MLK Day. "It has to do with you thinking you're too good to listen."

Throughout the season, he has repeated his militaristic mantra: Give me five guys who will do exactly as I say and I'll win 20 games [a season] until hell freezes over. Obviously it is about winning, but only in the way Lathrop likes to play the game.

"You think a coach won 900 games with an offense that don't work anymore?" he asks his players. "That's a crock. I've won 14 championships. I'm 68 years old. It doesn't matter to me. You guys are going to either become a team or you aren't going to play at this school."

He showed them that his model was effective: At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Team USA, which had been undefeated since stocking its roster with NBA players in 1992, was routed by Euro-ballers who used his style: Pass until you find the open shot. "They got their rears kicked," he said. "Not once but three times."

He restated the rules: No bling on the court. No colored shirts beneath jerseys. No sagging britches.

Then he started his usual boot-camp rebuke: "Some of you have been spoiled so bad that if it isn't your way, it ain't any way," he said. "See, I think we got some kids sitting in here right now who think it doesn't matter as long as 'I got to lickety-split it up the court and shoot that.'"

He reaffirmed that none would become superstars: "Oh, yeah, I'd like to be a brain surgeon. I'd like to be an astronaut and take trips to the moon. I'd like to do a hundred different things. You don't know your limitations. Some of you still think you're a three-point shooter, and my dog will make it before you will."

He threw in some commentary about life off the court: "Illicit sex. It's happening. It's out there. He's probably sticking it anywhere he can stick it.... You put it in there. That's what sex can do for you. Get you a whole lot of kids you have to pay for."

He offered a moral: "To sacrifice team for yourself is the sickest thing on Earth except a pile of rocks. The only thing sicker would be a criminal who robs someone in 100-degree heat."

Then he sketched a square on the board and put five X's below it. This was their team: They were five horses pulling a wagon. If one horse spooked, they all spooked and the wagon was destroyed.

His city-born kids stared blankly ahead. Someone farted. Bud Lathrop was born in 1936 and grew up on his grandfather's 80-acre farm near Harrisonville. When he moved there in 1941, the homestead was a wartime boardinghouse filled with extended family members. His father had left to join the Navy. His mother worked full-time making airplane engines at Bendix off Bannister Road. There was no electricity, no running water.

By age 7, he was in the fields, bailing hay, chopping wood and corralling cows. "We were poor and didn't know it, and it didn't matter," he says. "We had dogs and horses and plenty of work to do." He shared board with an uncle three years older, who would hunt and fish with him and shoot hoops in the concrete-floored gym at a nearby high school.

One day he and his uncle went to a pond to chop holes in the ice so the cows could drink. When they started playing on the ice, though, his grandfather tore down a tree branch and paddled him as he ran the length of the yard. When someone left a gate open and the cows got loose, young Lathrop endured similar punishment. "He never hit us, but he would switch us," Lathrop says. "He never got too carried away, but he'd make sure you knew what he said."

In sports, he found a lineup of similar authority figures.

When his father came home and used the G.I. Bill to purchase a home on Blue Ridge Boulevard, the 6-foot-tall Lathrop enrolled at Raytown High School and played basketball for coach Ted Chittwood -- a winning basketball coach who also amassed more than 200 football victories to become a Missouri gridiron icon. Chittwood would smack his players with a paddle when they weren't paying attention; he also used "swat lines," sending a disruptive player though a line of teammates who would hit him.

Under Chittwood, Lathrop learned to be a winner. Playing under a different coach as a senior at Raytown, he hit a last-second jumper to send his team to the district championships. Recruited by the Wilt Chamberlain-led University of Kansas, Lathrop opted instead to attend William Jewell to serve under coach Jim Nelson, a former Marine.

His coaches said don't drink, so to this day Lathrop remains a teetotaler. He also learned the Bible -- it was filled with players who had the traits his favorite coaches preached about: integrity, loyalty, honesty, character. Today, he and his wife attend the First Baptist Church of Raytown, a megachurch off 350 Highway. When the Pitch asks him to quote a Bible verse, he paraphrases one from Romans: Paul ran the race to win.

Lathrop's romantic life followed the plot of the high school-hero movie. Gay Klippscen had been a freshman on the pep squad when Lathrop was a senior at Raytown. She had cheered for him. They married in the fall of 1958. Gay sewed her own dresses and sat on the opponent's side of the gym to watch her husband coach. When Raytown South opened in 1961, Lathrop went to work there, forging a new team from scratch. His first team consisted of freshmen and sophomores; his 1962 squad played varsity without seniors and got pummeled. He'd never been such a loser. But his roster deepened with each new year's influx of students. One day when he and Gay were driving down 50 Highway, he told her he would win the Missouri state championship someday.

His sons, Lance and Brad, were born in 1959 and 1964, respectively. The kids rode along with Lathrop on the bus to games. Family vacations meant tournaments in southeast Missouri or the Show Me State Games in Columbia. In March, the family occasionally joined Lathrop on an annual pilgrimage to the Final Four, where he talked shop with John Wooden and Bobby Knight.

He missed dinners for late-night practices. During the season, he missed breakfasts to hold morning practices with his post men.

"He's a winner," Brad Lathrop says, repeating the Ray-South Bud Lathrop mantra. "While a lot of other coaches are out at Lake of the Ozarks on vacation with their kids, Dad has given his life to that school. To our family's chagrin -- to our family's detriment -- he has really been married to that school, and he's given his life to it, and it's all he knows. There were no [family] dinners, cruises, vacations. Mom had to suffer, and my brother and I had to suffer because of his marriage to this community. I never ate breakfast with Dad when I was in school. I never saw him. He was gone."

Lathrop remembers his sons in courtside glimpses: As a youngster, Brad jumped off the bleachers and broke his collarbone. He was on the Ray-South team in the 1980s but sat on the bench. Lance was the better player -- he played for his dad on the state championship team in 1977 and shot 9 for 12 to beat St. Louis in the semifinals.

By then, Lathrop was using Chittwood's playbook, paddling his players on the court. "As far as having the paddle at home -- absolutely not," Brad says. "Never raised his hand at my brother and I growing up, ever.... The difference was, he just had to give you that look, and it scared the hell out of you and you'd do what he said."

After graduating from Raytown South in 1982, Brad followed his father's footsteps, getting a teaching degree and assisting coach Billy Tubbs at the University of Oklahoma. Brad coached the freshman team at Ray-South from 1996 to 2001. He wanted to be his father's junior-varsity coach, but school officials wouldn't allow it.

To keep his underclassmen on message, Lathrop hired Jevon Crudup in 2003. Crudup was an All-American who had played on Lathrop's 1990 state-championship team alongside Sunny Williams, who would succeed him. But Crudup's presence couldn't have bolstered anyone's pro dreams: Though Lathrop's star protégé, he hadn't been good enough to get a major NBA contract; after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia, he languished for years in European leagues before serving as practice-squad fodder for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons.

Crudup was fired within a year, after a parent secretly taped him berating his players and distributed CD copies of the dressing-down and an 11-page transcript of it to school and district officials, according to news reports. Crudup has since filed a lawsuit against the district. He remains a Lathrop disciple and sometimes calls Gay Lathrop on Mother's Day.

But it's Lathrop's son Brad who has often been the one to defend his father publicly, speaking to the Star and on WHB 810. Radio host Kevin Kietzman says Brad's devotion was so fervent that he'd call the station to argue with each critical caller when his father was on the air. Kietzman eventually stopped inviting Lathrop on his show. The family interference, he says, caused a "circus environment."

Brad quit teaching at Ray-South last year. He's looking for work in the metro but says his father's reputation precedes him.

"I'm trying to find another teaching and coaching job where my last name won't be a hindrance."

Bud Lathrop is thinking about starting a high school summer league at First Baptist Church of Raytown this summer. Other than that, the list of activities that might occupy the coach in retirement is short.

"This is what's scaring us," Brad says. "This is what scares my mom and my brother and I. He doesn't hunt. He doesn't fish. He doesn't bowl. My mom and dad have never been on a cruise. They have no interest in that. That's what's scaring us. If the day comes when he's not a coach anymore, what's he going to do? He is Raytown South. He is that school."

Now defined primarily by their roles as supporting actors, his family members obsess about how it all might end. "This is his life," Gay says. "What better way to go if you're a basketball coach than right there coaching a game?"

Gay references the John Grisham book Bleachers, in which former high school football players reunite to mourn a hard-ass coach. "Our kids read it," she says, "and they said, 'That's Dad.'

"When they're under Bud, they're not sure what to think of him," Gay says of the kids on her husband's teams. "When the older ones filter back through telephone calls and e-mails, that shows what Bud meant to them."

Lathrop says he's received hundreds of support letters from former parents and players thankful for his tough-love tactics. Many former players have tales about how he's helped them. And Lathrop himself is eager to recount his off-the-court efforts: He's driven kids to school, helped pay for a former player's dental work after his teeth were knocked out in a court collision, rushed to the hospital when a player lost his foot in a freak train accident and to another player's home after that boy's father had shot himself.

In the glove box of his silver Lincoln Town Car, Lathrop keeps a testimonial he received this past December from former player Steven Shumake, who played for him from 1972 to 1974 and now lives in Texas. Shumake recalls practices fueled by swear words, yoga, boxing matches, deafening music from loudspeakers, George Patton recitations and swats with a board at the free-throw line. "His delivery may be different, but the message gets through, and it sticks," Shumake writes of his old coach.

When Lathrop preaches, he's flanked by his assistant coaches, 62-year-old Hursman and the much-younger Sunny Williams, who was a senior on that 1990 championship team. They nod, mumbling gospel-like mmm-hmms to the points scattered among Lathrop's digressions.

"We were afraid of him. We were really nervous," Williams says about his time playing for Lathrop. "I'm 6-foot-3, and I was a little nervous of what he might do. I didn't want to disappoint him. But kids today don't have any fear. It used to be they had to prove themselves to him. Now he's got to prove himself to them."

Hursman says the anti-authoritarian mentality of pro ballers has taken root. He sees parents contradicting coaches. A player cussed out Williams earlier this season, and at one game some junior varsity players, one of whom would eventually be called up to Lathrop's squad, left the bench during a game to change into street clothes and sit in the crowd, making a statement about their lack of playing time.

In January, camera crews clustered courtside to record Lathrop's return to action against perennial nonconference powerhouse Lee's Summit, a game Ray-South won convincingly. But while Lathrop was suspended in late December, Hursman coached the team to a five-game winning steak.

Lathrop's players were openly defiant upon his return -- not to Lathrop's face, though; like their NBA role models, they griped to the media.

"Now we know we can win without him," Pearson told a Star reporter in January. "It's gonna be real tough to adjust back. We'll see if he goes back to all the old-fashioned stuff or if he lets us play a little more."

Hursman coached the Ray-South freshmen to an undefeated season this year and has helped with the junior-varsity program for more than three decades. But since he started coaching in the '60s, his manner of dealing with players has evolved. Whereas Lathrop points out players' mistakes during team meetings, Hursman sits at their elbows, praising them for good plays or good effort. Instead of telling a kid that his shots stink, Hursman offers advice on how to make his shots better. He thinks that three-point shooters will be crucial to the team's success next season and favors defensive shifts, changing styles constantly to keep the other team off balance.

"When you've got athletes like that, you've got to let them go," he says. "I like to speed it up. I like the fast-court game. The type of kids we have, they're going to make mistakes, and you have to overlook that. If I know they're a shooter, I give them the green light.... If they miss one, I don't get on them that hard. We'll talk about it later. I like to run."

Hursman won't say whether the players responded better to him than to Lathrop.

"I know they enjoyed it," he says. "We had a lot of fun, and I know the kids really enjoyed it."

A few weeks after Lathrop's comeback, the Cardinals dropped two in a week against league heavy Ruskin and nonleague favorite Blue Valley.

"Under J.R., we definitely would have won," forward Hawkins says with the kind of absolute certainty common among high school seniors. "We play more relaxed, or at least I do. He gives a lot of positive feedback."

"Dad's going to coach the way he's going to coach," Brad says. "I agree he is old-school.... Dad's legacy is not going to be one of using a pingpong paddle. His legacy is going to be -- and the reason he keeps coaching today -- he just loves kids. He ... thinks he can direct kids in the right direction. And he's a winner."

Not so much, though, anymore.

The final quarter of the February 25 game against Lee's Summit North epitomized the Cardinals' entire season: It was a blooper reel.

Pearson tried some fancy dribbling and got stripped.

Goode took a wild three-point shot and missed.

Down six points with six minutes to play, Lathrop yanked two of his best shooters -- Thomas, who wasn't playing defense, and Goode -- replacing them with bench players who would follow his instructions.

During a series of timeouts, he diagrammed plays on his clipboard, and his team rallied to make eight unanswered points and briefly take the lead. The game spilled into extra minutes only because Allen crafted his own play, taking the ball upcourt by himself and nailing a buzzer-beating three-pointer.

In overtime, Lathrop put his starters back in and gesticulated from the sideline like a maniacal crossing guard.

If his own players didn't listen, Lee's Summit North's did. By that point, Lathrop's meticulous play calling telegraphed every Cardinals move.

Raytown South lost 55-48.

Lathrop still won't say whether he'll return next season. According to his math, it would take four more championship seasons -- with five guys doing exactly as he says -- to win 1,000 games.

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