Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski believes Luke Kennard may one day be an American favorite.
But, before Kennard fully experiences the Cameron Crazies, he is the Franklin favorite first and foremost.
The most recognized person in this Warren County city halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton is a high school basketball player born in 1996. Kennard’s impact transcends all ages in this community.
“You see him out and he waves at you,” says Franklin City Manager Sonny Lewis, a 1970 Franklin High School graduate.
“He’s personable. He’s not a fictional character. He’s a real person – his family is real. It’s meant so much to us just to have him. His impact will linger way past when he graduates this spring.”
Franklin (population 11,770) has multiple reminders of Kennard, a senior shooting guard who averages 39.1 points.
Signs proudly noting his Ohio Mr. Basketball award last season as a junior can be clearly seen upon driving into the area.
“He’s quite the hero in town,” says Steve Caskey, President of Triple ‘C’ Glass Shop on Main Street.
At 6-foot-6, Kennard, a Duke signee, is difficult to miss on or off the court. Watching him play gives you the sense he could likely score at will if he wanted each time down the court.
Kennard excelled at high school football as a standout quarterback before he turned his full focus to hoops this fall. He had several scholarship offers in both sports.
The multi-talented athlete likes playing pickup games in other sports. He’s an incredible cornhole player. He taught himself how to juggle a few years ago.
A 4.3 grade-point average student, Kennard’s basketball statistics and national recognition paired with team success would be enough to earn the rave reviews of Franklin residents. But, what’s striking is that his affable personality and maturity raises his stature to another level.
“He’s always going to be our kid,” Lewis explained. “He’s always going to be us. No matter what he does at Duke. If he doesn’t get hurt – whatever he does in the NBA – it’s like he’s going to be our Jerry Lucas from Middletown.”
An hour before a game last week which saw him pass LeBron James on the state high school scoring list and earn accolades on ESPN’s SportsCenter Feb. 6, Kennard wears his pinstripe Michael Jordan jersey and is sitting on the stage watching the junior varsity compete.
“‘Hey Luke,'” a student in the front row yells back to him. The small whiteboard is a sign in marker saying “39 Luke to pass LeBron.” Kennard smiles.
Kennard enjoys the attention around his hoops career and says his parents, Mark and Jennifer, take a lot of pressure off of him.
“They let me just be me as a kid,” Kennard said.
Kennard, a McDonald’s All American, understands what he’s experienced is unique to most high school athletes. But even on Twitter, he offers perspective.
“I just want to focus on God, ball and school, nothing else,” Kennard tweeted a few hours after the video of James discussing him to the media was published.
Even though he has 17,300 Twitter followers and fans are quick to praise his accomplishments, Kennard looks to his tight circle which includes his parents and Franklin coach Brian Bales for guidance.
“Having some of that spotlight you got to enjoy while you can,” Kennard said. “I’ve experienced a lot of things that a lot of kids haven’t so far. I am enjoying a lot of it. At the same time I am staying completely grounded. I am staying as humble as I possibly can.”
Kennard had other opportunities earlier in his career to consider other places to take his game. He attended an open house at Moeller. But, Franklin is where he wants to be.
Kennard looks forward to returning to Franklin during college breaks and he wants to help the community; he’s cherished every moment this winter.
“Oh man, I love this place,” Kennard. “…Franklin is such a family built place. That’s what is special about it.”
That humility includes crediting his teammates every chance he gets.
Kennard sits with teammates in the locker room; he greets those in attendance at a packed A&G Pizza the night he is selected to the McDonald’s Game. He packs his lunch and often sits with underclassmen in the lunch room at school.
Franklin’s season has some already thinking a trip to Columbus in March, but the Wildcats aren’t dwelling on that.
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Bales – who is also the school athletic director – said there was some talk about possibly moving the games this season but the seniors voted prior to the season to keep them at home.
The athletic department would’ve likely benefitted financially from a different venue, but you can’t put a price on the memories the Wildcats have in their intimate home gymnasium.
Kennard, has 2,652 career points and is No. 4 on the Ohio High School Athletic Association career points list as of Feb. 9. James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar, is No. 5 on the list with 2,646 points.
Kennard enters tonight’s game at Carlisle just 29 points from passing Geno Ford for the No. 3 spot on the state scoring list.
A line formed at 4 p.m. to get into the school prior to the Feb. 6 game. By 5:30 p.m., the game was sold out and some fans had to be turned away. There were reports of tickets scalped. The morning after the game, one of the coveted tickets was on Ebay.
Those in attendance said the gym had a different vibe hours before tipoff. Kennard said he felt his eardrums were about to burst when he made the 3-pointer to pass James late in the third quarter.
As he and his teammates sat in the locker room a few minutes before the game, a couple of the seniors took turns to speak on what they knew could be a special night. Bales reminded them of the line that formed some three-plus hours earlier.
Senior Evan Crowe spoke up first – saying it was crazy to think of just a few regular-season games left. Kennard said the team has come too far to jeopardize its success.
Maybe that’s why Bales gets choked up at the thought of the final home game on Senior Night Friday when the Wildcats host Eaton.
Franklin (18-1) is ranked No. 26 nationally by USA Today and No. 2 in the Associated Press Division II state poll this week. Bales doesn’t want Friday to arrive.
“Besides getting married, having my three children – this journey here being the coach at Franklin, the coach of Luke Kennard and these seniors – has been one of the highlights of my life,” Bales said Feb. 5. “That’s as genuine as I can be.”
Just minutes before tipoff Feb. 6, Bales gathered the players into the middle of the locker room before the team ran onto the court to loud cheers. An assistant coach just explained how much of a hunger he has to suit up for the community.
Take of advantage of the special moment, he said. Nothing else professionally can compare to playing for family, friends and the community. Kennard looked on intently.
“‘Everybody get in here,” Bales said. ‘We are going to say what we have said for four years now in the huddle. One, two, three…family,'” the players said in unison