The game was so much fun when he was younger. It will be so much fun again in a year or two. Lawrence North sophomore Kevin Easley Jr. is sure of that. But right now?
“It’s tough right now,” he says.
Right now, his game is in something of an awkward adolescent phase. He’s no longer the biggest player on the court, going under the basket and thrashing people with sheer size and athletic ability. He’s still big — 6-7, 227 pounds — but with college looming he is having to learn a new position. Last season he moved to the wing, and his very public perimeter education has taken place in high school gyms around greater Indianapolis. His tutors? The best players in town. Older players. Ryan Cline (now at Purdue) and Sean McDermott (Butler) and K.J. Walton (Missouri). Great current players like Kris Wilkes of North Central and Paul Scruggs of Southport.
“It’s been on-the-job training, and he gets frustrated,” his father, Kevin Sr., says. “He’s not having too much fun right now. He’s putting so much pressure on himself.”
There’s more here than basketball, but the basketball is enough. Once upon a time Kevin Easley Jr. was that guy, the top-rated seventh-grader in Indiana, among the top 10 seventh-graders in the country. On his 12th birthday he celebrated by scoring 39 points in an AAU game. When he was 14 he picked up his first Division I scholarship offer, from IUPUI. He hadn’t even played a high school game yet.
That changed soon. He has started for Lawrence North since the first game of his freshman season, and earned honorable mention all-state. He’s not a bust. Not close to a bust. He averages about 12 points and nine rebounds as a sophomore, and he has scholarship offers from Indiana, Purdue and Butler among others. But he’s no longer considered the clear-cut best player his age in the state — another candidate is New Albany sophomore Romeo Langford — or even on his own team. Not with future Division I players as teammates, older guys like Djimon Henson and Ra Kpedi.
“My teammates and coaches are helping me,” Kevin Jr. says. “They’re giving me so much motivation, and they’re helping me through this process. I think by the time I’m a senior, I’m gonna be really good at this position.”
Can’t be easy, I tell Kevin Easley Jr., to not be the guy anymore.
“It’s not easy,” he says. “Just got to be patient. That’s the key. My mom always told me, ‘Patience is the key.’ I learned a lot from her.”
And there it is. There she is. The biggest reason basketball — anything, really — isn’t as much fun for Kevin Easley as it used to be.
* * *
“He was 10 when she died,” Kevin Easley Sr. is saying. “Almost six years ago. He’s still hurting.”
They were tight, Kevin and his mom. He was the youngest of five kids, the baby of the family. With Kevin Sr. working late nights at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, young Kevin would get out of his bed more nights than not and sleep alongside his mom.
“Kevin only had 10 years with her,” Kevin Sr. says, “but they were close.”
It happened in the middle of the night. Kevin Jr. had left the house a few days earlier for a basketball trip, then returned home late the night of May 23, 2010. He climbed into his bed, fell asleep, and was awakened at 4 a.m. by his dad:
“Kevin, I got news. Your mom passed away.”
Shevale Easley was 39 when she died of a heart attack triggered by the chemotherapy she was receiving for non Hodgkin lymphoma.
“My heart just dropped,” Kevin Jr. said. “It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Kevin is comforted by a couple of things. One, his last memory of his mom, an IndyGo bus driver: Kissing her goodbye and saying he loved her. Two, his faith that he will see her again in heaven.
But that doesn’t make Thanksgiving or Christmas any easier. And her birthday? Man, Dec. 17 is a hard day for Kevin Easley Jr. He expresses his pain like so many kids from his generation: on social media, and on his own skin. His Twitter page pays homage to Shevale Easley, its backdrop a picture of her tombstone. So does his right biceps. Her name is written there in script.
Her personality is embedded deeper into his framework. Kevin Jr. got his size and his affinity for basketball from his father, who stands nearly 6-4 and played for Tech in the early 1980s, but Kevin Sr. has an enormous and maybe bombastic personality. The night I find him, he is watching his son play — he is watching Lawrence North and Southport play in the Marion County semifinals — from a spot just behind the Lawrence North bench. Kevin Sr. coaches his son when he can, coaches the rest of the team under his breath, and when the game ends, Kevin Sr. leaves the stands to shake hands with Southport’s coach (Kyle Simpson) and star wing player (Scruggs).
Kevin Jr.? He’s more quiet. He’s also hurting, you know. His mother. He hurts for her. And he’s her son — not a mama’s boy, but a boy who has grown up to be just like his mama. That’s what Kevin Sr. tells me during a timeout.
“Kevin’s best attribute is his humbleness,” his father says. “He got that from his mother.”
The comment was unprompted, delivered softly, sadly. Kevin Jr. isn’t the only one missing Shevale.
* * *
The basketball is coming. The game always has come easy to Kevin Easley Jr., but that was basketball close to the basket. Now he’s on the wing, and it’s coming there as well. His mid-range jumper is solid, and his 3-pointer is improving. He doesn’t attack the rim with confidence, not yet. Someday.
He is fueled by the memory of his mother — “She’s my motivation,” he says — and by the motivation of his father. Kevin Sr. makes himself heard above the din at Southport, telling Kevin during a timeout, “Drive, drive, drive. Don’t settle. That mid-range game is killing. It’s killing, Kev.” Kevin Jr. nods and buries a catch-and-shoot jumper near the foul line.
“They can’t stop you!” Kevin Sr. bellows during another break in the action. “Go to work.”
Kevin Jr. nods and buries another mid-range jumper.
A few minutes later Kevin Jr. has the ball in transition and approaches the 3-point arc, and his father is screaming, “Take the shot, Kevin!”
Kevin surely doesn’t hear his father this time, but who knows? He pulls up and launches a 3 that goes through the rim as his father is yelling, “Boom!”
Kevin Jr. finishes with a game-high 17 points, as Lawrence North holds off Southport 53-52, one of his best games in a season that has frustrated him more than any other.
“He’s evolving his game,” senior teammate Djimon Henson says, “and he gets frustrated at times. Then he gets comfortable and starts playing his game.”
Kevin’s game is evolving, and so is his role. Once the superstar on every team he played, then a role player last season, he is somewhere in between this season. He scored just 10 points Jan. 10 in a 64-59 victory against Decatur Central, fourth on his own team. Afterward Kevin Jr. went to Twitter to say, “Feel like moms is soo disappointed in me.” Then he and his dad had a long talk.
“A lot of stuff came out,” Kevin Sr. says. “He’s still hurting about his mom, and this on-the-job training he’s going through — there’s a lot there.”
A lot of frustration, a lot of hurt, a lot of talent, a lot of future. Kevin Easley Jr. is transforming his game, and while he’s not there yet, he can see what the result will look like.
“I’ve just got to be patient and keep working on it,” he says, “and if I keep working, I’m going to be dominant again.”
Moms would be soo proud.