Kansas City native Amaad Wainright already has had some big moments with the Kansas State men’s basketball team, including the team's run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 and a season-high 35 minutes played during a Big 12 tournament loss to conference champion Kansas earlier this month.
That game was at Sprint Center, 4.7 miles northwest of the basketball court in the Oak Park neighborhood at 43rd Street and Agnes Avenue. That’s where Wainright honed his skills and, thanks to the Big 12 Legacy Foundation, will be upgraded.
The Oak Park neighborhood has seen its fair share of violence over the years, and is in a zip code that The Kansas City Star called “The Murder Factory” almost a decade ago. Denver Broncos linebacker Shane Ray, who played college football at Mizzou, also grew up in the neighborhood.
But according to Kansas City Police Department crime statistics, there hasn’t been a homicide or assault with a deadly weapon in the last six months in the four-block radius around the basketball courts at Oak Park.
The city-run park is better known as Pat Clarke Park, named after the founder of Hoops at Night, an organized league for high schoolers and above. Clarke says it’s not to be confused with Mayor Sly James’ Night Hoops leagues.
“The difference is that I deal with the streets. Most of the guys that play down here come from the street,” Clarke explains. “Some are still in high school. Some are not in school at all. But I treat them all like they’re mine because they are. I’m the daddy down here.”
Clarke’s work got the attention of the Kansas City Sports Commission and the Big 12 Conference, which donates money to the city where its basketball tournament is held. The organizations announced a couple weeks ago that the Big 12 would be help resurface the court that Hoops at Night plays on and fix up another Oak Park court.
“For us to have a chance to even be a very small part of the lives that he’s (Pat Clarke) changing in this community is an honor for us,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said during during a news conference earlier this month.
Amaad Wainright and his older brother, Ishmail, a former Baylor basketball player, are Clarke’s nephews. Amaad wasn’t available for a local interview due to K-State traveling this week to Atlanta for the NCAA Tournament. But Ishmail remembers playing on courts around the city — in areas that weren’t always safe.
“It probably happened once or twice in my lifetime that we heard gunshots and we had to run,” he says. “Especially when we were playing basketball. We had to drop everything and run.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the first day of spring this spring, Clarke was describing how the courts at Oak Park would get busy later in the afternoon. Rapid-fire popping noises interrupted him, and he stopped to listen.
“You hear that? That’s a shooting, that’s a rolling gun battle,” he said as the gunshots went on for about 17 seconds. “That’s a shootout. That’s what I try to keep these kids away from.”
Five blocks away, near 39th Street and Prospect Avenue, an SUV was riddled with bullet holes, and Kansas City police say the driver was taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds.
But the sporadic violence isn’t stopping Clarke or the Wainright brothers. In fact, Ishmail, who’s hoping to be chosen in the NFL Draft this year, says he and Amaad have a vision for Oak Park as a place to host a football and basketball camp for kids.
“Wainright Camp or whatever he wants to call it,” Ishmail Wainwright says. “I think it’s going to be pretty big.”
Clarke remembers Amaad’s energy on the courts at 43rd and Agnes: “Amaad’s the kind of kid that, if you tick him off, he’ll dunk on anybody and everybody.”
Amaad’s likely to bring that attitude to the Sweet 16, when K-State takes on Kentucky on Thursday evening. And the further K-State goes in the NCAA Tournament, the bigger name Wainright will carry into his senior season.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.