The basketball tradition at East High oozes from the gymnasium walls. It’s everywhere, unavoidable, dating back to a time when the current players’ great grandparents were being born, and not always in hospitals.
So I was happy to learn Thursday night that East coach Joe Jackson, in his second year, is a fan of the tradition, knows the tradition and respects the tradition.
And, finally, hopes to build on the tradition this weekend by leading the Blue Aces to a 6A championship at Koch Arena. East took its first step Thursday by beating City League-rival Southeast 70-59.
“I was an assistant coach here for Coach (Ron) Allen for three years before stepping into this role,” Jackson said. “Every day, I look up at the state championship pictures on the walls of our gym, our wall of fame. We even have a national title from 1925.”
The City League has long been the best basketball league in Kansas and East is its UCLA. The Blue Aces have been mostly good for a long, long time.
So many outstanding players and coaches have passed through. There’s a who’s who just of the former East players who went on to greatness at Wichita State: Cleo Littleton, Jamie Thompson, Kelly Pete, Terry Benton.
“Absolutely, we talk to our players about the tradition,” Jackson said. “About all the legends who have played at East.”
One of the Blue Aces’ current players, junior Zach Jackson, happened to be standing nearby as his coach was talking. So I asked Zach Jackson if he had heard of Littleton, who led East to the Class AA title in 1951.
What about Kelly Pete?
Jackson thought for a second, then admitted he hadn’t heard of Pete.
But when Joe Jackson reminded his player that Kelly Pete long ago changed his name to Mohamed Sharif, Zach Jackson recalled seeing that name inside the East gym.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know him.”
That made Joe Jackson proud.
“There’s definitely a ton of tradition and that’s one of the fun things about coaching at East,” Jackson said. “I’ve got a grin on my face every day thinking about being in the situation and having a group of young men like this has been really outstanding. That being said, there’s still a lot of work left to do. We’re not satisfied winning one ballgame in the state tournament.”
East is capable of winning more state tournament not only this year, but into the future.
Three of the Blue Aces’ best players are underclassmen: sophomore center Xavier Kelly, junior guard Samajae Jones and Zach Jackson, a 6-5 junior wing player whose versatility is his biggest strength.
Jackson made 7 of 8 shots against Southeast and scored a team-high 25 points. He was 4 of 5 from the three-point line and shot 11 free throws. Keep an eye on this kid.
But also take a look at Kelly and Jones.
The 6-foot-5 Kelly got into early foul trouble and played 10 minutes. He still had eight points and six rebounds. Jones, meanwhile, had 11 points.
There is a key senior for East, though, to make sure everyone is on the same page. Tyas Martin, a 6-3 wing, had 20 points.
“It’s fun playing with these younger players,” Martin said. “I think they’ve learned a lot from the older players and we’re trying to help them get ready for next year. I love playing with them.”
East looks ready for this year. The Aces are 21-2. One of those losses was to unbeaten Hays in the championship game of the Dodge City Tournament of Champions in January. The other was to Southeast, 67-59, in the final game of the regular season two weeks ago.
The Blue Aces are the City League’s last chance in 6A, with Southeast and North out. Heights is still alive in state tournament play, but the Falcons have dropped to 5A.
City League teams have won 24 of 37 championships in the state’s largest class since 1977. But Johnson County, which sent four teams to the 6A tournament and will have two in Friday’s semifinals, is making a move.
None, though, have East’s tradition. The Blue Aces have three of those 24 City League titles and eight overall. The school sits majestically at Douglas and Grove and you can almost feel the basketball heritage reach out and grab you when you drive by.
It’s great that the tradition has been handed down, from one generation to the next. It’s fun to hear a young coach like Jackson speak effusively about how proud he is to be at a place like East and how in awe he is of those who came before him.
In another 100 years, I hope the basketball players at East know the Aces won their first state championship in 1915. I hope the pictures are still on the walls.