Volunteer nears quarter century of coaching Taylor kids in basketball

Michelle Hernandez still remembers the first time she met Ken Petry.

It was the summer of 2003. Hernandez had just been named principal at Eureka Heights Elementary School and Petry was the first person she ran into at her new building.

“He came in and said, ‘I’m the coach. Can I keep coaching?’” Hernandez remembered.

She learned Petry was indeed the coach. Every school year since 1984-85, he has coached at least one basketball team – and quite often three teams – at Eureka Heights.

He started with the fourth- and fifth-grade girls team each fall. Come winter time, he switched to the fourth- and fifth-grade boys and the sixth-grade boys teams. No one else comes close to that longevity.

“He kind of holds a special place in my heart,” Hernandez said. “We’ve had a friendship ever since.”

This year, when Hernandez was appointed principal at the new Sixth Grade Academy in the former Brake Middle School building, she was delighted to see Petry once again. This time, he was coaching in the sixth-grade intramural league, which is run by the Taylor Parks and Recreation Department in the academy gym.

In the fall, Petry coached the Pink Colts girls team. (The players and coaches wear pink t-shirts.) This season, he’s coaching the Gray Colts, one of eight teams in the boys league. The players are the latest in the hundreds of boys and girls he has coached over the years.

“What can you say about him?” Hernandez said. “He is all about kids. He has good educational practices. He knows the kids. He treats them with respect. When he’s not around, they’re asking, ‘Where is he?’ He really makes a difference in their lives.”

Petry, 62, got into coaching like many other parents: when daughter Cassandra’s team needed a coach in 1984. He kept coaching through daughter Alyssa’s days at the school. And he now coaches with Alyssa, now 28, alongside him as his assistant.

A native of Kentucky, Petry moved to Taylor when he was 13. He played basketball, baseball and football, graduating from Taylor Center High School in 1963. He went to college for a couple years, served with the Army in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and worked 30 years for Chrysler.

Working eight hours a day and coaching three teams was a challenge, Petry admitted, but now that he’s retired, there are fewer time constraints. Coaching basketball remains an important part of his life.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “I learn things from the kids, believe it or not. I learned how not to get upset about things and have fun. They’ve taught me what’s important. It’s not all about winning and losing. As long as they play the best they can, we can have some fun. If they don’t have fun, it’s not worth it. If they don’t have fun, I don’t have fun.”

Petry’s teams have played well this year. The girls team was 7-2 and lost in the final game of the season-ending tournament. The boys won a Christmas tournament and are undefeated in their first five games this season.

Eric Woloczyk, a certified public accountant in Taylor, has seen Petry’s teams win plenty of games. Petry coached two of his children, Mark and Sarah, three years each. Son Matthew, one of the rare players to start in the third grade, is in his fourth year on a Petry-coached team.

“He’s been very dependable – very loyal,” Woloczyk said. “He’s friendly, but man, can he bark sometimes at the players when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. The parents think it’s pretty funny.”

Matthew, 11, said Petry has taught him to be more aggressive on the basketball court. He thinks his coach is “funny.”

“We have fun,” Petry said. “You’ve got to have fun in life. If you take all the fun out of it, what’s the point?”

Bert Boyless, who has supervised city basketball since 1980, said Petry is one of the better coaches in the program.

“You see the kids early and see them later in the year and you see where he’s taught them the game,” Boyless said. “Ken’s a hard worker. He puts in the time. You’ve got to give the guy all the credit in the world. You won’t find a better coach for kids. You can see how disciplined his team is on the floor. He teaches them the game. He’s one of our mainstays. He’s what the program is all about.”

Petry has been coaching so long that former players are now coaching.

Daughter Alyssa said it’s fun coaching with her dad – not that they don’t have their disagreements.

“He’s pretty good, but he does need help,” she said, smiling. “We collaborate on a lot of things. We have the same ideas – most of the time.”

David Zarazua, who played for Petry as a child, is now coaching the Blue Colts in the sixth-grade league.

“I’m enjoying it,” said Zarazua, who is a carpenter. “I’m trying to give back to the kids. Ken’s a good guy. I learned a lot from Ken. I appreciate what he did for me as a child and feel like giving back to the kids.”

Like Petry, Zarazua said youth basketball is “all about having fun and learning to play basketball.”

Petry also volunteers at the scorers’ table during varsity basketball games at John F. Kennedy High School, where a number of his former players have donned the red, white and blue uniforms over the years.

Petry said he realizes that not all of his players will play at the next level. But he hopes they get something out of playing basketball, even for a short time.

“I like the action,” Petry said. “When it’s played right, basketball is a beautiful sport.

“Even if they don’t play again, if they understand the game when they watch it, then it’s worth it. I just hope they go out and have a good time.”

Basketball helps bring kids closer at Sixth Grade Academy

Bringing children together from all over the city to attend sixth grade at one school is something new this year in Taylor.

The Sixth Grade Academy, housed in the former Brake Middle School next to John F. Kennedy High School, was part of the Taylor School District’s reconfiguration plan designed to eliminate a projected $5.7 million deficit for the 2007-08 school year.

As the only school for sixth-graders, the academy is home to about 660 students – most of whom were strangers to one another when they arrived on the first day of class.

Principal Michelle Hernandez said one of the activities that has helped the children get to know one another has been the sixth-grade intramural basketball league run by the city of Taylor Parks and Recreation Department at the academy.

The girls league included five teams in the fall. The boys league, which is a winter activity, is being played with eight teams. In all, more than 160 children signed up for the program, including some that had never played basketball prior to this school year.

While the coaches did “draft” their teams after the players tried out, everyone was selected for a team, Hernandez said.

She said some pushed for children to be grouped with other kids from the same elementary school they attended last year, but the principal said it was important to mix the players so they would get to know one another.

Practices are held after school. League games are played on Saturdays.

All of the children play in every game, so there is more concentration on the fundamentals of the game and teamwork.

Bert Boyless, site supervisor for the Taylor Parks and Recreation Department, said the scoring is different that typical basketball. Instead of four quarters, there are five periods. The team that scores the most points in the early periods earns two points a period, which keeps the score close.

“There’s more participation,” Boyless said. “It took the focus off winning and losing and put more focus on getting more kids in the game.”

Hernandez said she overheard one boy talking to another boy during one of the tryouts, telling his friend, “I’ve never played on a team before. I’m going to get to play basketball.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Hernandez said. “It’s an opportunity to meet new friends and be part of a team. It has worked well. There is no division in the school. Actually, it has been just the opposite.”

-- Dave Gorgon

Ken Petry