Eastern Washington basketball coach Shantay Legans couldn’t believe his ears.
The telephone call came last November from a proud mother who needed some tickets for a special event.
Seventy-five tickets, to be exact, said Sharon Washington, whose son – senior guard Sir Washington – was due to play three games with the Eagles in his hometown of Las Vegas.
Then she dropped the bombshell.
The tickets had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with her son’s future. The Washingtons and their friends – six dozen of them – would be in Cheney in June to celebrate a family first:
One of their own – Sir Washington – would be graduating from college.
Legans’ jaw dropped. But when the conversation ended, his mind flashed back to his own childhood and the transformational experience of being a college student-athlete.
One way or another, Legans would find a way to get those tickets.
An unlikely journey
Far from the glitter of the Strip is North Las Vegas, a bedroom community of 217,000 without enough beds.
A few miles north of the casinos, hundreds of homeless people gather near Catholic Charities and other service providers.
With a poverty rate of 18 percent and one of the highest violent-crime rates in the nation, North Las Vegas also suffers from chronic homelessness and gang violence.
According to a Las Vegas Sun article published in 2010, one home in five was in foreclosure.
By then, Sir Washington was at Western High School in Las Vegas, trying to follow in the right footsteps. If only he knew what those were.
His father Melvin was a high school basketball star who went on to play in college, although Sir can’t recall where.
“I know he didn’t graduate,” said Washington, a gifted player himself.
As a sophomore playing with older cousin Kentrell, Washington led Western to a 23-5 record in 2011.
Kentrell went on to play at Hofstra but later left the team and hasn’t graduated. Meanwhile, Washington’s family moved to another neighborhood and he enrolled at Clark High School.
A reflection of its neighborhood, Clark has 130 teachers and staff for more than 3,000 students. Almost one quarter of them won’t graduate.
Even as a teen, Washington knew that it would take more than a basketball to get out of North Las Vegas – or even to UNLV, the local team that was still a galaxy away for a kid with poor grades.
“But I wanted to show my mom and dad that I can go to college and play the game I love,” Washington said.
By his junior year, Washington was on the recruiting radar of Legans and former head coach Jim Hayford. Conversations with the staff at Clark High revealed something remarkable.
“His grades weren’t great,” Legans said. “But in talking to his principal and his counselor, they loved the kid. He was always helping people, and walking the teachers to their cars.”
Washington also helped Clark on the basketball court. As a senior in 2012-13, Washington averaged almost 15 points and 5 1/2 rebounds while leading Clark to a 29-3 record.
His college dreams were shrouded by self-doubt, but Washington persevered, finished with a 2.0 grade-point average and signed with Eastern as a Prop 48.
Thriving at EWU
As a partial qualifier, Washington could practice with the Eagles but not play. The toughest workouts were with his tutors, who pushed him harder than the coaches.
“Coming to college, I felt like classes were going to be super hard, but they were always behind me, making sure I got it right,” Washington said.
On the court, Washington struggled with injury in 2014-15. Thought to be out for the season with a nagging injury, it was later found to be merely a bruised patella.
Cleared to play, he finally saw action in the Eagles’ NCAA Tournament game against Georgetown and finished with six points and two rebounds.
As Eastern’s sixth man for much of the last three seasons, Washington averaged 5.7 points as a sophomore and almost seven last year.
His biggest game came last year against Weber State – 16 points in an 82-72 win that put the Eagles in second place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Washington also saw the country and made friendships on what Legans calls “a team without cliques.”
“He learned that not everyone out there is bad,” Legans said. “It makes me happy to see that kind of thing.”
Washington continued to work, focusing on school and “making sure I stay on track to graduate,” he said.
Washington also discovered the joy of fatherhood. He and girlfriend Veronica have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Ava.
A special homecoming
Even before the Eagles landed in Las Vegas last November, the Washington family – including a cousin named Mister – was preparing a special homecoming.
As Washington recalls, “My mom called and said, ‘We’ll have the whole team over and we’ll cook them dinner.’ ”
The neighborhood was “an eye-opener” for some players, Legans said, “but once we got to the house, and see how happy they were to see the guys.”
For Washington, the games against UNLV, Georgia State and Eastern Kentucky offered a chance to see how far he’s come.
“It was a great chance to catch up with family,” said Washington, who finally realized a childhood dream.
“If I can’t play for UNLV, at least I could play against them,” he said.
Now the games are down to a handful. Montana and Montana State are in town this week, and Senior Day is on March 3.
That part hasn’t sunk in yet.
“It’s gone by so fast, it seems like it was just my first day here,” Washington said.
Dreams are still there to be made, either by playing abroad or putting his communications degree to use.
“His transformation has been unbelievable,” Legans said.
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