By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
There’s been an emptiness in the heart that bleeds a passion for basketball.
Kelsey McClure reached her senior season at Muskogee minus the grandfather who, as she racks her brain to recall, hasn’t missed a game since she laced up her gym shoes for the first time around the age of 6.
Muriel Desmuke’s love for the game was no doubt passed on to her. His neighborhood recreational endeavor — basketball at his west side house — kept kids of all kinds busy and out of trouble. But anytime Kelsey had a game, he was there.
Desmuke died suddenly on Thanksgiving, less than two weeks before her senior season opener at home against Sapulpa. She scored 17 points in a loss to Sapulpa — not a bad game for a guard who has averaged 13 points over three years as a starter, making All-Phoenix Newcomer of the Year as a freshman.
His words repeated often to her: “Keep playing hard, keep working hard...” connected in her head and in her body. Her heart, well, it struggled.
“She told me “’Mom, I don’t know if I can do this. He was always sitting there next to you and if I look up there now and he’s not there...’”
But while the heart waned, the head and body made up for it.
Less than a week later, in the finals of the United Keetowah Band Tahlequah Tiger Invitational, she was back on all cylinders.
McClure, who drew her fourth foul against host Tahlequah with 4:23 left, stayed in during the stretch run, scoring nine points and relying on some help around her in a 26-point fourth quarter and a 61-54 championship win.
She got the tournament MVP award, playing with Papaw’s military dog tag tucked in her sock.
There was that voice again: “Keep playing hard, keep working hard..”
And it still brings a pause in her voice, and tears to her eyes, just thinking about him.
Her father, Wayne McClure, played basketball and football at Tulsa Washington. Her mom, Vanessa, played in junior high and was a Muskogee High cheerleader. But PaPa was the one who had basketball at his home for as many kids as he could muster.
“He was a life coach,” McClure said. “Other than my parents who are of course there for me, I could call on him for anything, any advice, he was always there.
“Growing up playing, I never worried about the next thing, whether it was the next timeout, next break, whatever. There’d be coach and there would be him. He’d tell me things I could work on.”
Only now, it’s all on memory recall.
But there’s plenty to draw from.
He was there for her coming out of Alice Robertson Junior High, a standout in the making, who led a team in scoring as a freshman. Doing so wasn’t easy. It was a senior-oriented team that struggled with its chemistry, a kind that made it tough for a young rookie to fit in, even if she did bring some splash.
“It was such a different concept to her from AAU ball, where the best players play because they’re out to win and not necessarily because someone’s a senior,” her mother said. “To her it felt like others were saying ‘she’s going to shoot the ball so we’re not going to pass it to her.’ Well, being the unselfish player she is, Kelsey’s going to pass it to them even if they’re not passing it to her.”
It spun into her sophomore year, where role confusion remained and for a time, her smooth shooting ability didn’t as she dropped three points off her average after an extended midseason slump, still averaging a team-high 11.8 points.
“The slump frustrated me because I knew I could score but I wasn’t and I was pushing myself to help the team. All I ended up doing was putting unnecessary pressure on myself,” Kelsey said.
Then came her junior year and a group that her coach said “liked being around each other and playing with each other.” It made the state tournament for the first time since 2001.
“She flourished in that,” Rowland said.
She averaged 14.2 points, 2.3 steals and 3.4 assists, finishing second in the All-Phoenix MVP balloting but making her second All-Phoenix team in three seasons. But the pressure was a hard thing to shake off. Like in the season opener, minus one of their inside starters in Chelsie Keys, McClure scored 28 of her team’s points in a 50-49 loss and as she left the court wondered what she could have done differently.
PaPa caught her.
“He told me I had a great game,” Kelsey recalled. “Well, I knew he would always follow it up with something I needed to work on but it didn’t come. I asked him, ‘you’re not going to give me something to work on?’ He said you did everything you could.”
These days that includes defense.
“As my coaches have always preached it starts from the defensive end, so I really work my tail off now on defense,” Kelsey said. “Offensively I get the ball to my teammates whenever I get it and I feel like the game will come to me itself. Just as I shine, everyone should shine. It’s not about me being a one-man band. Everyone out there can help me.”
Her grandfather isn’t around to help her with one thing — where she might play next season. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas among Division I schools who have shown interest. Where there have been offers, even elsewhere, McClure has waited.
She doesn’t deny she’d prefer a place close to home, and for now, those offers aren’t on the table.
“I want to be sure it’s the right place and if it takes time, that’s fine,” Kelsey said. “For me, I’m all about family. I love my family and I want a family environment. With my grandfather we never really talked about schools.
“For him, though, one of the most important things was environment. I know he told me ‘you’ve got to be happy, which means you’ve got to have your heart and your mindset in it.’”
But for now, it’s all about those words she heard so often.
“Keep playing hard, keep working hard...”
“It’s been a blessing having her four years and now, she’s taken her leadership role to heart,” Rowland said. “She’s become the perfect leader and that’s all I can ask of her.”
Somewhere up there, PaPa is smiling.