Tragedy and success live in big moments and little details alike.
Kirby Hanley experienced that entire spectrum last summer. In the space of a few days, those moments added up in a rush. The Nederland senior point guard lost his father, Rory, to a 12-year battle with cancer. Rory was a big Duke fan, and he and his wife had given Kirby a trip to Duke’s summer basketball camp for the previous Christmas.
Hanley, along with teammates Zach English and Jared Lorimier, attended that camp at Duke University. He got to meet legendary Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but two days into the camp, he and his family were called back home after his father’s condition worsened.
“When we walked into the gym the first time, me and Zach and Jared couldn’t even talk,” Hanley said. “We were just looking around like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ There’s so much history in that gym, so much stuff that’s happened. You don’t even feel like you should be there, like you’re not worthy. It was a great experience.”
Coach K reached out to the family, inviting them back to a Duke game of their choice this season. They went up in the fall to see the Blue Devils play Florida Gulf Coast and the moment, in Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a better moment than he could have imagined.
“When I left, I didn’t expect to ever go back,” Hanley said. “When he emailed my mom, I couldn’t believe it. To get a chance to go to a game was so much better than just being up there, it meant a lot to me that he reached out like that.
“It was an experience that every basketball person should have once in their life. The atmosphere of everyone yelling was crazy. The student section, it doesn’t matter who they’re playing, they’re just going 100 percent. It’s so loud. It was awesome. You don’t realize it on TV, but that place is tiny. To have all those people packed in there yelling, it’d be awesome to play there in that environment.”
Through the generosity of Beaumont attorney Walter Umphrey, the Hanleys got to fly to the Duke game on Umphrey’s private jet. That was a big moment and full of little surprises all at the same time.
“I’m not used to flying that well,” Hanley said. “You’re used to going through security and all that. But, with this, you just walk into the little garage where the plane is, get on and take off. It’s funny, my mom asked him what how early before we leave do we need to get there. He said, ‘Oh, about 10 minutes.’ We literally just got there, stepped on the plane and left. It was crazy.”
Tragedy and loss on the scale that Hanley suffered make sports insignificant. And yet, basketball gave Hanley something to focus on, gave him a goal to drive towards. Nederland head coach Brian English set a pretty big order in front of Hanley, too.
Hanley would be moving from a bench role into the starting lineup this fall and needed to work on all sorts of little things over the summer to prepare for the move.
“He came off the bench for us last year,” English said. “I wanted to move Zach to the two and I thought (Kirby) was ready to play the one. He’s handled it pretty well. His ball handling has improved over the year and his assist to turnover ratio is pretty good.”
Hanley wanted to make his senior year special, to make it count and worked hard to get there. He’s driven, along with his teammates, to expect to win every time they suit up. Hanley brings a lot of that attitude to the team as the “vocal leader” on the court for the Bulldogs, according to English.
“It’s definitely an expectation (to win every game),” Hanley said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a summer league game, the whole team’s demeanor changes if we lose. No one likes to lose, but it’s different for us. A loss is just terrible. It’s not normal. We’ve always been good and we’ve won since we’ve been little. Losing is not the norm for us, so when we lose we’re going to do everything in our power so it doesn’t happen again.”
Those little details on the court don’t escape Hanley, either. While he may not be the best athlete out there, he maximizes his abilities by working in harmony with his teammates. That’s never more evident than on the defensive end.
Hanley can make the flashy play, like when he stripped the ball from Port Neches-Groves guard Ramil Glorioso and drove for a layup last week in the fourth quarter of another Mid-County Madness matchup. But, it’s his understanding of how Nederland’s help defense works that makes a play like that possible.
“They really understand how to play help defense,” English said. “That game last Friday against PN-G may have been the best game we’ve played on defense since I’ve been here. I had an ex-coach tell me that it was one of the better defensive games he’d ever seen. It’s not just one kid, but collectively they really understand it. It’s something that’s contagious.”
Little moments still come and go for Hanley. He’s embraced some and is caught off guard with others, when reminders of his father pop up unexpectedly. Hanley has embraced the little things and tries to remember his dad through little touches before every game, like pulling on a jersey bearing his dad’s old number.
“I think about him every game,” Hanley said. “Basketball is definitely the highlight (of my senior year). I spend time before every game listening to his favorite song. I want to get into the mindset that he’s watching me and is going to be there. I’ve dedicated myself to play for him every game. It’s my last year and I don’t have anything to lose, so I’m going to leave it out there. Wearing his number (44) is also a part of that, too.”
NOTES: The son of Shawn Hanley, Kirby has an older sister, Kaitlyn, who is a student at Texas A&M. … Duke beat Florida Gulf Coast 88-67 in the game the Hanley’s attended. … Last season, Hanley was the first man off the bench for the Bulldogs. His slow ascension from the freshman team to JV through being a bench player and into the starting lineup should be an inspiration to all the players in Nederland’s basketball program. “You saw where he’s been,” English said. “Some kids just go the path he did. Some kids start on varsity early, and for some kids, perseverance and patience pay off. Kirby’s an example of that. Bottom line is he’s a winner.”
Five Questions with Kirby Hanley
1. Who is your favorite musician? Kenny Chesney
2. What is your dream job? Being a coach
3. What is your favorite movie? Coach Carter
4. What is your favorite college? Texas A&M
5. If you could play another position, what would it be? Post, so I could dunk