The most overused term in a sports writers’ vocabulary is legend.
But that is the only word that describes Bud Lathrop, the former Raytown South boys basketball icon, who coached at three different Missouri high schools from 1958 until 2006. His 955 wins (955-300) rank seventh in the history of high school boys basketball nationally and are No. 1 in the state of Missouri.
I learned today that the 82-year-old Lathrop passed away at his home this morning. He was battling cancer, had to make weekly dialysis trips and was far from the fiery competitor I met as a 29-year-old reporter at The Examiner back in 1982.
Like anyone from Independence, I respected Lathrop when his Cardinal teams decimated my Truman Patriots, but I was also intimidated. He was a larger than life figure who prowled the sidelines like a caged lion, letting his players and official know exactly how he felt.
But when I first met him, he was warm and gracious; he asked about my background as a journalist, about my family (I was newly married to my wife Stacy) and really took an interest in this young kid whose knees were still rattling.
Everyone close to Lathrop knew the end was coming, I just wish I would have written this before his death. I would like him to know that he was the most influential and dynamic person I met over the past 36 years at my home away from home, The Examiner.
Lathrop began his coaching career in 1958 with two seasons in Mound City, Mo., followed by one season in Fulton, Mo. In 1961, he returned to his hometown of Raytown – where he was a star for the Blue Jays – and was named coach at the new Raytown South High School.
While at Raytown South, his Cardinals won four state championships, made the state final four 10 times, and won 34 conference titles.
But the titles and wins don’t tell the story of Bud Lathrop. You had to know the man, whose career ended in controversy in 2006. He was suspended in 2003 for swatting players with a wooden paddle, that was part of the coach’s free-throw drill.
He was suspended again the next year for language used at practice and he walked away from the game – and the team he so dearly loved – in 2006.
He was a dinosaur, who could still outcoach anyone on the planet, but his style and approach to the game had gone the way of drive-in movies, TV dinners and saying the Pledge of Allegiance before school started each morning.
I remember one night at the aptly named Bud Lathrop gymnasium when the PA system failed and they were about to start a game without playing the National Anthem.
Lathrop approached the PA announcer, took his microphone, stepped onto the court and began singing. Soon, every fan in the gym joined it. It gave me chills back then, and still does today.
I was with Coach Lathrop when he picked up a student early one morning and drove him to the dentist. Oh, by the way, the student did not play basketball.
I still have the letters he wrote me when my two sons, Zach and Sean, were born, and I treasure the many Christmas cards I received from him, and his amazing wife, Gay.
When I learned of Lathrop’s death, I went on social media to get some reactions through direct messages, and they came in fast and furious:
“I played for Coach from 81 to 83. He cared so much for his players nobody will ever understand,” Kenneth Cox said. “ My senior year I was injured the second day of practice and ended up in the hospital by the end of the week. Before I made it to the room Coach and Gay were already there. I went to William Jewell because of him and my father. My freshman year he shows up to watch a game. Other players could not believe my high school coach still cared about me to come up and see me. After my high school and college career, I ran a basketball camp and when I taught the high school kids Coach came and took over. He loved teaching the game. But more importantly he taught us about life. There is one quote I will never forget. ‘Successful people form the habits that unsuccessful won't.’ We have lost a phenomenal person and a good friend.”
Ed Fritz added: “Coach Lathrop always had time for me when I was coaching at Center. Lots of coaches were jealous of his success. The truth is, he just outworked us all. He really cared for his players and had a formula for winning. He taught me how you could be tough and demanding on the court and develop a solid player/coach relationship off it. Whenever I had success, he always called or sent me a note and that meant everything to me.”
Former Blue Springs South basketball coach Jimmy Cain added: “Two handwritten letters from Coach Lathrop – one after we won state in 2015 and another I received this past spring when I stepped down at (Blue Springs) South – remain in my office as two of the most cherished letters I have ever received. He gave me great advice anytime I ran into him during my career, and he always had a masterful way of simplifying the game to others.”
Joe Jackson added: “I’ve got so much respect for Coach Lathrop! He had me laughing when we talked, but everything he said was pure gold. He talked about the importance of our student-athletes surrounding themselves with good people that genuinely care about them and their success. One of my favorite things from our conversation, though, was when we were talking about Xavier Kelly, who was a really good basketball player for our Wichita East. He is a 6-foot-6 kid that played inside for us, who had incredible strength and explosiveness — very uncommon and is now a defensive end at Clemson. Coach Lathrop told me that we better implement the in and out Rule. I responded, ‘the in and out rule?’ He said, ‘Yes. If you don’t throw it in to Xavier, you’re coming out the game.’ Great memories from my brief time spent talking with Coach Lathrop.”
Jill Anderson, who graduated from Raytown High School in 1988, added: “His team was definitely unstoppable back in the day! He has always been well respected and loved in the Raytown community — no matter what side of the boundary!”
There will never be another Bud Lathrop. He was John Wayne, John Wooden and John Kennedy all rolled into one heroic package. There was no gray area when it came to Bud – it was black and white. You loved him or you hated him, and if you hated him, you were jealous of his success, the love and respect his players showed him – in the good times, and, more importantly, in the bad times.
Many of us have lost a good friend, but the memories will last forever. And there are so many that it would take an entire sports section to list them all. Thank you Coach for all you did for me and my family and for those amazing games that still come to life when I close my eyes and think back to your glory days.