If you’ve seen Trey Starks play basketball, you’ve seen the faces.
There’s the angry face, the one with the scowl. Sometimes it’s replaced by the shocked face, the one with his eyes wide open and his mouth starting to pry apart. On occasion, he flashes a puzzled face, one where his head and neck slightly tilt forward and his eyebrows raise.
But that’s not his entire arsenal. There’s also the sunshiny smile. The smirk. The ooh-I-didn’t-mean-to-do-that squint. The hearty, primal scream that seems to resonate from his core when he bears his teeth.
All of them have meaning. It’s not by his design, but they’re like a peek directly into 17-year-old Hillcrest High School senior’s basketball soul, competitive spirit and heart-on-his-sleeve personality all at the same time. But, with any type of flamboyance that comes without a microphone, the audience gets a chance to make their decision on him, judging him in their own minds.
And when word got out that he nearly flunked out of Glendale and was academically ineligible for the first 19 games of his senior season, it gave everyone reason to believe that the faces were simply the product of whatever negativity they wanted to believe. Were the stories true?
Is he really a “menace to society?”
How hasn’t Trey Starks had to report to juvie every weekend?
Trey Starks is out of control.
Completely misunderstood, Starks world was changing and his story was starting to leak out.
“Basketball is Trey’s bloodline,” said family friend Preston Ingram. “But, once he realized that basketball wasn’t everything, it was the best thing for him.”
It was time to develop a new face.
Born to a 16-year-old mother just outside of Baton Rouge, La. and a father that has been out of the picture for a long time, Starks moved to Springfield when he was in third grade. Paul Clark still remembers seeing him for the first time, especially their basketball encounter.
There was Clark — Stark’s uncle — in his early 30s and in his basketball prime. Starks, a kid who had never seen snow, was wearing shorts and boots in the cold. Clark had heard Starks liked to play basketball, so they went to the courts of Grant Beach Park to play one-on-one. Starks had the ball first.
Clark never saw the crossover coming.
“All of a sudden, he crossed me over and left me behind. I ended up beating him to seven, but I’ll never forget that crossover,” said Clark, Hillcrest graduate and a barber at Blu Styles, which is located at 221 E. Commercial St. in Springfield. “He did it in cowboys boots!”
See, for Starks, basketball has never been a problem. It’s been the one consistent thing in his life. It’s been the rest of life that’s been a whirlwind.
As a third-grader, he moved to Springfield to live with his grandparents, Dwight and Becky Pratt. LaToya Starks, Trey’s mother, was still maturing in her own right and the 8-year-old was a rebellious, overly-headstrong youngster in Louisiana. The Pratts thought it would be best to surround Trey with some strong male figures, so he moved with them to Springfield, enrolling at Weaver Elementary.
Pratt and a family friend knew Trey had a gift to play basketball, but after time there was only so much they could teach him, especially when he was playing up in age, battling fifth and sixth graders as a third and fourth grader. Eventually the family met former Parkview players Preston Ingram and Anthony Moore and they were responsible for his early basketball education. Pratt saw two more strong males to align Trey with.
“We focused on putting positive role models in his life,” Dwight Pratt said, noting Ingram is still a strong presence in his life. “We knew he needed that.”
Trey went to Pipkin Middle School, and then to Carver after the Pratts moved to the southside. But, in eighth grade, Trey’s mother moved to Springfield. She took custody of him and he attended Central. After finding some slight trouble, and fearful he might start running with the wrong crowd, the family rented a house in the Glendale district.
Things were fine for Trey until the end of his sophomore year. As Pratt put it, “Trey got full of Trey. He thought he was grown. That’s when the problems came up. I guess he thought, ‘I don’t have to do whatever anyone says and the rule don’t apply to me.’”
And, his new scenario enhanced the situation. His mother moved back to Louisiana, but the Pratts transferred to Lee’s Summit for a new job. If Trey thought he was grown, he was going to see what making grown decisions were. He was left in charge to find places to stay, squatting with friends and other family. If he was grown, he was going to have to prove it.
“We believe in tough love,” Dwight Pratt said. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t love and that we don’t forgive. We instilled in him what the streets would do you him if he wasn’t smart. We let him deal with it how he wanted.”
Trey didn’t handle it well. He blew off school work, thinking basketball was the only reason he needed Glendale. He was getting rides to school from friends, coaches and others, but it was sporadic. He was staying anywhere from two to three places a week, to two to three places a month. That type of inconsistency turned into a downward spiral that would eventually keep Starks away from the thing he loved most — basketball.
Eventually, he stopped worrying so much about homework, getting to school or doing the right thing. Others tried to help him, but he didn’t always accept, he wasn’t helping himself.
And he continued to make the faces. That’s what people remembered. See, Starks lives inside of many moments, generally giving a signal to what he is thinking. And when he wasn’t showing up to class, or not turning in his homework, it was assumed he was a problem child, or someone who didn’t care. Maybe it was true, but, Ingram stresses, “Trey has never been in trouble with the law.”
But, after blowing off school near the end of his junior year, Trey found out he was going to be ruled academically ineligible for the beginning of his senior year.
All of a sudden, he felt helpless. Was he making the right choices? Had he been too headstrong and was it possible he was wrong?
“It was tough, you know,” Starks said. “I didn’t want to do much, but I knew I wanted to play basketball.”
And that was Starks’ biggest problem. He didn’t enjoy school. He only wanted to do one thing — ball. But, he couldn’t until he got his school work figured out. It led to a series of events that changed his life and showed him right from wrong.
“He called me, upset and crying. He told me it was time to make a change. We had to get his mind back focused,” said Ingram, who is currently an assistant coach at Evangel. “We knew he had it in him, but we needed to see him take control of it.”
There Starks was, with no home, no basketball and no grades. There were questions whether he would even graduate on time. After shutting himself down from people like Ingram and Clark, both of whom helped him with basketball and life, Starks reached out.
Clark, who has a wife and four kids, told Starks he could live with him, on four conditions.
“All I want you to do is go to school, do your homework and play basketball,” Clark said he told Starks. “That’s the only way you’re going to further your education. If you do the schoolwork, basketball is going to get you your future.
“And, you’re going to have to transfer to Hillcrest.”
The light bulb didn’t go off immediately, but it started to warm up. Starks had never put his future in those terms before. It’s hard to think years into the future, when you’re not sure — or don’t care — what’s going to happen to you tomorrow.
The Hillcrest move wasn’t as hard as some expected. That troublesome reputation was growing at Glendale and he didn’t do enough to change it. He would have been the only senior on the team. Teachers didn’t take him seriously. He didn’t take it seriously. It was time to get a new start, whether basketball was involved or not.
“The change of scenery has been good for Trey that he needed a change to get re-focused on school and basketball and his life off the court,” Glendale coach Sean Williamson said.
After resigning himself to a life of school and no organized basketball, Ingram and Clark tried to find ways to regain Starks’ eligibility. Normally transfer students are required to sit out a year, per state rules — something put in place to keep top talent from sizing up the surrounding schools and forming all-star teams. However, appeal processes are in place, if students can prove a “hardship” or special situation was necessary. The eligibility board at MSHSAA ruled Starks could play as a senior if he passed his first semester classes and finished credit recovery for his slip-ups at Glendale.
It wasn’t easy. But, with Clark and Ingram watching over him outside of school and Hillcrest coach John Schaefer and the Hornet coaching staff staying on him inside the school’s walls, Starks got it done. He said it was many long nights — midnight and after — of picking up the pieces and investing in math, science and social studies, rather than basketball.
Schaefer tells the story of how the credit recovery process turned into a way that Starks could quantify his basketball future.
“With credit recovery, they give you all of your assignments on the first day and, that’s it,” said Schaefer, who is in his third year at Hillcrest. “He had this big stack of stuff and it gave him a finish line. If he would have had to go to class and have work assigned to him every day, would it have worked? Maybe, but this way, he understood.”
With all of that school work, mixed in with preseason training, as well as weeks of basketball practice as an ineligible player, there was little time for Starks to stray from the path. Mix that with an insatiable work ethic for all things basketball, Starks was soaring.
He was getting up and working out with Clark at 6 a.m. before class. Running. Jumpers. Dumbbells. Cord workouts. Bear claws. Lunges. He would work out again after practice, mixing it with his studies.
Even trying to reach to him in a way that would stroke the basketball-heavy part of his persona, Ingram and Clark warned him about his potential legacy.
“I didn’t want him to be just another guy that can play basketball and didn’t do anything with it,” Clark said.
It worked, in more ways than one. All involved learned shortly after the first semester ended that not only did Starks pass his classes at Hillcrest, he finished the credit recovery. He would be eligible to play.
“We knew something great was about to happen,” Clark said.
Without Starks, Hillcrest was a good team. The Hornets were entered in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions and featured future college football phenom Dorial Green and Springfield Tip-Off Club MVP Taylor Sade. But, something was missing. Hillcrest was on a slide when Starks showed up, flashing a 12-7 record.
Since Starks showed up to the lineup, the Hornets haven’t lost. And it hasn’t really been close. There is no coincidence. Starks is a unique blend of a running back body on the court, thick and mobile, but he can also shoot from the outside and handle point guard duties, if need be. He buys in on the defensive end too, helped by his tree-trunk physique.
Some questioned whether he’d be able to enter the lineup without waves. Schaefer said, not only has he been a good teammate, but the kids understand how he can — and has — made their team better.
But what about the faces? The preconceived notions? The rumors and assumptions?
“If he wasn’t so good, would there have been a problem? Possibly,” Schaefer said. “But he’s a great player and they know that he can help them get places they couldn’t get on their own. And, he’s been with us since Day 1 this season, so they know he’s in it for the right reasons.
“Is he crazy? Yeah, we all are, but he loves basketball.”
Teammate Taylor Sade played with Starks at a young age, playing on that team with Moore and Ingram in elementary school.
“I knew what it was like to play with him, but others had to get used to it,” Sade said. “Once they realized he wanted to win, they understood.”
Hillcrest (22-7) is 10-0 with Starks in the lineup as the Hornets take on Holt in Saturday’s Class 5 quarterfinal at Southwest Baptist University. The closest margin of victory has been seven points, duplicated in Wednesday’s sectional win over No. 2 ranked Nixa.
His impact can be quantified, with his 22.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game and his 41.5 percent 3-point shooting (17-of-41). But, the intangibles might be more important. A rubber-sole tough presence on defense has led to the proliferation of Starks’ new reputation — the 6-foot guy with the dreadlocks who dunks.
Starks gained notoriety with this dunk in that win over Joplin, gaining more than 5,000 views on YouTube since it was posted on Feb. 11. In the next game against Lebanon, he and Green combined for 10 dunks, five apiece. And most of it is created off of his defense.
“I’ve always told him, ‘Dunks aren’t easy. You have to go get yours,’” Clark said. “I think he’s finally listening.”
It’s that kind of athleticism that had Division I schools interested in his talents. Ingram, who coaches with the Mo-Kan AAU organization, said schools like Kansas State, Missouri and Wichita State were interested, until Starks’ grades became an issue. After the past few games, Ingram said Kansas State has inquired, but with no ACT and a sketchy academic background, it looks like junior college is going to be the next step.
Is Trey Starks a hero? No. Is he a 17-year-old, who has realized that life isn’t just about basketball, but it’s about school and relationships? Absolutely. In the least, he’s been given the road map.
While Ingram, Clark and Schaefer are quick to defend Stark for his heart-on-the-sleeve mentality, they also know he hasn’t made the best choices. Ingram said he blames Starks for 50 percent of his mistakes. Clark said Starks has made his fair share of problems for himself. Schaefer said it’s just a matter of maturity.
As for those faces, right now, they look good. He dunks. He scores. He wins. Young children in the Hillcrest community come up to him and wish him well before games. He and his family maintain that the faces are a part of Trey’s personality, but are never meant to be taken negatively.
Do they ruffle referees, opposing fans and opposing players? There’s no doubt, but they are rarely meant to offend. They’re a way for him to express himself on the court.
He’s starting to understand that, just as he’s starting to understand that there was more to life than basketball and more to life than making a decision for himself.
“I think he always knew right from wrong, but it was always easier for him to go down the wrong path,” Ingram said. “Now, I hope he understands that he can control where he goes from here.”
And that’s a new face.
Allen Vaughan is a national award-winning reporter and writer who lives in Springfield. After leaving the Springfield News-Leader in September of 2009, he has taken his affinity for sports in the Ozarks and tried to raise the bar in terms of innovative journalism. Want to get in touch with Allen? E-mail him at Allen@TAGsgf.com. You can follow him on Twitter here or on Facebook here.
(Here is a highlight package from KSPR 33′s Mike Scott)