High on hoops in Aspen
November 20, 2009
ASPEN – Steve Ketchum paced outside the locker room, drawing stares from passersby filtering into the cafeteria.
“The parents could see me, and probably thought, ‘Oh, Coach Ketchum is about to explode,'” Aspen’s head boys basketball coach recounted earlier this week, leaning forward in his office chair for emphasis.
It was 1988 and Ketchum, then the head coach at Clever High School in southwest Missouri, was trying to compose himself before addressing his squad, which trailed by 20 at halftime after a less than inspiring performance.
It didn’t work.
“Sure enough, I walk in, take my clipboard and slam it on the ground,” Ketchum recalls. “Then, I begin chewing out kids left and right, whaling on them. Telling them ‘That was horrible.’ For some reason they were all smirking, trying not to chuckle.'”
He stopped, gazed up and down the bench and said, “OK, what’s so funny?”
Recommended Stories For You
One player raised his hand.
“When you slammed your clipboard on the ground, your pen flew over your head and landed in the toilet,” the player answered.
Ketchum turned, reached into the bowl and retrieved his writing utensil.
After a short pause, he said, “Guys, that was the best shot we’ve made so far.”
Both coach and players erupted in laughter. Later, they pulled out a 20-point win.
• • • •
While he may be as sharp as ever, Ketchum insists he bears little resemblance to the brash, young coach that led Clever to a 25-4 record and a berth in the state championship game. Sure, he has experienced similar success during a career that has spanned three decades on two continents, from small schools to big, players 5-foot-2 to well above 6 feet. His latest stop in Aspen has been replete with 184 wins and four Great 8 appearances in 11 seasons.
But he’s more compassionate these days, Ketchum says.
He attributes the shift to his three adopted sons and wife, who form his true starting five. Interspersed between the autographed balls and team photos in his Aspen High office are scores of vibrant amateur artwork, a box filled with children’s movies, a craft table, antibacterial wipes and a Spiderman backpack.
While dad conducted a recent afternoon practice, 4-year-old Dre and 9-year-old C.J. ambled through a folded section of bleachers. Cory, 7, badminton racquet in hand, lapped the Skier Dome floor on a pair of Heelys skate shoes while chasing a shuttlecock.
“They make life interesting,” Ketchum jokes. “There’s never a dull moment at our house. … Now they want a drum set and an electric guitar for Christmas. I can only imagine what that will be like.”
If there actually is a softer side to this venerable coach, the son of an Air Force colonel who flew supply planes in the Vietnam War, players likely have not discovered it. Not those who gasped for air and tugged at their gym shorts after suicide sprints during practice last week. Not those subjected to a seemingly unceasing string of defensive and dribbling drills.
Ketchum is equal parts drill sergeant and mentor, capable of both humbling and humoring those who suit up for him. He’s as quick to halt practice to point out a missed assignment – his high-pitched squawk seems capable of shattering the backboards at times – as he is to extend a congratulatory handshake and share a laugh.
Some things never change.
Ketchum, whistle at the ready, follows the action closely, weaving in and out of approaching players – a matador in an oversized white polo, glasses and blue warm-ups.
It hardly seemed to matter that this was the first full week of practice – or that the bulk of his varsity squad, still playing football, was conspicuously absent.
“At one point, basketball was my whole life. I thought about it day and night, 24/7,” Ketchum says. “Now, I have some balance. When you don’t have that other side, it’s all you think about and you just get obsessed.
“[Basketball is] still big, though. It’s still very, very important.”
• • • •
It seems like a curious vocation, given that Ketchum says he first played basketball in sixth grade. Growing up on the outskirts of Honolulu – as well as Missouri, Greeley, Arizona and Virginia – he dreamed of becoming a baseball or football star. He still remembers donning a Miami Dolphins jersey, helmet and shoulder pads and dashing out into the street for a game of two-hand touch one Christmas.
Ketchum, whose family relocated from Arizona to Virginia during his freshman year of high school, tried out for basketball during his sophomore year at Lake Braddock Secondary School. The first week of tryouts went well, he says. Then, his voice trails off.
Was he cut?
“No. Worse. Much worse,” he says. “My mom cut me.”
He continues: “My parents were strict. They knew I was capable of average grades, and didn’t accept anything less. … The grade cards came out, and I was sweating it. Chemistry was killing me. I ended up with a D-plus. My mom said, ‘That’s it. No basketball.’
“It crushed me. I had to go tell the coach I had to quit. I was so embarrassed.”
So embarrassed that he never tried out again. His basketball-playing was confined to pick-up and church league games.
Ketchum followed his older brother Randy to Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo. Because there was no football program, he decided to give basketball another try. No walk-ons were selected during his freshman year.
It was in the classroom, not the gym, that things shifted drastically for Ketchum. During one of his “theory of coaching football” classes, his professor, the head coach at a nearby high school, solicited help from students to run the school’s freshman squad. Ketchum’s hand shot up.
He and a classmate split up the offense and defense and wound up guiding the team to a 6-0 mark.
“I was 17 years old and coaching my own team,” Ketchum says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it. I’m going to be a coach. This is way too cool.'”
Ketchum made the Southwest Baptist basketball team his sophomore year, but played only one season. He eventually landed a volunteer position coaching middle school, freshman and junior varsity teams at Skyline High School, some 45 minutes from campus.
After spending two years working toward a master’s in fitness theory and nutrition, plus serving as a coaching assistant for the men’s and women’s hoops teams at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Ketchum returned to Missouri.
At 22, he was offered his first paid coaching job – at tiny Hermitage High School. He made $12,000 to serve as athletic director and head coach of all boys’ and girls’ teams,
One year later, he moved on to a high school in Norwood, Mo., to head all the boys teams.
“It was Cow Town, U.S.A.,” jokes Ketchum, whose parents both grew up on Missouri farms. “Here I am showing up to games in three-piece suits while the fans are wearing cover-alls, cowboy hats and boots right off the farm that were covered in cow dung. No lie.
“I was really out of place there, but I loved it. It was like going back to my roots.”
After two years, Ketchum moved to Clever, outside Springfield, and took the squad from 8-16 in his first season to 18-6, then to 25-4 and within one win of the state title. He was named state coach of the year.
“I was shocked,” Ketchum remembers. “I didn’t think anyone knew who I was.”
Other state schools were taking notice. Branson High School came calling in 1988, and Ketchum decided to take the leap to a higher classification. He spent two years helping rebuild the program before deciding to test the waters in larger markets.
Ketchum spurned an offer from Festus High School outside St. Louis to take the head coaching job at Bonner Springs, near Kansas City. Ketchum went winless in his first season; Festus, buoyed by the transfers of two all-state caliber players, won a state championship.
• • • •
Ketchum would catch his big break six years later when, on a trip to Germany over the holidays with his then-wife, he learned of a head coaching vacancy with the professional club team GB Karlsruhe.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ketchum remembers saying when friends delivered the news. “Who’s available during vacation?”
On a whim, he decided to interview and was offered the job.
The coach returned home to address Bonner Springs school officials, and was granted a four-month sabbatical. He was back on a plane the following day and in the stands at a Karlsruhe game hours after his arrival.
His team, which included German, French, Croatian and Polish players, among others, rebounded from an 0-12 start with 14 wins in its final 21 games under Ketchum’s watch. Team officials were so encouraged that they offered him a three-year contract.
The following season, Ketchum took over the club’s top two men’s teams and three younger squads. He led them all to championships.
“They were carrying me on their shoulders. … We went to a restaurant and 500 people were there chanting my name,” Ketchum recalls. “It was like a movie. … It was too good to be true.”
While he reveled in his success abroad, Ketchum contemplated his next step. He was worried about job security and overall stability. He was worried his contacts in the states would dry up.
After one final mediocre season, one in which his team squared off with Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, Ketchum returned to his parents’ home in Lyons in spring 1998.
He did some substitute teaching, and even served as Longmont’s girls tennis coach for a stretch. Then, he saw a newspaper advertisement for a health teacher in Aspen. He would later learn the Skiers were looking for a boys basketball coach, too.
Ketchum, a finalist for head coaching jobs at Boulder High, Salida and Centaurus, decided to move to the mountains.
• • • •
After a lifetime on the move, Ketchum finally feels like he has a place to call home.
“For me, there is no better place than this,” he gushes. I’ve seen it all and done it all. … Being in those other places really lets me appreciate this.”
In his first season in Aspen, he led the senior-laden Skiers to a 19-7 record and a state tournament berth. Aspen won 21 games and returned to state in 2002.
Not all has gone according to plan, however.
In June 2004, budding superstar Alex Terral was killed in a car crash on Highway 82. Later that year, his familiar No. 4 jersey was retired and the hoops team dedicated the season, which would have been Terral’s senior year, to their fallen teammate.
Less than two years later, Ketchum was suspended indefinitely after allegedly shoving and swearing at player Luke Gosda during an altercation at practice.
“We’ve had our share of hardships, tragedies and tough times. … I think I’ve learned more these last 11 years than I ever did before,” Ketchum says. “It’s kind of a corny saying, but tough times never last, tough people do. … Part of this job is about survival. You try to do the right thing and try to learn from your mistakes.”
The team mimicked its coach’s resiliency. After down seasons in 2005 and 2006 – Ketchum’s only sub-.500 seasons in Aspen – the Skiers bounced back, establishing themselves as the preeminent program in the 3A Western Slope.
That label was secured in January 2008, when Aspen toppled Roaring Fork, 61-57, snapping the Rams’ 53-game conference winning streak.
“”They were really disciplined, really well-coached, and any time you got a win against Steve it was a feather in your cap,” says former Roaring Fork coach Roger Walters, who now leads the girls hoops program at Mesa State. “I don’t think the average person knows how hard it is to get to the state tournament. He’s done it year in and year out at a public school. It’s impressive to see what he’s accomplished.”
The Skiers, led by 3A Mr. Basketball Cory Parker, now a sophomore at Drake University in Iowa, went 23-4 that year and made it to the state semifinals before being derailed by Faith Christian.
Last season’s squad won 24 of 27 games, a second consecutive league and regional crown, and made a return trip to Fort Collins. Expect more success to follow this season with a squad Ketchum unabashedly proclaims is one of the state’s best.
Is there a formula for Ketchum’s success, one that has endured on the hardwood, the hard courts and gridiron? For this coach, it comes down to people, not schemes.
“Love your players. Love the kids … and let them know it every day,” he says. “Then be tougher on them than they’ve ever wanted, hold them to a higher standard than they hold themselves. If you can do both, they will go through the pain, the torture … They’ll do almost anything for you.”
One current player agrees.
“He puts in the time and he’s hard on you because he knows you can do better,” says senior Andrew Papenfus. “He shows he really wants you to succeed. … It makes you want to give it your all.
“It’s not just a player-coach relationship, it’s a friendship. We definitely wouldn’t have had the success we’ve had without him.”
While he may be more sensitive these days, Ketchum has not lost that hunger. He’s comfortable, but never completely satisfied. After all, he says, there is still much to learn.
“It’s a never-ending process of learning to be a better person, a better coach, a better mentor,” he adds. “I’ll never be as good a coach as I want to be, but I thank God every day that I’m not as bad as I used to be.”