The Rangeview boys basketball team has an unbeaten win-loss record, but behind the scenes, the Raiders have suffered two of the biggest losses imaginable.
On the hidden side of a winning streak that has reached 57 games (dating back to the 2018-19 season) and cemented coach Shawn Palmer’s Raiders as one of the favorites to hoist the Class 5A state championship trophy, two members of the team continue to lean on each other and their teammates as they try to cope with tremendous personal loss.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant loss to so many and altered the reality of everybody in perceptible and imperceptible ways.
On top of all that uncertainty and tumult, Rangeview junior Elijah Thomas and senior Josh Wyatt must try to navigate the new world without their fathers, anchors of their lives who both died recently.
It is something that Palmer — who is particularly tuned into the depth of the father-son bond with his son, Cade, now a senior on the varsity team — has never had to go through with any of the players he has coached, much less two, amidst times that have been trying in even the best of circumstances.
“I’ve been coaching for 19 years and I’ve never had a player lose a father and now it was two in a matter of weeks,” Palmer said of the mere 27-day span between the loss of Thomas’ father, Lewey, and Wyatt’s dad, Kevin, in December of 2020.
“Our guys have grown closer together because of it,” he continued. “At the time it happened, we couldn’t even get together to give the kids a hug or able to support those guys during difficult times like we normally would. These are two really good and mature kids and supportive families, so it’s really sad. I know a lot of people have lost family members over the last 10 months, so they aren’t the only ones, but when you see a 16-, 17-year-old kid lose his dad, it is really tough.”
Basketball has been a lifeline to both Rangeview players in their time of personal struggle and the game got to be important to them wholly or in part because of their fathers, who nurtured and supported their love of it and will continue to inspire it even as they are gone.
Whether or not a state championship awaits the Raiders at the conclusion of their season — which would be cathartic for a lot of reasons — the way they have come together to support two teammates will make it a success that will carry on for years.
Eat ’em up
Elijah Thomas took up the game of basketball in fourth grade with an assist from his dad, Lewey, who came to him and asked him if he wanted to play for an Aurora recreational team.
Thomas told him he’d give it a try and Lewey helped get him signed up. From then on, the father and son bonded over basketball in a big way and it ignited a passion in Elijah that burns bright.
If Elijah was at home shooting baskets on a stand-alone hoop next to the garage, his dad would come outside to rebound and feed him passes, no matter what kind of day he’d had.
“We were super close. He was my biggest fan and everything,” he said. “The days he would come off work super tired, he would still come out and rebound for me or help me practice. He was always there putting effort in to get me better and off the court giving me an education on life.
“Once I got into basketball, my biggest motivation was him just being the person he was, putting so much into helping me out and getting me better each day.”
The phrase Elijah heard most from his dad was “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” a well-known sports adage — made popular by players such as Kevin Durant and Tim Tebow — that he took to heart.
“That was really important to me, he would say it to me all the time, especially on days when I was sore and practiced the whole week, but you have to keep working,” Thomas said. “When I wouldn’t want to practice, he would tell me that quote to get me going.
“I miss him just being around.”
Though his dad’s athletic experience came mostly in football — Lewey had the impressive physique that gave him the look of a linebacker — Elijah came to expect “constructive criticism” after games.
Whether it was a reminder to release his jump shot on the way up, keep his head up with the ball in his hands or make sure to look for open teammates first — Elijah absorbed it all and tried to do something with it.
“I probably had a little attitude about the things he would say, but I definitely made sure to take it in,” he said. “Then we’d come back and talk again and those conversations lasted for hours.”
Shawn Palmer called Lewey Thomas always “one of the most positive guys in our gym” whenever he was around and even complete strangers felt that vibe.
Lewey would compliment the game of opposing players or offer to get them connected with the trainer Elijah uses if he thought it might benefit them.
Some kids might be embarrassed by this, but it was a point of pride for Elijah.
“Even when it was with somebody we didn’t know, he had such a positive attitude and was so welcoming,” Elijah said. “If he saw somebody he thought had potential, he was always asking them if they wanted to get in the gym with me or if they wanted to get in with my trainer.”
The father-son driveway hoop sessions became fewer and fewer after Lewey — a City of Aurora employee — was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer at the beginning of 2020, during which he turned 50 years old.
“I really didn’t know and he hadn’t told me (everything about his health), but I figured things out when he started to go downhill,” Elijah said. “Before when he would come home and even when he was still super tired, he would come out with me, but when he started to say he didn’t feel like it, I knew that wasn’t him.”
On Dec. 1, 2020, Lewey Thomas died, leaving behind Elijah, his mother, Sabrina, and three other children from previous relationships.
The family came together from places across the country and had a funeral — the best that could be managed during the coronavirus pandemic — and Elijah has heard daily from his older siblings since then. He said he’s tried to step up and help his mom in any way he knows how, sometimes by just being there.
On top of the loss of his father, Thomas wasn’t able to get on the basketball court with his team. His previous two high school seasons began in late November, but not this one, as Rangeview and teams around Colorado couldn’t even practice until late January.
When he finally got back on the court, Elijah earned his way into the starting lineup for a team that went 26-0 last season — before it had its season ended prematurely before the state semifinals due to the explosion of COVID-19 — and remains the last 5A boys team to be crowned state champion back at the end of the 2018-19 season.
The 5-foot-11 guard opened the season on fire, including a 17-point outburst in the second game against Columbine on Jan. 29 when he finished with 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals in a 27-point Rangeview win.
“Before each game, my dad would always say ‘Eat ’em up,’” so I would try to go out there and ‘eat ‘em up’ every time I would be on the court,” Elijah said.
Palmer definitely took notice.
“His father was his biggest fan and coach, so losing him unfortunately made Elijah grow up in a lot of ways that any kid his age shouldn’t have to,” Palmer said. “He’s really focused his attention on being the best basketball player that he can be.”
A rolled ankle has kept Elijah out of the last four games for the 11-0 Raiders, but he expects to return in the final week of the regular season and be ready for the playoffs.
Elijah hopes that basketball can take him places for college, especially anywhere warmer than Colorado where he can get outside and play the game year round. He has his eyes currently set on Florida.
But for now, Thomas just wants to get healthy and get back to contributing to Rangeview on its quest to win a state championship.
‘You Got Next’
Football was the sport Kevin Wyatt made his way in, but that’s not how it ended up for his children, enough for a starting five in basketball plus one.
Wyatt played defensive back at the University of Arkansas in the 1980s and spent a couple of seasons in the National Football League with the Kansas City Chiefs and then-San Diego Chargers.
His kids — including his youngest son, Josh — all gravitated towards basketball, however.
“Basketball is just something different, it has a special connection throughout the family,” Josh Wyatt said. “Even the extended family played basketball at some point. I just feel like that is the sport that sticks with us and it’s the one we’re the most passionate about.”
Three of Josh Wyatt’s older brothers — Austan, Chris and Kevin Jr. — played basketball at Grandview High School in the early 2000s for veteran coach Gary Childress, while his other brother, Tim, played for Palmer at Rangeview, graduating in 2015. His older sister, Danita, also played basketball at Rangeview and went on to a standout college career in track & field at Colorado State-Pueblo.
Josh is thankful for that large family, which rallied together after their father, Kevin, died on Dec. 28, 2020, at 56 years old after battling the damaging effects of diabetes for several years.
A day into the new year, the family had a socially distanced funeral for Kevin — a man of tremendous faith who a was local pastor for decades — where each of his children stood up and said something about their father.
When it was his turn, Josh had a clear message.
“I said that he was a strong individual that never gave up and he was a very real, loving, giving person,” Josh said. “He would tell you the truth and try to help you if he could.
“My dad was a role model of what a man should be.”
Moving on has been understandably difficult, but Josh said that each day seems to be a little better for himself and his family, who have been drawn closer than before.
“It has been tough, but we take it one day at a time and just try to keep his legacy going, staying strong and not giving up on anything,” Josh said. “We’re getting through it and I feel like we’re getting more used to it every single day.”
A significant part of the healing process for Josh, as could be expected, has been basketball.
“When Coach found out the news, he texted me about a hoop session we were having and I told him I would love to go,” Josh said.
“Just to play basketball and take my mind off the stuff that was happening at the house and the stuff that took place after his death. I used basketball as an outlet and I still do. It’s always been an outlet. You don’t think about anything but the court and what you’re doing. It has been a mind-clearer.”
Wyatt wears a reminder of his father every day in the form of a metal bracelet, which bears the inscription ‘We Love Ya, You Got Next,” a basketball euphemism for your turn is coming.
Not everything basketball has been easy for Wyatt this season, especially given that the start of the season was delayed by several months by the coronavirus pandemic.
Once the season began, Wyatt found himself sitting on the bench more often than he would like on a team full of talented players, many of which are trying to make their mark. But much of the reason Rangeview has been so good for quite some time is that different players step up when the team needs.
Wyatt has done his part and came through with his best game when the Raiders needed it most. In a battle with Chaparral Feb. 23 — a game played with his brother, Tim, sitting in the front row in one of the first games with fans — Josh almost couldn’t miss.
Playing a season-high 20 minutes, he made five of the six shots he took, including two 3-pointers, and went 3-for-3 from the free throw line on his way to 15 points. All of his points came in the second half as Rangeview withstood every blow from the upset-minded Wolverines 62-58 to keep its unbeaten record intact.
“I’m going to do whatever I need to do for the team, but I’m also going to contribute every single play, shot and steal to my dad,” Wyatt said. “Every time I’m tired or I’m hurting, I’m going to do my best to be a hard worker like he was.”
Bonded in grief
Thomas and Wyatt share a bond that neither of them would ever want: the tragic losses of their fathers.
They’d much rather share something else in common, but that’s their reality and they are glad to have each other in case they need a sympathetic ear.
It may not often be sitting down to pour out feelings, but just knowing there is somebody else nearby who knows the same type of pain that most people at their age don’t and are also trying to cope can’t help but make them feel closer to each other.
“My dad met Josh and introduced him to my trainer and ever since then we’ve been close,” Thomas said. “The unfortunate passing of our fathers definitely brought us closer and we seem to communicate more during practice.”
Added Wyatt: “I feel like it did give us a new level of connection. We feel the same way and we both had the same situation, so I feel there is more of a closer bond to us.”
A team to lean on
Having a dad that is so involved in his life and coaches him in basketball made the losses of his teammates really hit home to Cade Palmer, one of Rangeview’s co-captains.
“They are definitely being really strong right now and I respect that a lot,” he said. “That’s got to be a really tough thing to go through.”
Thomas and Wyatt haven’t gone through it alone. Besides the support they get from their respective families, they have another advantage not everything who is suffering does: a team to be a part of that does what it can to have the back of every one of its members when they truly need it.
As soon as the news of each of the deaths came out, Shawn Palmer set up a shared document for team members to send messages of encouragement or anything they thought could uplift their teammates in their time of need.
“When we heard about both of them, not very far apart, we made a Google document for both of them,” said Cade Palmer, who is a Rangeview team captain along with Devon Philio and Jayden Foster.
“Even though it was at a time when we couldn’t be together as a team, we tried to give them as much support as we could and let them know we were there to help them,” he added. “I think the brotherhood is really important. It’s a big part of high school sports, having that community of guys that can support you and you can support them in tough situations.”
On the document, senior Ismael Dembele shared this special message for Wyatt: “Josh, I’ve known you since 8th grade bro. You have a great heart and good intentions. Your parents truly raised you well my brotha. I also didn’t know your dad very well but I’ve had some conversations with him throughout the season. He’s filled with joy and enthusiasm. Every time I spoke to him he was always happy. Life won’t be the same for you without him from now on but I encourage you to use this loss and turn it into a win. By that I mean use this as motivation to strive for more. Everything you do now, your dad will be by your side. I love you bro, God bless you and your family.”
Wyatt appreciated everything he heard from his teammates.
“I heard from them right away, the day I broke the news or the day after,” Wyatt said. “I didn’t want to just text everybody, but they reached out when they could. The support was phenomenal.”
Thomas feels the support as well, though he prefers it to be quiet.
“I really appreciate them not bringing it up all the time, but they’ve been really supportive,” he said.
Between the challenges presented by COVID-19, the isolation of remote learning and this tremendous sense of loss, Shawn Palmer has noted a different dynamic to this group than any he has had before.
“A lot of people are getting caught up in we have to wear masks and all that, but I don’t care if we have to wear helmets, we’re going to do whatever we need to do because it’s really important to have a season and have that camaraderie,” Palmer said. “This is even more of a connected team than we’ve had in years past. They aren’t going to school with their friends every day, they’re not going to parties, the only people they are interacting with are teammates and coaches.
“Even though our benches are spaced out and huddles look different, this team has a higher level of trust and camaraderie than years past because of those things.”
This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. The intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal.
If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255)