I wrote this three years ago and posted it on the night they retired the number of the best player ever produced at my high school — South Stokes. The time when we were in high school seems impossibly long ago, 1973-77. I just saw Ken Dennard at our 40th high school reunion in September. The last time I had seen him prior to that was the day after I posted this story, Nov. 30, 2014 at Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke was playing Army (confirming photo at the bottom). As my longime friend noted on social media today, it seems appropriate to remember this now in our reunion year. I altered the headline of this a little as a nod to The Dog’s derby, which he calls “Big Blue.” What else would a Duke alum to do?
The dog barked. That was always the first indication that a visitor — wanted or unwanted — was coming toward the house. We always heard the dog before any cars or trucks came into view on the long, curving uphill road.
We really didn’t get much traffic out in Danbury, a tiny place on the Dan River between Hanging Rock State Park and nowhere much. People who wound up at our house were either family members, hopelessly lost, trying to hide from the law, or all three simultaneously.
So when an ice-blue metallic late-model car — more commonly known as a “bomb” — came into view after a few seconds of irate barking, it was downright weird. This was in the summer of 1975, probably early August. Late enough for most summertime events to be well past but still a week or two before my junior year of high school was to start. I was just about the last kid in the South Stokes High Class of 1977 to get my driver’s license. I was stuck there.
I recognized the car but was still stunned to see it. A friend from high school was behind the wheel. Because I lived in Danbury and he resided 10 to 15 miles away in King, we seldom crossed paths when school was out. A kid in Danbury without the ability to drive might as well live in Morocco when it came to seeing classmates in the summer. Kids coming from King to Danbury? Well, it just wasn’t done.
But Kenny Dennard was always different.
WHEN KENNY Dennard drove up to my house that afternoon in 1975, he was on his way to becoming the best basketball player in the history of my high school. But few would’ve predicted it even three months before. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have a basketball pedigree. All the Dennards, including his mom, were tall. The men were all 6 feet 5 inches or better. Kenny’s older brother, Tommy, played at South and then later collegiately at Catawba. He was 6-7.
As winter turned to spring in 1975, Kenny seemed stuck at 6-3, was on the pudgy side and had a boyish face topped by a Dutch boy haircut. He seemed to take nothing seriously. The latter was the basis for our friendship. We both liked jokes, memorized Johnny Carson’s bits from “The Tonight Show” and specialized in wisecracks and basic class disruption. Once on a vocabulary exam in English class when asked to define the word “hoard,” he wrote, “What a woman might do on Saturday night to make money.”
He liked basketball but didn’t seem all that dedicated to it. He posted a forgettable junior varsity season. As the four-eyed kid who kept stats for the team, I recorded every bit of it. I needled him relentlessly, too.
The person who emerged from the car that summer day, though, was a revelation. A lean and lanky 6-foot, 7-inch body with the face and voice of a man was presented for inspection. By way of explanation, Kenny told me he shot up in height, slimmed down, started working out and spent time at Wake Forest basketball camp where he began to hold his own with talented high school and college players. He had decided to be a great player and was willing to do whatever it might take to get there. I had no idea then how competitive he could be.
He wanted to show off a little because I had given him so much grief over the previous two years. My criticism made him work a little harder, he told me.
I always doubted that. But I did know one thing for sure as he drove off that day: South Stokes would have a very good team in 1975-76.
AND WE did. For two seasons Kenny Dennard played at a level few match in high school. Oh, he didn’t pile up a bunch of 40-point games. But he played with the kind of abandon seldom seen in star players. He did just about everything, including dive recklessly on a tile basketball floor that was only hiding concrete underneath. After surviving the latter, he took us to the brink of a state 3A title in 1977, dated the prettiest girl at South Stokes, made All-State and won a basketball scholarship to Duke University.
He stood out. He did things his own way and seldom took “no” for a final answer. He pushed buttons, won admirers and detractors. He was not without controversy. The prettiest girl at our high school? She was black and he was white. Stokes County wasn’t the most progressive place in 1977. Neither of their lives was easy back then. For every friend, there was an enemy.
It only made them stronger.
A year after we graduated from high school, Kenny started on a Duke team that went to the national championship game. He started four years in Durham and co-captained Mike Krzyzewski’s first team. He played three NBA seasons and might’ve had one of those pro careers the term “journeyman” was coined to describe. Testicular cancer ended his playing days.
The last time I saw him face to face was at Holly Hill Mall in Burlington sometime in the late 1980s. He participated in a cancer Jail-A-Thon here. I drove over to visit him. We talked for almost an hour, pretty much as if we never stopped after high school.
He married the prettiest girl in our class, and they have a college age son. When I see his photo on Facebook, I see the image of his mother. It makes me smile. Kenny owns a company in Houston specializing in investor relations.
Saturday Kenny returned to our old high school for the first time since we graduated 37 years ago. They finally got around to retiring his jersey, number 34. “Better late than posthumously,” he wrote when asked about it.
Yep, Kenny Dennard was always different.