The new jersey meant everything to Ish Wainright.
Wearing the King-Wainright jersey for the first time when Baylor played Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 1, Wainright felt like he was carrying a little piece of history with him on to the court.
Wainright’s grandfather, Maurice King, was the first black starter for the Jayhawks basketball team in the 1954 season.
“I wanted to wear the King-Wainright jersey to show respect to my grandfather and the King family,” Wainright said. “Since I wasn’t actually able to visit with him, I feel like he’s out there with me.”
Wainright never met his grandfather before he died in 2007. But he always wondered if Maurice King was his grandfather, and he underwent DNA testing with his biological father Maurice King III to prove it.
“I was going through my dad’s house just being nosy looking at stuff when I saw an obituary on Maurice King,” Wainright said. “He looked just like me. It freaked me out a little bit. So I wasn’t going to leave this world until I found out.”
He was excited when he learned that King was a groundbreaking African American basketball player in the 1950s who helped pave the way for all-time great Wilt Chamberlain to play for the Jayhawks during the same era. King was a sixth-round pick by the Boston Celtics in 1957 but only played briefly in the NBA after returning from a stint in the Army in 1959.
“Being part of history is amazing, and you can’t go wrong with making history,” Wainright said.
Since that game against Kansas in February, Wainright has continued to wear his new jersey bearing his grandfather’s name. Wainright feels like he’s carrying on his grandfather’s legacy and wants to do his best to uphold it.
On a Baylor squad with All-American forward Johnathan Motley, one of the nation’s best shot blockers in Jo Lual-Acuil and an outstanding point guard in Manu Lecomte, there isn’t a more respected player than Wainright.
Wainright is the Bears’ only senior and rarely leads them in scoring. But he provides exactly what the Bears need night after night whether it’s the crucial pass, a big basket, a rebound in traffic or a game-clinching defensive stop. He’s the kind of player that coaches often refer to as a “glue guy.”
“Without glue everything falls apart,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “Ish is extremely important whether he’s on the bench or on the court. He’s always been a great teammate, a great leader and is playing his best basketball. He does whatever it takes for the team to win.”
Wainright is a big reason the Bears are No. 9 in the country with a 25-6 record heading into Thursday’s Big 12 tournament opener against Kansas State at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
The Big 12 tournament means a lot to Wainright, not only because it will be his last but because he’s from Kansas City. He was a Kansas Jayhawks fan growing up and attended the tournament or games in Lawrence whenever he could.
“I’m going to try not to look at it as being my last time there because I might get a little bit emotional,” Wainright said. “But I promise to God that I’m going to give it my all every single minute I’m out there on the court. We have one goal and that’s to win the tournament championship.”
Wainright played his sophomore year at Raytown South High School in the Kansas City area before playing his final two years at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. He was a top 100 national recruit who originally committed to Missouri before choosing Baylor over such schools as Ohio State and Texas.
While Wainright is a key part of Baylor’s success now, it certainly didn’t start out that way after he arrived on campus in 2013.
Wainright immediately cracked Baylor’s starting lineup as a freshman but was replaced by Royce O’Neale after seven games. He finished the season averaging just 1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds in nine minutes per game for Baylor’s Sweet 16 team.
His production didn’t get much better as a sophomore when he averaged 1.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game. Those weren’t the type of numbers people expected from a top 100 national recruit but Wainright didn’t sink into deep depression or consider transferring.
Wainright chalked up his first two years as a learning experience and was willing to do whatever it took to play a bigger role as a junior and senior.
“Life is about challenges and my dad said don’t run from them because God put you here for a reason,” Wainright said. “That’s how I was raised, so I don’t run from difficult times. I learned from Royce O’Neale, I learned from Taurean Prince and even learned from Ekpe Udoh when he comes down. My body was ready but my mind wasn’t for college. I feel comfortable saying that.”
Coming back as a junior at a leaner 235 pounds on his 6-5 frame, Wainright moved into the starting lineup for Baylor. He showed the characteristics that have made him a vital part of the program as he averaged 5.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and shot 40.6 percent from 3-point range for a Baylor squad that reached the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.
“Ish is a stat sheet stuffer,” Drew said. “He does whatever it takes for the team to win. He’s somebody physically who gives you some size and strength to rebound in traffic and he has great passing ability that allows you to spread out the defense. Last year his improvement in his shot was important in spacing the floor and allowing him to drive.”
Wainright has put up similar numbers as a senior by averaging 5.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. But he leads the team with 56 steals and was excited when he learned he was named to the Big 12’s all-defensive team.
Baylor has been one of the nation’s best defensive teams all season, and Wainright’s intensity and savvy are big reasons why.
“I pride myself on defense, I love defense,” Wainright said. “ That’s what drives me if I can come down and lock up the best player on the opposing team. I like challenges. In practice, I’ll ask the coaches if I can guard Motley for a few plays to get in his head a little bit.”
Scoring has never been a priority for Wainright, and it’s been that way since he was a kid.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was playing with my older brother and there were about five seconds left in the game,” Wainright said. “The play was drawn up for my older brother to shoot the ball in the corner. But the play broke down and I took the shot and airballed it. The other guys on the team chased me around the gym and beat me up. It was a traumatic experience. Ever since then I’ve been a pass-first person.”
Wainright has such a presence on the Baylor squad that his teammates will stop and listen any time he has something to say whether it’s words of encouragement or a scolding.
“He’s not afraid to confront people, and as a leader that’s something you have to be willing to do,” said Baylor sophomore guard Jake Lindsey. “He even wasn’t afraid to confront Rico (Gathers). I know a lot of people wouldn’t be willing to do that. But if he sees someone who needs a positive word or a pick me up he’s right there. He does a great job balancing that.”
But Wainright isn’t just a vocal leader, he sets an example that the other Baylor players follow whether it’s practice or a game.
“There have been a lot of great words spoken about Ish,” Lindsey said. “But when your leader is one of your hardest workers and he’s a good person, it kind of sets the tone for everything that goes on top to bottom.”
Wainright also has the respect of Big 12 coaches because they see how he’s so unselfish and team driven. They also know how he persevered for two years before stepping into a bigger role, and that’s become rare in an era when college players often seek instant gratification.
“When I arrived we tried to recruit him too late to get involved,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. “He was a highly touted young man, and you’ve got to give him credit for his character and attitude. When players don’t have instant success, they transfer. I admire how he’s stayed the course. Ish Wainright does everything for them. You can tell he’s the leader on the court. When things go bad, he grabs them as a group and helps them do the things they need to be successful.”
Wainright loves playing with this group of players and relishes the bond they’ve created. He hopes he can lead the Bears to the Final Four and carry on the family basketball legacy that began with Maurice King back in the 1950s.
“We have the team, the chemistry, the bond, we’ve got the coaching staff and we’ve got the fans,” Wainright said. “It’s not just about us winning. If we win it, it’s for Baylor Nation and that’s exciting.”