PAOLO BANCHERO TWISTS his 6-foot-10 frame into a kids’ chair surrounded by atilt Lego towers. “Don’t Touch” signs adorn computer desks, child-scrawled warnings amid a makeshift cityscape of plastic.
It’s hardly a scene where you’d expect to see the $50.16 million-deal-wielding budding star of the Orlando Magic. Banchero isn’t rocking the viral purple suit he wore when he became the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in June. Wearing a loose black hoodie and sweats that disguise his strength, today the 19-year-old is dressed more like he was a half-dozen years ago, when this building was practically home.
“I get nostalgic coming back to this place, walking through,” he says, looking over his shoulder and into the homework room at the Rotary Boys and Girls Club. “I spent a lot of time here.”
Banchero grew up in Seattle, minutes away from Rotary, a cinderblock beacon for a Central District neighborhood that has been bent, warped, shattered and rebuilt by change. Back in the 1970s, the Black Panthers served free meals here on weekends. When Sir Mix-A-Lot was rising from Seattle obscurity to household stardom, he put on concerts in the gym. The city’s basketball talent had always found their way to Rotary’s aging hardwood, but few found nationwide success beyond it. For the past three decades, two local coaches have been working to change that, turning Rotary’s neighborhood talent pool into one of the most successful AAU programs in the country and creating a community springboard to the game’s highest peaks. Now Banchero is poised to be Rotary Style’s biggest success story to date.
“This is the place I started playing basketball,” says Banchero, a McDonald’s All-American, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year at Duke and the odds-on favorite for the 2022-23 NBA Rookie of the Year, particularly after he became the first player since LeBron James to have at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in his NBA debut last week.
His left leg bears a tattoo of his Rotary jersey, the same No. 5 he’s worn at every stop since. His right biceps features the cross streets of 19th and Spruce. It’s the same address where he sits today, heeding a siren call to the program that catalyzed his journey to Duke and now Orlando.
“This place means as much to me as anything can mean to someone,” Banchero says, stretching out his legs before leaning in.
“They could wipe my memory and I wouldn’t forget Rotary.”
IT’S 1994, AND SEVEN men sit in Dan Finkley’s Central District apartment, flipping through a packet Finkley had distributed — a plan for an AAU basketball program complete with community obligations and mentorship projects. They’re handheld versions of a dream he could no longer keep to himself.
The men pore over his pages. Some shake their heads. Scoffs sweep across his living room. Finkley, a distribution manager at Pepsi, thinks his dream is DOA. Then Daryll Hennings, a young paralegal, raises his hand.
Years earlier, Finkley and Hennings had formed a friendship through basketball — playing in community centers and on outdoor courts. Eventually, they both took up coaching through Seattle’s Central Area Youth Association (CAYA) and watched a local middle schooler named Jason Terry, who would go on to become a high school champion, NCAA champion and NBA champion, outplay one of the best youth teams in the nation in a Reno YMCA. Terry was reiterated proof their city had NBA-caliber players; what it lacked was its own platform.
“They could wipe my memory and I wouldn’t forget Rotary.”
For years, Finkley and Hennings had looked on helplessly as neighborhood stars — high school champions from Terry’s Franklin, from Garfield, from Rainier Beach — were passed over by college scouts who barely gave a second glance to players from the city’s minority-heavy urban center.
“Garfield would win state every year, Franklin and Rainier Beach won a bunch, all the city schools were winning,” Hennings says. “After school [these players would] end up at community college or back on the streets. That was a tough pill to swallow.”
For Central District kids in the ’80s and ’90s, church leagues and pickup games funneled toward the bright lights of high school and city bragging rights. High school blue bloods like Garfield, Rainier Beach, Franklin, O’Dea — some would argue — carried as much clout as the city’s SuperSonics. Sonics legends like Gary Payton and Donald Earl “Slick” Watts sardined themselves into tiny gyms just to watch.
Those gyms were often prospects’ pinnacles, at once on a pedestal and stuck in place.
“The playground was as far as we could see,” Finkley says.
Finkley himself had been a lanky forward who grew up less than a mile from Rotary in the late ’70s. He went to high school during Seattle’s busing era, and though he lived just a few blocks from Garfield, he got hauled across town to predominantly white Lincoln High. The busing era (in 2002, dubbed by late historian Cassandra Tate, a “well-intentioned failure”) was designed to desegregate Seattle schools but, per Finkley, stripped minority students of their support systems when they needed them most.
Where Finkley says he and his contemporaries felt most out of place? Home: the basketball court.
Finkley’s new high school coach insisted his dribbling pace and ball handling were “out of control.” By his sophomore year, he had quit high school basketball, giving up on further aspirations and leaning into streetball.
Years later, Finkley and Hennings watched local prospects — like Quin Snyder from Mercer Island, a wealthy Seattle suburb — feature at Duke and other major college programs. But aside from the occasional breakthrough — like Rainier Beach’s Doug Christie, who starred at Pepperdine before becoming a four-time NBA All-Defensive team honoree — rarely did national powerhouses come knocking for Seattle’s urban talent pool.
“A bunch of kids just as good, or better, [never] got a chance,” Hennings says.
In Finkley’s living room, the plan clicks into place. Finkley and Hennings decide their program, Seattle Style, would get the next generation to places theirs never did.
B-LEGIT’S NEW HIT “City 2 City” vibrates the tape deck as Hennings pops the passenger-side door of his black Volkswagen GTI.
Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Roydell Smiley Jr. piles into the back seat with Maurice Murphy, Ed Roy and Smiley’s cousin, Jimmie Haywood, just before 8 a.m. Still years from filling out their frames, the middle schoolers jigsaw-puzzle their gangly limbs into place as Hennings points his ride toward the next house. In all, he jams six middle schoolers — a starting five and one sub — into his two-door hatchback.
Some would come with lunch money, but Hennings made a habit of setting aside extra cash from his work at the firm to cover the rest. It was 1996, and he’d just gotten married and was saving to start a family of his own. But Hennings’ wife said coaching had changed him — turned him from a head-down hard worker to someone his community relied on. She urged him to keep showing up.
These weekend trips had become routine for the young coach. His mind wanders 90 miles north to the tournament in Bellingham, Washington, a world away from the Central District’s gridwork of corner stores and aging single-family homes. But that was exactly the point: Each trip is a chance for his players to step beyond city limits, to see where the game could lead.
It had been two years since Finkley and Hennings had set their plan in motion and started hosting drop-in workouts at Garfield Community Center. At first, it was just weekend drills with a few local kids, but well-placed flyers at elementary schools and word of mouth had done wonders.
Murphy was in seventh grade when he attended his first workout. Smiley and Haywood, future USC and Oregon State guards, respectively, were already playing, and Murphy saw a chance to be a part of something. In Hennings, just a few years out of high school, Murphy also saw someone who looked and dressed like him. Hennings knew what it meant to be young and Black in a rapidly gentrifying Seattle.
“Daryll is from here [and] grew up in the neighborhoods we came from,” Murphy says. “He could relate to us.”
With Finkley implementing the up-tempo, exciting brand of basketball that ostracized him in high school, the Style lived up to their name. Their breakneck pace turned heads, and soon, a cast of Central District and South Seattle standouts — including Tre Simmons, Roy and his younger brother, a skinny guard named Brandon — flocked.
In Hennings and Finkley, players saw an opportunity to elevate their basketball. But parents saw something bigger: a positive and trusted mentor for their kids.
“I was just enjoying making a difference in kids’ lives where they weren’t out doing something crazy,” Hennings says. “I was giving them something to do every Saturday and Sunday. There weren’t a lot of young, Black role models. It was kind of an anomaly.”
Even rarer were two coaches without any of their own kids on the team. AAU squads have notoriously been run by overbearing fathers with vested interests, but Hennings’ son Arell wouldn’t come through the program for years. The charge was always larger than family: They had a village to carry.
“It was us trying to take care of the ‘hood,” Hennings says. “We’re mentors, uncles, travel agents, counselors, parole officers …”
In 1996, with a solidified team led by Smiley and Haywood, the Style moved a 15-minute walk up the hill into the cinderblock hallows of Rotary Boys and Girls Club. Seattle Style became Rotary Style, and one team quickly morphed into a program. Finkley started focusing on the Style’s youth ranks, which, in addition to their boys’ teams, soon included an in-house, coed elementary school league and a fourth-to-eighth grade girls’ program (a current feeder for the Pacific Northwest’s lone girls’ EYBL program, Tree of Hope). Hennings became the athletic director of the entire Boys and Girls Club while assuming the Rotary Style’s head-coaching duties.
He led their first group of boys to the AAU Nationals in 1995, and they’d return in 1997, but even bigger things were to come.
BEFORE HE BECAME the pied piper of Seattle basketball, Jamal Crawford was a fifth-grader known for dribbling a suede ball in Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club. Finkley remembers receiving a call about a kid who wouldn’t leave the gym and decided to see for himself.
“Skinny,” Finkley says, “but he had handles.”
The three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year played under Finkley and Hennings at CAYA for a little over a season before moving to California. Despite being “the last man on the bench,” Crawford says they footed his travel bill when money was tight for his family.
When he returned to Seattle years later to play at Rainier Beach as a 6-5 point guard, he sought out Hennings.
“They had me when I was the worst guy on the team,” Crawford says. “It was only right that when I’m the best, I play for them again. I trusted them and how they looked out for me.”
Things were clicking for Hennings and Finkley. Shortly before Crawford’s return, legendary Sonics coach George Karl came knocking, looking to help bolster the upstart youth program with an equipment sponsorship and coaching support. Hennings and Finkley had the players, but as the newly formed Rotary’s Friends of Hoop, they now had the brand recognition of an NBA franchise.
After Crawford joined up in the spring of 1998, the new squad started putting the nation on notice.
That AAU season, Rotary battled future NBA talent like Carlos Boozer and Tyson Chandler. At tournaments, college coaches like Georgetown’s John Thompson and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian would be waiting to talk in hotel lobbies.
Karl split from Rotary Style the following year, starting his own area team, Friends of Hoop. It was an amicable parting, according to Finkley. The Rotary foundation was solidified: Crawford was off to the University of Michigan, and Murphy, Simmons, Haywood and Smiley would all play at Division I programs.
“To get a full ride while representing my home city … it meant so much to me,” Smiley says. “I knew we were on to something, but had no idea it could get as big as it is now.”
Outside of Terry, Crawford and Roy — four NBA Sixth Man Awards and a slew of All-Star Game appearances among them — first-round picks Terrence Williams, Marvin Williams, Tony Wroten Jr., Dejounte Murray, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey and Zach LaVine all came through Rotary. Peyton Siva, a second-rounder in 2013, did too.
In 2022, at least nine former Rotary players are currently on NBA rosters: Jaylen Nowell (Minnesota Timberwolves), Kevin Porter Jr. (Houston Rockets), Jalen and Jaden McDaniels (Charlotte Hornets, Timberwolves), 2022 All-Stars Murray (Atlanta Hawks) and LaVine (Chicago Bulls), and 2022 first-round picks MarJon Beauchamp (Milwaukee Bucks), Tari Eason (Houston Rockets) and Banchero.
In 1994, that was a pipe dream. Today, it’s the unabashed fulfillment of two men’s devotion to maintaining and fortifying their neighborhood — even as their beloved NBA franchise abandoned Seattle in 2008.
The irony was writ large: As their area churned out some of the best basketball talent in the country, the city they knew was shifting under their feet.
EARL LANCASTER SIDE-STEPS quietly to the drone of hair clippers. At 54 years old, his beard grayer and midline heavier than when he opened Earl’s Cuts and Styles in 1992, Lancaster’s well-manicured hands still move to a steady rhythm: precision over speed, the angles just right after three decades of lineups, trims and fades. In a steady procession, young men filter off the street and into his barber chair.
Payton, the SuperSonics’ second overall pick in 1990, was one of the first. After providing some of the startup cash needed to get the Central District shop off the ground, the future nine-time All-Star would get cleaned up between road trips, cracking jokes with local kids who showed up to catch a glimpse of the NBA star. Payton’s jersey used to hang on the wall. When some of those kids made it big, their jerseys joined The Glove’s — Terry, Roy, Crawford.
Now those jerseys sit in a closet. A flatscreen rests between the two mirrors and a mosaic portrait of Lancaster spans the back wall of his new shop, a local hub saved by a Seattle University community outreach grant. It almost wasn’t so. Lancaster looks up over his glasses, pointing a black comb toward his original spot on the opposite corner of 23rd and Union Street. Today a 428-unit apartment building sits in its place. The liquor store next door is gone. So too is Ms. Helen’s Soul Food and the families who lined up for her oxtail and fresh peach cobbler on summer evenings.
In the 1970s, more than 75% of Central District residents identified as Black, according to maps from the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium at the University of Washington. Today, according to the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development, that number is down to roughly 12.6%.
Young basketball players still file out of Rotary down the street and wander into the new Earl’s, seeking out familiarity in a jarring sea of change, a nod of confidence that’s not lost on Lancaster. He grew up attending summer camp at the Boys and Girls Club, and a smile dances across his lips when talking about the weekend parties that once turned the neighborhood out. When his two daughters were in school, they visited the club for homework help.
“It’s always been there,” he says, sweeping tufts of black hair into his dustbin. “For as long as you can remember.”
Lancaster has watched his neighborhood’s exodus — his family, his friends — from the front row.
“It was never just about basketball; it’s about improving the community and creating an ecosystem of excellence — on and off the court.”
It’s hard to keep track of all the businesses that have left the Central District over the decades, but Lancaster can count on his hand the neighborhood pillars that have withstood the city’s destructive advance. Rotary is one of them. When that first Rotary Style team started raising money for jerseys in the mid-’90s, he was one of the first local business owners to chip in — a chance to give back to the institution he grew up with. Since its inception, the basketball program has relied on the community’s older generation to prop up its youngest, a relationship forged in car washes, raffles, letter-writing campaigns, local donations — anything to get their teams to scoutable tournaments.
“[Our teams] were on a toothpick thread, but we always got there,” Finkley says.
Before her son starred at Louisville, Peyton Siva’s mom raised money for team trips by working a second job at a Seattle Mariners concession stand. Former NFL wide receiver and Rotary alum Nate Burleson’s parents fundraised through hot dog cookouts in supermarket parking lots.
“A lot of parents didn’t have much but were willing to help with their time,” Hennings says.
From the chair next to Lancaster, barber and lifelong Central District resident Jasen Moore takes the sentiment further.
“Rotary made the dream visible for us,” he says.
His brother, Donnie Cheatham, a standout guard at Franklin High, played with Rotary in the late 2000s and dreamt of playing college basketball before losing his eyesight in a shooting. He still can’t bear to throw his Rotary jerseys away.
“They [showed] inner-city Seattle kids things a lot of us would never see around the United States,” Cheatham says. “That [this] little round ball is going to get you somewhere bigger than your own neighborhood.”
Kids in Central and South Seattle walk a tightrope between the court and the pressures off it, a reality Hennings and Finkley understand all too well. They watched crack cocaine ravage their community in the 1980s and gang violence derail some of the Central District’s most promising talent. Cheatham felt that firsthand, near the outdoor courts at Rainier Playfield after dark in 2008. In 2010, more than a year after Cheatham lost his sight, his high school teammate and top-100 national recruit, Jordan Daisy, was charged with murder after a reported drug deal gone wrong.
Hennings is still in touch with Daisy, knowing that someday he’ll be out of prison, looking for a second chance. He hopes to give him one.
“Great kids, great athletes … but they made a bad decision and walked down a different path,” he says.
Hennings and Finkley acknowledge that for every Crawford arc, there’s one like Cheatham or Daisy.
But they’ve also seen Rotary alumni use basketball to build a better life through the sport, not necessarily in it.
Maurice Murphy, now Dr. Murphy, for one: He captained Columbia’s basketball team, earned his doctorate from USC’s Marshall School of Business, and is now a tenure-track assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Georgia. Murphy recruits Black and Latinx youth into the tech space. As an impressionable teenager, he remembers Hennings urging him to attend a more academically challenging high school in lieu of getting more playing time at a rival school. Hennings backed that up by giving Murphy additional minutes on the AAU circuit.
“He knew our dreams and pushed us to achieve them,” Murphy says. “It was never just about basketball; it’s about improving the community and creating an ecosystem of excellence — on and off the court.”
ROYDELL SMILEY JR., still imposing years past his playing prime, steps into a Rainier Beach gym mere miles from where he played high school ball with Brandon Roy, the Naismith National Coach of the Year in 2017 with Garfield, and University of Washington associate head coach Will Conroy. He’s noticeably lighter on hardwood. His black sweats hang loose, and the Rotary logo he designed — complete with a Space Needle rising out of a Carolina blue basketball — is blazed across the chest of his hoodie.
“How’s it going, Coach?” The echo of dribbling stops as, one by one, jersey-clad teenagers pass by Smiley with a fist bump. The last player, a lanky guard, hangs out for a few words of wisdom from his old man. After a final dap, Legend Smiley heads back to the layup line.
Basketball showed Smiley — a former USC standout and the first in his talented family to play Division I ball — the world. It also brought him back. His father played at Garfield. Now Smiley’s son, Legend, does too. Legend’s head coach at Rotary? Finkley.
“To see [Legend] with the same coach, my first at Rotary, it means everything,” Smiley says.
He was in the first class of Rotary players to come back to coach, starting with his son’s elementary school teams before helping out with older kids. Last season he worked with the under-16s, and Finkley focused on Legend and the under-15 squad.
In many ways, this has become the program’s most valuable asset and gift: a self-sustaining ecosystem of talent — coaching and playing.
“[Roydell] is one of the truest examples of what it means to love your community,” says TraeAnna Holiday, a Central District-focused activist, filmmaker and media director at Washington-based nonprofit King County Equity Now. “When you’re intentional about connecting with young people in the area that raised you, it’s what real mentorship looks like.”
There’s arguably no better example of that mentorship, or the entire Rotary experience, than Crawford.
While balancing an NBA schedule, Crawford brought fellow stars to his backyard, making Seattle basketball culture a mainstream affair. For more than a decade, he’s hosted The CrawsOver Pro-Am, a popular summer tourney that pits local high school, college and pro talent against names like LeBron and Kevin Durant. More importantly, it gives local youth a chance to see the sport’s biggest stars up close, free of charge.
Crawford credits the CrawsOver to the legacy of Rotary. In fact, he values what Hennings and Finkley have built so fervently that, when his own son started playing, he went home to the institution he knew best.
“There was only one coach I could have him play for, that I trusted with him: Daryll,” Crawford says. “I know what [Rotary] is about, what they stand for. No knocks to anyone else, but I lived it.”
Soon, Crawford wasn’t just dropping his son off at practice — he was coaching, joining a trove of high-level alumni who roam the Rotary sidelines: Roy, Simmons and Smiley have all coached youth teams; Tacoma-raised Isaiah Thomas runs sessions with elementary schoolers; Nate Robinson has been a regular at his son’s practices.
“Maybe they went to play somewhere else, but their baby is playing at Rotary,” says Joyce Walker, LSU’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time NCAA All-American who was the first women’s player at Rotary in the 1970s. “They’ll always find their way home.”
The coaches are there; the talent is too. With barely enough room to stand without stepping onto the court, youth Rotary players cram in, often rubbing shoulders with future NBA talent.
“The Brandon Roys, the Aaron Brookses, the Terrence Williamses. You’re right there with them,” Cheatham says. “You might be 5 or 6 and see the big guys practice right after your league game. Everybody is watching because that’s what they want to be.”
As scholarship competition becomes increasingly fierce, parents from as far away as Oregon send their kids to Rotary because of the program’s pedigree and pipeline. Still, Hennings and Finkley look for any opportunity to prop up talent at home.
“The seeds were deeply planted and the roots are still growing,” Smiley says.
Legend, a 6-5 sophomore shooting guard, born and raised in central Seattle, is testament to that; he just got offered a scholarship to the University of Washington. So too is small forward Jaylin Stewart, a rising 2023 ESPN 100 senior headed to UConn next year.
Finkley, now 57, and Hennings, 50, know they’ll have to hang it up someday, that the house they built won’t topple if they step away. For Hennings, though — especially with incessant rumors of an NBA franchise returning to Seattle — it’s still too early to call game.
“Paolo’s group was supposed to be my last. I had them all the way through [high school],” Hennings says. “Now I’ve got a seventh-grade team that might be my last.”
He chuckles, takes a look around, and a grin creeps across his lips.
“But I’ve got a couple of nephews that are pretty good, too.”
PAOLO BANCHERO CUTS into the lane and catches the ball near the free throw line. He dribbles once, spins, makes contact with the Detroit Pistons’ Saddiq Bey and sinks the short jumper for the Orlando Magic’s first basket of the 2022-23 NBA season. It’s Banchero’s first basket as a pro.
Later, in the fourth quarter, he catches an outlet pass at halfcourt on a fast break, dribbles twice and soars over Cory Joseph for an emphatic dunk.
After the clock has ticked down the first 48 minutes of his NBA career, Banchero has contributed 27 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks.
The cross streets of 19th and Spruce flex even bigger on the rookie’s biceps.
His mom, Rhonda, a former UW hoops star, had gone to high school with Hennings, opening the door for Paolo to be part of Finkley’s Central District dream. Paolo’s dad, Mario, played pickup games at the Rotary, and a young Paolo tagged along. Those Rotary roots took hold: Soon it’s where Paolo was going “four or five times a week” for summer camps, after-school activities and, of course, basketball.
As he puts it: “This is where I grew up.”