He’s just a guy who plays basketball at Duke University.
But around these parts, especially during March Madness, Luke Kennard becomes larger than life, more than a guy in shorts who constantly plays with his hair. He has lifted the Franklin community on his shoulders, rewritten its reputation and served as the perfect ambassador, residents said.
No one probably has had a better seat to watch the Luke Kennard Show than Brian Bales, a Franklin High School graduate and its boys basketball coach and athletic director. He watched as Kennard finished his four-year high school career as the second greatest scorer in Ohio history, and has continued to follow Kennard when he took his basketball talents to Duke.
“He’s just one of those kids who is easy to root for,” Bales said Thursday while wearing a blue and white Duke pullover. “He comes from a great family and people like rooting for him.”
Bales has watched most of Kennard’s games, either in person or on TV, and admits he loves hearing the announcers say, “Luke Kennard from Franklin, Ohio.”
Not Dayton. Not Cincinnati. Little Franklin.
“That never gets old,” Bales said. “We couldn’t ask for a better ambassador. Sometimes when I watch him, it’s surreal. To think that he played here two years ago is, well, incredible.”
Even though Duke, 27-8 and the No. 2 seed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, struggled at times this season without some of its top players and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Bales said Kennard improved and took on a larger role. He said Duke’s 85-83 come-from-behind win over Wake Forest on Jan. 28, when Kennard scored 30 of his 34 points in the second half, may have saved the Blue Devils’ season.
“He’s born to score,” Bales said of the 6-foot-5 guard, considered by some to be a first-round NBA draft pick. “He just has that ‘it’ factor. I’m not sure what ‘it’ is, but he has it. All the great ones do.”
That factor translates off the court too.
Whenever Duke is playing on TV, all 100 seats and bar stools at A&G Pizza in Franklin are full of converted Franklin Wildcat fans now rooting for the Blue Devils.
Debbie Fouts, who owns the pizzeria with her husband, Steve, said people look at Franklin differently now and the credit, she said, goes to Kennard, a hometown boy.
“It really has nothing to do with basketball,” she said. “It’s more that he’s a very humble kid and a great role model for the adults and the kids.”
When Duke faces Troy in Friday’s first-round game, Fouts said every seat in her restaurant will be taken, and she has learned not to take birthday or anniversary reservations on nights Duke is playing.
“It gets electric in here,” she said. “We love Luke and now Duke is a by-product of that.”
Not everyone in Franklin supports Duke. Not if you’re Jim Porter, Ohio’s No. 1 University of Kentucky fan. He started watching Kennard play basketball in the seventh grade and Porter dreamed of the day Kennard would be wearing blue and white.
Kentucky blue and white.
But when Kennard announced after his junior season he was playing for Duke and not UK, Porter said he was “heart-broken.”
Now, though, Porter hates to admit, Kennard may have made the right choice.
“It has worked out well,” he said. “He exceeded my expectations. I knew he was good. He has put Franklin, Ohio, on the basketball map.”
In a perfect world for Porter, Kentucky wins the national title, Kennard scores 40 points and Duke loses in the first round.
“I watch Duke to watch Luke,” Porter said. “I’m a Luke fan, not a Duke fan.”