Juneau-Douglas High School basketball player Kasey Watts smiles while listening to his mother, Tamara Wahto, talk about the support her son has received since the death of his best friend, Ryan Mayhew. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Playing Through Tragedy

On the Juneau-Douglas High School basketball court, Kasey Watts looked like an ordinary teenager.

He’s a 6-1 guard and a terrific perimeter defender.

But this past season, he carried the weight of the world around his neck. About three minutes before the start of every home basketball game, he stopped his warm ups. He walked over to the stands. And he took off his necklace and handed it to his mom.

The necklace is an empty bullet, and it holds his best friend’s ashes.

‘A goofy kid like me’

Ryan Mayhew, a 17-year-old senior at Thunder Mountain High School, and Watts had known each other for years and became inseparable — despite attending different high schools — two years ago.

They hung out the most frequently during summer vacations. They fished during the day and stayed out late at night.

“A lot of my friends I have, maybe if you hang out with them three days in a row, you start arguing about the littlest things,” Watts said. “We never really argued.”

“He was just a goofy kid like me, and just wanted to make people smile and laugh and that’s what I’m going to miss the most about him,” Watts added. “I’ve never seen that kid down before. He was never mad. He never held grudges. He was always happy.”

Watts’ life, and the lives of so many others, changed on the morning Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in an instant. Unlike some of the others, though, Watts had a first-hand account of the tragedy — he was one of the three people with Mayhew when he died.

The two friends were packing up Watts’ truck with hunting gear at Mayhew’s home in the Mendenhall Valley. It was the second day of duck hunting season, and they were itching to get some ducks. All of a sudden, as Mayhew grabbed his shotgun from his vehicle to transport it to Watts’, the shotgun discharged, shooting him in the torso.

Watts could only stand by in shock as one of Mayhew’s older brothers provided CPR before the wounded teen was taken to the hospital. Approximately 30 minutes later, Mayhew was pronounced dead.

After the shooting, which happened on a Monday, counselors and psychologists from the school district and Juneau Youth Services were stationed around TMHS to help students grieve.

“What I remember was that Monday, school was super quiet,” JSD Director of Student Services Bridget Weiss said. “It was just sort of that, like the system was taking a deep breath. A couple days later, I remember walking through [TMHS] and hearing all the familiar sounds of kids and teachers.”

Meanwhile, two separate GoFundMe accounts were created online for Mayhew’s memorial service. These campaigns soon brought in $15,000 from around 200 donors.

Black rubber “WE PLAY FOR RYAN” bracelets began multiplying on the wrists of students. His football number, 28, was made into a car decal for students.

Basketball try outs

Over at JDHS, head boys basketball coach Robert Casperson sat down with all his players one-on-one at the beginning of the season to talk with them individually about how they were coping.

“It’s a horrible thing for kids to have to go through, to lose a friend,” Casperson said. “… And they are going to look to their coaches, people they have relationships with for guidance and support and that’s all I wanted to make sure I was there for.”

Watts had decided to play the season, which started three months after Mayhew’s death, to help normalize his life again. So too did his close friends at TMHS, Riley Olsen and Zeb Storie. All three were close with Mayhew. They leaned on each other for support.

“I sure am proud of how he’s handled it,” Watts’ dad Kit said in an interview, moments after choking up. “And not just him — his buddies, Riley, Zeb Storie. Those guys were pretty tight.”

Watts also relied on his JDHS teammates for support — and they on him. Almost the entire team was dealing with grief on various levels from other tragedies that struck shortly after Mayhew’s passing.

Just 10 days after Mayhew died, a former Crimson Bear and teammate to many of the squad committed suicide while at college. Meanwhile, another alumnus was receiving a bone marrow transplant after being diagnosed with leukemia.

“I got there and basically 90 percent of the team had a tragedy in the last month,” Watts said. “Everyone either knew someone that died in the last month, or was really close friends with them. So we all had that connection of like, we lost someone, but at the same time, on the court, we’re playing for someone as well.”

“Our team this year, man it was rough, we had a lot of sadness,” coach Casperson said, exhaling mid-sentence.

What happened next, though, was extraordinary, Casperson said. It was not like any other team he had coached before. They had found their heart.

‘A team and a family’

At the beginning of this season, the team faced lofty expectations. Last year, JDHS boys basketball had won the first state championship in the school’s history since 1998 when Carlos Boozer was the talk of the state (and nation).

The team found itself in a mid-season slump, losing seven of eight games at one point. But instead of unraveling, they developed a mental toughness.

Watts, and his teammates, poured their hearts into it. And it felt good.

“For a lot of teams, losing a game might be their greatest disappointment in life up to that point,” Casperson said. “But not for these guys.”

After the losing spell, which locked in the team as the No. 3 seed in the coming Region V tournament, the team took parents and fans on a wild three-week ride.

The team recovered from their first round loss in the regional tournament to win the next three to win the tournament.

Two weeks later, the team recovered from a second first round loss at the ASAA March Madness Alaska state tournament to earn come-from-behind wins over West Valley (41-40) and Bartlett (65-64) to finish fourth. In both games, things weren’t going the Crimson Bears way. They trailed for most of the game but continued to give it their best effort. When they beat Bartlett, it almost felt like winning a championship.

“It was awesome in that Barlett game — it took a Herculean effort from Bryce Swofford,” Casperson said. “He had, what I would say, his best all-around game of the season, in the last game of his senior career. … There was a play where he got a breakaway and he’s up getting ready to dunk and a Bartlett kid comes up and smashes him from behind and sends him flying to the ground and picks up an intentional foul. True to form and a credit to Bryce’s character — he just hops up and went to the free throw line. None of that stuff on TV, that fake toughness where he pretends he’s going to go after the guy.”

As for Watts’ role in the game and season as a whole, Casperson said, “His perspective not only brought us together but really solidified us as a team and a family.”

‘I played for Ryan’

Throughout the season, Watts wore No. 14 on the court in honor of Mayhew’s football number, 28 (14 on the front and back of the jersey, since 28 isn’t allowed in basketball).

He also wore the bullet necklace in warm ups. Before or after a big game in the months that followed, Watts would make his way down to Mayhew’s grave, and tell him “what’s up.”

On the 17th of every month, the date Mayhew died, Watts and his family celebrated “Ryan’s Day.”

“It’s just keeping Ryan’s memory alive and knowing that it’s OK to talk about it,” Kasey’s mom, Tami Wahto, said of the different gestures on and off the court.

Watts is still grieving from the sudden loss of Mayhew.

“It’s pretty devastating,” he said a recent interview in a JDHS classroom after school. “It didn’t really hit me at first, and it still hasn’t really hit me yet. I just feel like he’s on some football trip right now and that he’s going to been gone for a while.”

But playing basketball this season helped “clear my mind,” he said.

“I love my basketball team and so getting out with them and letting my mind go and be free — I could be myself for once.”

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nolin.ainsworth@juneauempire.com.

Juneau-Douglas High School basketball player Kasey Watts wears the ashes of his friend inside a bullet in remembrance of Ryan Mayhew who died last September. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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