Peabody-Burns mourns loss of popular basketball coach

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
Peabody-Burns High School boys’ basketball team, as well as the rest of the student body and faculty, have come through a hard week following the death of their well-liked head coach last Monday.

“Initially, it was really tough,” Superintendent Tom Alstrom said Friday. “They’re working their way through it.”

Leon Harris, 50, in his first season as the PBHS boys’ coach, collapsed during practice Jan. 24. Official word came later that evening that he had died.

Cause of death was believed to be a heart attack.

Efforts to provide emotional support for the team began that same evening, Alstrom said.

“We had them all go to one of the parents’ house on Monday night,” he said. “When we heard the official word that he had passed away, we took them all back to the school. We had parents and coaches and some counselors and ministers from around town come up and meet with them for a while.

“I think that really did a lot of good.”

The following day, an area-wide crisis team joined the local counselors on campus to provide ongoing support.

“Some of them met with kids, some of them were there when we talked to the team as a team and were able to help some kids,” Alstrom said. “It was very effective.”

The boys’ team, which had won seven of its first 10 games, voted to play Canton-Galva on Tuesday night. The Warriors won, 63-48.

“They said that’s what he loved to do and would want them to do,” Alstrom said of the decision. “‘Don’t let anything get in the way of your basketball’-that was kind of his attitude.”

Harris was hired as the Warriors’ basketball coach under Rule 10, which allows certified persons to coach even if they do not teach at the school. He had coached youth basketball through the years in Wichita, including some of the Peabody-Burns players this past summer.

“He had always had that dream of being a high school basketball coach,” Alstrom said. “Without a degree and without an opportunity, he hadn’t been able to do that.

“When our job came open and we got to checking on his background and the education he did have, we could get him certified real easily under Rule 10.”

Harris lived in Wichita and commuted to Peabody each day to practice. Alstrom said Harris was well-liked by his players.

“He was always positive and upbeat,” he said. “He was very passionate about his basketball.”

Alstrom said Harris had been scrimmaging with his players when the incident occurred.

“They were just having kind of a fun night-he was teaching them some things and playing with them,” Alstrom said. “He had just scored over one of our tall guys, and had stopped to talk to them about what he did and what you do in a situation like that.

“Then he turned around to go back to the game and just collapsed.”

Alstrom said Friday that both the boys’ and girls’ teams, as well as several coaches and administrators from the school, would attend the funeral for Harris that was planned for Monday. The boys would be wearing their jerseys.

Harris is survived by his wife, June, and six children.

Alstrom said June Harris was among those who encouraged the team to play their game last Tuesday.

“Just seeing his wife’s courage has helped a lot of people,” Alstrom said.

Assistant coach Roger O’Neal coached the Warriors against Canton-Galva and will lead the team the rest of the season. Alstrom said he hopes to find someone to step in as an assistant.

Alstrom said he was pleased with how events have unfolded in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

“They’re working their way through it,” he said of the players. “For some of them, it will affect them for awhile because they were there when it happened.

“But they’re doing a pretty good job. They’ve had a lot of support.”

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