The Cajun drawl is still unmistakable, even if Billy Kennedy's voice has softened in recent years.

He was always soft-spoken and methodical with his words, long before Kennedy became an assistant coach on the Wichita State men's basketball team and before he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease 12 years ago.

The disease has reduced the volume of his voice, a common problem with the illness, but Kennedy hasn't allowed that to slow him down in his third season on the sidelines with the Shockers.

"You read so much negativity when you're diagnosed with something like Parkinson's," Kennedy said. "You can choose to see it as a hindrance or accept that it's not who you are, it's just what you have.

"Parkinson's tries to slow you down, so I try to be as active as I possibly can. I can do everything that I used to do, now I just have to be more assertive."

Kennedy came to WSU with nothing left to prove in the NCAA Div. 1 coaching world after more than three decades of experience. He worked his way from the lowest levels (his first job was at Centenary) all the way to the biggest stage (he coached at Texas A&M from 2011-19), winning Coach of the Year awards in three different conferences along the way.

Having just celebrated his 59th birthday, Kennedy is determined to not allow his disease to control his career. He credits his religious faith for supplying him with the power to continue.

"Life hits you in the face and you've got to be able to deal with it and be able to adjust," Kennedy said. "God has seen me through it and knowing that He's got my back gives me some kind of comfort and a positive outlook on things."

Kennedy's voice restraints prevent him from speaking often during live play in practices and games, rather he picks his spots when he can have 1-on-1 conversations with players or with head coach Isaac Brown.

As WSU players learn of Kennedy's battle, respect builds.

"Everybody knows what he's done and what he's battling," WSU star point guard Craig Porter said. "His voice is kind of low, so anytime he talks, everyone knows to stop what they're doing and tune in to listen. He doesn't necessarily speak all of the time, but when he does, you know it's something super important."

Almost all of the players have their own story of overcoming adversity and some have found Kennedy's trust in God to overcome his struggles to be inspiring.

Kennedy was given the Barnabas award in 2011 by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a nod to the basketball coach "who best exhibits a commitment to Christ, integrity, encouragement to others and living a balanced life." In 2021, his first year at WSU, Kennedy and his wife, Mary, were recipients of the John Wooden Keys to Life award.

"It's pretty cool to see how he always stays positive about everything every single day," WSU sophomore guard Xavier Bell said. "His wisdom from being in the game for so long and just that positive attitude day in and day out means a lot to us and I think it's been really good for us."

Kennedy doesn't push religion onto anyone else, but is open about his faith. He also credits the support from his family, which also includes his four children: Will, Lexie, Brooks and Anna Cate.

"I think it's important to know who you are and to know where your strength comes from," Kennedy said. "God has blessed me with a great supporting cast with family and friends and this opportunity to be here at Wichita State."

After an 0-3 start in American Athletic Conference play, the Shockers are 8-5 in their last 13 games and winners of five straight on the road entering Thursday's 6 p.m. showdown at No. 1-ranked Houston. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Kennedy believes Brown has come into his own as a head coach during the stretch, using the word "comfortable" multiple times to describe the difference in Brown during WSU's improved streak the last seven weeks.

Every staff develops its own niches and WSU's is no different with assistant coaches Tyson Waterman and Butch Pierre, director of operations Dominic Okon, director of player development Nick Jones and video coordinator Jeff Chapman all serving a different role. The job for Kennedy, the only person on staff who knows the pressures of calling the shots at this level, is to be a "sounding board" to Brown.

"I just try to make myself available to him any way he needs me," Kennedy said. "Whether it's about how kids are doing academically and if they're meeting our standards. Or in basketball, it could be about offense, it could be about defense, it could be about big guys, it could be about guards. I'm here to help."

Brown has had a relationship with Kennedy for more than three decades, dating back to 1990 when Brown was the starting point guard at Texas A&M and Kennedy was an assistant coach.

That kind of history together helps, Brown says.

"Billy is a great guy and I'm honored that he's a part of our staff," Brown said. "He does a great job for us and not just coaching basketball. Sometimes it's helping me with certain things about talking to the media. Sometimes it's about what to talk to the team about. Sometimes it's about game planning. There's a lot of different places where his experience helped us in a big way."

Kennedy is proud not only of the way Brown coaches, but also treats his players.

"The key is to let them know that you love them and care about them," Kennedy said. "You can always get more out of them if they believe that. That's never changed over the course of my time as a coach."

Those bonds are what keep Kennedy coming back every day to Koch Arena. Retirement isn't even a thought, as he continues to win the battle against Parkinson's on a daily basis.

"This is all that I've ever done for a long time now," Kennedy said. "If I can impact kids' lives and try to help them get to where I got... I was blessed with a lot of people pouring into me and I made it because of the people who have been around me. So if I can have that kind of impact on someone else trying to make it, then that's what continues to drive me."

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(2) comments


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