Back at Free State, White-Downing fits in with Firebirds

Free State senior Reece White-Downing elevates for a layup in the first half of the Firebirds' 67-40 win over Mill Valley on Wednesday.

The final player to be introduced on Senior Night, via alphabetical order, Reece White-Downing strolled out to mid court and stood in place for a few seconds. Then he walked down past a few teammates to greet Simon McCaffrey and his family.

White-Downing and McCaffrey completed a unique handshake before White-Downing hugged McCaffrey’s parents. A few weeks afterward and White-Downing still remembers it as an emotional night.

Returning back to his original spot in line at midcourt, White-Downing stopped to greet Jalan Robinson’s parents. It was a small tribute to a couple of families that extend past the basketball court.

In the eighth grade, with his mom in Topeka, White-Downing moved in with McCaffrey because he wanted to stay close to the group of kids he grew up with at West Middle School. He was friends with McCaffrey, but they weren’t as close as they are now.

“I thought it was going to be weird for a little bit,” White-Downing said. “But it wasn’t weird at all the first day. He just brought me in and we’ve been bros since.”

White-Downing played at Topeka High last season, earning a spot in the starting lineup. But he always felt like he wanted to move back when he had the opportunity — Topeka “didn’t really fit my personality that well,” he said.

He moved back in with the McCaffrey family for his senior year, sharing a room with McCaffrey. Immediately, he fit into a role at Free State. Coach Sam Stroh said he’s the “glue guy” of the team.

“I just had some family stuff I had to take care of down in Topeka,” White-Downing said. “So I moved down there for a little bit and moved back in with him. It’s just been fun.”

On the court, Robinson said it’s easy to tell McCaffrey and White-Downing are close friends by the way they hype each other up.

“They must have the same barber too because they have the same haircut,” Stroh joked.

Along with McCaffrey, White-Downing grew up playing alongside Robinson. They are cousins, related through his dad and Robinson’s mom.

Playing on the same team since they were 8 or 9 years old, Robinson said it was an easy adjustment when White-Downing returned from Topeka.

“Me, Garrett (Luinstra), Simon and Jalan, we played for the same AAU team for a long time,” White-Downing said.

For White-Downing, it’ll be his first time at the state tournament when the Firebirds tip off against Wichita South at 3 p.m. today at Wichita State’s Koch Arena. And it means just a little more to do it with teammates he’s played with for so long.

“It’s been awesome,” McCaffrey said. “We’re really close. It’s cool to be brothers on and off the court because it’s more than basketball when we’re playing together.”