Not every high school referee would donate her paycheck to help a struggling basketball team. But that’s exactly what Hall of Fame official Kelly Whelan did in 2010 after the Hughes High School athletic director told her about Bryan Wyant, a former college basketball player who was coaching the Hughes boys’ teams and moving mountains to keep them all in play.
Turns out, Hughes’ gym was being renovated that year, so Wyant and his team had been trudging on foot to the UC rec center for practices. Not only that, but there was no team van, so during the summer when busing wasn’t provided, he was making back-to-back trips in his own car, shuttling players to games at other school gyms across the city. The kids on Wyant’s teams already played ball in their street shoes and carried their uniforms to school in grocery bags. Most had failing grades, highly unstable home lives, and few concrete plans for the future. Add in the fact that Hughes, a Cincinnati public high school with a 95 percent minority student population, had a dismal state report card, and the basketball team’s prospects were looking grim.
But Whelan also learned that day how determined Wyant and his wife Alicia were to change their players’ lives. How they bought the boys shoes and even contact lenses. How Wyant ran study tables, oversaw weightlifting, showed game films, and ran practices, too, keeping the team busy with school and basketball up to 13 hours a day five or six days a week so they’d stay out of trouble and into the game. But he was only one person. He could only do so much.
Immediately, Whelan found herself thinking of her own sons’ experiences at St. Xavier, a school with two gyms, team buses, and hearty team meals donated by parents. We have it kind of easy, she thought. So she donated her check that day to Hughes. But she didn’t stop there.
For four years straight, as she officiated games across the city, Whelan kept giving money to the Hughes athletic department, hoping to help the team. She watched her youngest child graduate from high school. And she prayed hard from the pews at Kenwood’s All Saints Catholic Church for a sign of what she was supposed to do next.
In 2014, Whelan dropped off a big enough check to help send the Hughes basketball team to Ohio State’s summer team camp. The athletic director and Wyant invited Whelan and her husband to lunch. While there, Whelan asked Wyant for his wish list. He was hesitant to give it, and she was overwhelmed when she saw it. But, sitting in a Clifton diner that day, Whelan finally got the sign she’d been looking for. “You were literally sitting right there,” she says, pointing to Wyant across a picnic table today. “I just didn’t open up my mind and heart.”
The number one need on Wyant’s wish list was food—specifically dinners and after-school snacks, six days a week for all three of his teams (freshman, JV, and varsity). Turns out, the long days Wyant had engineered to keep his players focused and out of trouble were also making them hungry—and Hughes didn’t have the resources to help.
Here’s the thing about Kelly Whelan. “I don’t like to fail at anything,” she says. “If I’m gonna do it, it’s gonna be 150,000 percent.” But she also knew that feeding roughly 40 teenage boys six days a week was something she couldn’t do alone. As soon as she got home, she drafted an e-mail to some friends, asking for help. But something stopped her from hitting Send. “In the back of my mind,” she says, she thought, Can I do this?
Again, she found her way back to the pews at church. Sitting there, praying and reflecting, a phrase in an article she’d brought along caught her eye: There’s no such thing as failure; it’s God changing your direction. That was all the reassurance she needed. “I literally came home, hit the Send button, and within an hour I had five [volunteers]. Within a week I probably had 20.” That’s how Team Hughes began.
“This is way bigger than basketball,” says Alicia Wyant. It’s about working hard, sharing love, building bridges, setting kids up for success, and inspiring others to do the same.
At first, the group sent Wyant cereal bars, then lunchmeat, milk, and hot dogs. Within a year, Whelan’s Team Hughes volunteer list grew to 100, including people she knew from St. X and her job reffing games, Alicia’s mom’s friends, and even people Whelan met at the grocery store and hair salon. Some dropped off food on Whelan’s front porch or came with her to serve the team hot meals. One bought Christmas presents—pajama pants, socks, and gift cards—for the whole team.
Whelan and her husband held a party for Team Hughes volunteers and asked the Wyants to speak; when people saw how dedicated they were to the Hughes kids, they “fell in love with their family,” says Whelan, and Wyant walked away with several thousand dollars in donations for the team. Soon after, another volunteer donated 10 new basketballs emblazoned with the Hughes logo.
Over the next six years, donations “snowballed,” says Whelan, as she and Wyant sent the volunteer boosters regular e-mail updates about the team. The food kept coming, but so did a fridge, three microwaves, multiple slow cookers (which the boys learned to use), a state-of-the-art camera to film games, top-of-the-line Nike uniforms, and even two used cars to transport the team.
Maybe the biggest gift of all came from a Team Hughes volunteer who committed to pay for a dedicated team academic advisor. Before long, the boys’ grades shot up, eventually allowing Wyant to institute a 3.0 GPA as the team standard. That, paired with team trips to summer camps and tournaments (which the boys partially fund themselves by working at jobs like concessions and clean-up crews for Bengals games), suddenly made college a whole lot more accessible and gave kids options. “If you were great at [basketball], you were gonna get a scholarship,” says Wyant. “If you weren’t, you were gonna have the academics to back it up.”
Since 2016, says Wyant, 26 out of 32 seniors on his basketball team have received either a full ride or full tuition-based scholarship to college. Since 2018, the numbers have gotten even better: 19 of 22, and most of his players, he adds, are first-generation college students.
His graduates have attended schools like Ohio State and Stony Brook, with one playing for the latter. One team alum went on to play NFL football; the rest include a financial advisor, a schoolteacher with a master’s degree, and multiple basketball coaches. All that success translates on the court, too. Over the last four years, the Hughes varsity team has finished first in its division three times and racked up the second-most wins in Cincinnati boys’ basketball, just behind Archbishop Moeller High School.
But for the Wyants and Whelans, “this is way bigger than basketball,” says Alicia. It’s about working hard, sharing love, building bridges, setting kids up for success, and hopefully, says Whelan, inspiring others to do the same. Put simply, says Wyant, “these communities”—Team Hughes and the Hughes High School basketball players—“have collided and produced this super successful force.”
Wyant credits Whelan with equalizing the playing field so his team could flourish. Whelan credits Wyant with setting an outstanding example and being the most committed coach she’s ever seen. “I’ve been officiating 44 years,” says Whelan. “I don’t care if it’s Cincinnati public, Catholic schools, the Greater Miami Conference—probably even the state of Ohio. There is nobody—nobody—who does what he does.”
She wasn’t the only one to notice. This fall, Wyant starts a new job as Princeton High School head coach. He hadn’t planned on leaving Hughes, but he prayed about it and decided it was the right move. His replacement will be Derrell Black, longtime Hughes assistant coach. Whelan hopes he’ll embrace Team Hughes as much as Wyant did. And she already has plans to form a Princeton version of Team Hughes, too. (That school district, says Wyant, has a surprising number of at-risk kids.)
Looking back at all the two have accomplished so far, one story sticks out. It’s about one of Wyant’s best players, who wore the same pair of gym shoes to school every day. And not just to school, but to practices, too. Other kids made fun of him. His feet grew two sizes, so he had to cram them in. The heel came off. Then, one day, a Team Hughes volunteer came along and bought the whole basketball team 67 pairs of brand-new, top-of-the-line basketball shoes—no small expense.
“I told the guy who donated the shoes, Look, you may not think it’s a big deal,” says Wyant, who keeps a photo of the boy’s old shoes in his phone. “But I guarantee you, it’s gonna make a difference.”
Sure enough, the minute the team put the shoes on, “We played like we were the best,” says Wyant. “Obviously they put the work in, [but] they believed it. They looked the part. They felt the part. And I was like, Yeah, this is real.”