POWAY, Calif. – Flush against the wall in a spacious family room rests a player piano. The wooden antique represents Katie Plum’s biggest defeat.
Katie sits snug between Kelsey, her youngest daughter, and husband Jim on the family’s patio couch. She hides her face and says, “I tried to make them play piano,” explaining her failed attempts with her four children.
Kelsey Plum, the Washington basketball star at home for the summer, shakes her head “no” as if her mother’s statement were another attempt to get her to play.
The only melodies heard in the Plums’ suburban household were sounds of children’s laughter as they played in the swimming pool, the rhythm of dribbling basketballs on a half court, and good-natured trash talking from sand volleyball games played in the back yard.
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Katie and Jim spent years turning what had been a dirt plot into an outdoor playground. They also raised three girls who became standout Division I athletes and a son who is a year away from accepting a D-I football scholarship.
The youngest kids, Kelsey and Dan, are trying to hashtag themselves as “Plum family dynasty” on social media, and it’s no joke. Kelsey, back in Seattle and about to start her sophomore year, was the Pac-12 freshman of the year last season. She and Dan are the continuation of a family tradition.
THAT PLAYER PIANO needs to be restored, and Katie would like to get it fixed so Christmases could always be filled with music.
For years, it has sat off to the side of the family room, so it wouldn’t be in the way of the endless games the family played.
When the kids were young, it was “Tiger” in the family room. Katie, a former college volleyball star, watched and cooked as Jim, a 6-foot-3 former quarterback and baseball player at San Diego State, would growl, drag and pounce on his three girls.
Kaitlyn, the oldest, now 24 years old, would squeal and run. Lauren, the middle daughter, now 22, would dive right at the tiger and try to tackle him. Kelsey played victim, clinging to the leather couch “safe zone.” And Dan, the youngest and now a star tight end at Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, would wrestle with the tiger.
The game usually didn’t stop until somebody bled.
A favorite game at dinner was Kelsey’s “opposite hand” night. Kelsey, a left-hander, would make everyone switch for the entire meal. She’d struggle to cut a steak or scoop rice with her right hand. As the kids got older, Jim would shoot free throws with them to get out of doing the dishes or picking up poop from Riley Jane, the family’s Greater Swiss Mountain Dog.
And there were always bets, usually with pushups involved — all the way up to triple or nothing. The Plums could have their own ripped abs competition.
“I used to lose, and then there was a turning point,” said Kelsey, as she fiddled with a basketball on the green all-weather court. “Now Dan, he picks up the dog poop.”
Jim laughed, noting his son, a first-team all-league football player, needs work on his free throws.
“Everything was a game and talk a little wholesome trash,” Jim said. “They really enjoyed the games and I think that transferred pretty well to athletics because they enjoyed competition, being physical and enjoyed playing. But I really wouldn’t even call it ‘competition’ early on. I would call it just the games; the fun of making a shot for the trash or dessert.”
It’s what Katie and Jim knew.
THE COUPLE MET at San Diego State when Katie was getting her athletic-trainer’s certification and Jim needed treatment from a torn rotator cuff from baseball. After he healed and she graduated, they dated. The first two dates were tennis and golf matches.
“I won,” Katie said. “It’s funny because after that I could only beat him probably one time out of 10. But I guarantee he didn’t let me win on the date. We don’t have that in us to let somebody win.”
Katie McBride and Jim Plum married Dec. 5, 1987 in San Diego. The reverend who married them was also the athletic director at the University of San Diego.
Katie is the granddaughter of Arthur “Mickey” McBride, founder of the Cleveland Browns. Katie fell in love with volleyball during a P.E. class at her Cleveland high school, and played at UC Davis from 1979 to 1981.
Jim was a Parade All-American quarterback at Helix High in La Mesa, just east of San Diego. After four years as a backup at San Diego State from 1983 to 1986, his pro ambitions didn’t play out as dreamed. He was in training camp in 1987 with the Montreal Alouettes but cut just before the Canadian Football League team folded.
Jim had an opportunity to play in the NFL as a replacement for the Seahawks, practicing with the team during the 1987 strike, but he said he was spit on by Brian Bosworth as he got off a bus for a session in Seattle and never played in the NFL.
Dallas, Minnesota and Green Bay called looking for training-camp quarterbacks as Jim worked as an English teacher at Mount Carmel High School and offensive coordinator at Mission Bay High in San Diego. Katie was willing to follow his dream, but when she was pregnant with Kaitlyn in 1990, Jim had to make a decision.
“I started looking at the NFL and the marriages and that kind of lifestyle, and we didn’t want to do it,” Jim said as a breeze rustled through the palm trees he planted in the backyard.
“… My life’s turning point was when Kaitlyn got hurt as a baby. I said, ‘Oh, sweetheart!’ But she went to her mom. I was crushed and asked why. Sweetness (Katie) said, ‘You’re never around.’ ”
Jim went back to school to be a high-school counselor so he could work manageable hours. Katie had been working for USA Volleyball, but when the organization moved its headquarters from San Diego, she became self-employed. One of her jobs was consulting as an athletic trainer.
Jim coached all of his kids teams “until they got legit, then I just said, ‘Go get ’em honey, here’s your water.’ ”
“We tried to mandate one sport, one cultural activity,” Katie said, her children choosing cymbals and clarinet when they were young, but not the piano.
“We had basic rules like, you can do whatever you want, but if you decide this is what you want to do and you make a commitment then … you’ve got to stick it out until the end, even if you hate it. You’ve got to show up for practice. You’ve got to give it your all.”
Kaitlyn grew, and eventually went to UC Davis, where she was a star volleyball player like her mother.
Jim still plays pickup basketball. Kelsey tagged along as a kid, begging to play. Now she’s the first pick when divvying up teams.
THE GYM IS Kelsey’s first stop when she returns home. Actually, basketball was why she squeezed in time to return this summer to her high school, La Jolla Country Day. She and several of her former high school and AAU teammates worked at coach Terri Bamford’s camp.
“As soon as I got here, I told T-Bam, we’ve got to get our nails done,” Kelsey said.
The campers gravitate to Plum in the gym on the serene, college-like campus. Meanwhile, Bamford teaches skills to the young players and despite multiple knee surgeries, she still plays.
Her AAU team, the Wiggins Waves, sponsored by WNBA star Candice Wiggins, is well known enough that the coach was recognized on a ferry sightseeing trip on Puget Sound. Seventeen of her players graduated to play D-I hoops.
Plum is on San Diego State’s campus with Country Day assistant coach Berry Randle to work on her skills at 7 a.m. the day after she stops at her old high school. Kelsey established herself as a scorer during her first college season, scoring 20 points or more in 20 games and 30 or more in four games.
But Washington (20-14) lost in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament and wasn’t awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament — Plum and her team’s preseason goal.
“I’m working on my passing and defense,” Kelsey said. “I’m used to winning, so the season was rough. I’ve got to relearn how to win. It’s Jaz (Davis) and my team, and we’ve got to make everyone better.”
After the workout with Randle, Kelsey watched a U.S. World Cup soccer match with her mom, then joined Bamford for a 90-minute weightlifting session. Then it was off to a La Jolla strip mall for a manicure and pedicure.
It’s a ritual. The pair are mother-daughter like, with Bamford having to convince Kelsey to get a manicure at first.
“I thought it would mess with my shot,” Kelsey said of her worry as a high-school junior.
“She shoots better!” Bamford said.
They chatter about Kelsey’s pale skin after spending a year in Seattle, a little basketball and the manicurists’ upcoming marriage.
“I don’t do this with anyone in Seattle. It’s not the same,” Kelsey said as pastel colors are painted on her fingers and toes. “T-Bam is really special to me. I wouldn’t have achieved anything — not All-American, USA Basketball — anything without her. I picked the school because of its academics. I stumbled into her being my coach. It’s a blessing.”
SOME OF THOSE accolades hang off to the side of the piano in the Plum family room. The top of the piano is covered in medals, trophies, plaques and a graduation photo of Lauren Plum, Kelsey’s sister and idol.
Kelsey wears an odd hairstyle because she emulates Lauren. A slim, off-center braid runs from the front of Kelsey’s parted hair to a low braided ponytail in the back.
Lauren, who was a volleyball star at Oregon, started the look to keep her hair locked down during competition. Undo the quirky style and a mass of dark brown hair cascades down the Plums’ backs. With oldest sister Kaitlyn they look like triplets.
Off-court, the sisters post playful photos on Instagram of themselves glammed up and puckering their lips. This style wasn’t Kelsey’s. She had a boyish haircut and was what she called chubby in middle school. She didn’t blossom until her high school junior year.
“Just because I love basketball, I don’t have to dress like it all day, every day,” Kelsey said. “I’m still proud to say I got ready for homecoming in 45 minutes, including a shower.”
Lauren was the 2012 Pac-12 setter of the year, leading the nation in assists as Oregon experienced its best season in the program’s history, playing in the NCAA championship game. The Ducks lost to Texas but Lauren, who signed a contract to play professionally in France this fall and is a candidate for the 2016 Olympic team, had sparked a flame in Kelsey.
Lauren didn’t have a lot of scholarship offers but her mother, unwilling to allow her children to make emotional or uninformed decisions, visited as many college campuses as possible. Lauren decided she’d go to Oregon because she liked the system and didn’t care that the program was at the bottom of the conference and then played in antiquated McArthur Court. She wanted to help get the program nationally recognized.
By Lauren’s magical junior season, Kelsey had a box overflowing with recruiting letters. There were trips to Ohio State and Dayton, Louisville and Nebraska, and visits to legendary programs Tennessee and North Carolina. Mixed in were whirlwind visits to Georgetown, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia and so many more Kelsey lost count.
But a theme developed. Rosters were loaded with upperclassmen or bloated with players at Kelsey’s position. Kelsey would likely not play a lot, unlike Lauren, who started all 30 matches as a freshman.
“For Lauren to go into a program that hadn’t gotten ‘there’ yet and get that opportunity as a freshman, Kelsey was like, ‘I want to do that, I want to go in and help build a program and help get a program to the next level.’ It gave her that vision,” Katie said of Kelsey’s decision to choose UW, which hadn’t advanced to the NCAA tournament since 2007.
After Lauren graduated, Katie changed her mobile phone ringtone from a duck quack to a dog bark. Jim switched out an Oregon baseball cap for a UW hat.
The Plums are continuing to build on the family’s college athletics tradition.
“If they would have loved piano, we would have supported piano,” Jim said. “And we tried to get them to play.”
But sports won.