This is a love story.
But it’s also a story about loss and grief and how a father and daughter bonded through their mutual love for each other and basketball.
This is a story about Khayla Rooks, a senior forward on the Washington Huskies women’s basketball team, and her dad Sean, who starred at Arizona before a 12-year career in the NBA.
Long before #GirlDad became a trend, Sean doted over his baby girl Khayla — the youngest of two siblings — every day of her life until he died suddenly at age 46 of heart failure on June 7, 2016.
“He was my hero,” said Khayla, who remembers a running dialogue they shared about everything related to basketball. “I don’t know when that started, but it’s been going on throughout my whole life. I went to my first game when I was 2 months old and it was his game.
“Basketball talks and basketball in general has been around for a long time in the Rooks family. That’s how we bonded so well because I’m so in love with the game and he was really passionate about it. We would always talk about the league and players and trades and wins and losses and just everything to a deeper level. It was just great to just challenge his mind and have him challenge mine and learn a lot of things. His love for basketball made me love it, too.”
If there’s anything Sean adored more than hoops, it was Valentine’s Day, a time when he would shower loved ones with affection.
“He used to do Valentine’s Day big,” Khayla said. “He would send all the women in his life cards and gifts to show them that they’re appreciated and they’re loved and he’s thinking about them. He always made Valentine’s Day special.
“He was really good at birthdays and just holidays in general, but Valentine’s Day, he always made it big. He always got me something or sent me something.”
The 21-year-old Khayla, who was preparing for her senior year at Mission Hills High in San Marcos, California, when her dad passed away, still cherishes a stuffed bear he gave her that year.
She remembers the lessons Sean administered to her and older brother Kameron, who played at California and San Diego State.
And she still gets emotional whenever her mother Susie tells stories of when she was a student at Arizona and fell in love with Sean, a four-year Wildcats standout (1989-92) and honorable mention All-American as a senior in 1992.
“My mom always takes me to places and shows me around,” said Khayla, who always visits the fast-food joint Whataburger on campus because it was her parents’ favorite hangout. “I went to Arizona a lot when I was younger for my dad. I’m really quite familiar with the UA.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling. It’s a good feeling knowing that I’m playing in the gym that my dad did a lot of damage in. It also sucks because I wish that he was here to watch me play in the same gym.”
Khayla’s ties to Arizona makes Washington’s trip to Tucson, Arizona, on Valentine’s Day to face the No. 10 Wildcats extra special.
Before Sunday’s game, Khayla plans to visit a picture of her dad hanging in a hallway at McKale Center that honors Wildcat legends who played in the NBA.
“I go there and spend some time talking to him and thinking about him,” she said. “Just going to hang out and feel his presence.”
Coincidentally, the Huskies played at Arizona last year on Valentine’s Day and lost 64-53. Khayla was scoreless and finished with just two rebounds, which would have elicited playful ribbing from her dad.
“Every time my brother used to play at UA, my dad would just talk so much crap,” Khayla said laughing. “He’d say, ‘I want you to do good, but I want my Wildcats to win.’
“I always loved that about him. I loved his competitive nature and the (crap) that he talked. I miss that and I wish that he could talk crap to me before games, too. No matter how annoying it might be in the moment.”
Aside from the complications of being a student-athlete during a pandemic, this has been a difficult season for the Huskies (5-10, 2-10 Pac-12). Rooks has been hampered by a knee injury that forced her to miss a game Jan. 31 and come off the bench in her past three appearances.
“Thankfully, it’s a COVID season and it’s kind of like a throwaway season,” she said. “A lot of learning, a lot of teaching and a lot of growing and maturing. I think this year was needed for this team to grow and mature.”
After three years as a backup, Rooks moved into the starting lineup while leading the team with 34 assists and is averaging 5.8 points and 3.2 rebounds.
“This year she shouldered the load of being a floor leader for us,” coach Jody Wynn said. “Khayla has always had a very high basketball IQ and a great understanding of the game. She’s somebody that doesn’t have to participate in the drill to understand it. She’s somebody that can do in-game adjustments through verbal communication by me or a staff member. We look to her to direct our communication for the players.
“She might not be able to do everything that we ask her to do physically, but she is somebody that understands it. … Seeing her blossom into a mature young adult has been a beautiful thing. With that her accountability piece needed to improve from one year to the next. She is extremely receptive and she understands the overall picture. She no longer takes coaching personal. She’s much more mature and is proud to wear the leadership hat for our program right now.”
Admittedly, Khayla didn’t inherit many physical gifts from her dad, a 6-foot-10 center who was known as an imposing and athletic big man beneath the rim.
Still, she credits him for teaching her about the game.
After a journeyman career with seven NBA teams, Sean got into coaching in 2007 and spent five years as an assistant coach in the NBA Development League. He joined the Phoenix Suns’ player development staff in 2012 and was an assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014.
“He was a basketball genius,” Khayla said. “He always loved to be surrounded by the game. He’s the one who got me and my family into it. Just an all-around great person and a really fun dad.
“He was always traveling and coaching so I didn’t always get the time that I wanted to spend with him, but when I did it was always something special. He always was really thoughtful in what we did, the things we did, where we went and the places we’ve seen. He was a great dad all the way around.
“I miss that guy.”