1970s: Courtside Seats

If you stopped at the court, you’d miss the point.

Yes, Rudy Carey, head basketball coach at Denver East High School, reached a high bar in December 2018, when he marked 800 career wins as a high school hoops coach. His feat made sports headlines, and Carey a legend in Colorado prep basketball will start the 2019-2020 season with 816 wins. Dick Katte, former coach at Denver Christian, is the only Colorado boys basketball coach to claim more victories.

Then there are his championships: During 42 years of coaching, Carey and his high school teams have amassed nine state basketball titles. Those achievements came at Manual High School in Denver, where he earlier coached, and with the Denver East Angels. No Colorado high school coach has won more state championships in boys basketball.

Yet for Carey, basketball is just the beginning.

He strives to shape young athletes into responsible citizens and, through the years, that work has made him a pillar of the Denver East community. Set aside the basketball records; the real triumph is a 100 percent graduation rate among his players, Carey said.

“When you look at today in the Denver Public Schools where 62 percent of black males graduate, and 70 percent of kids overall graduate we have a 100 percent graduation rate in 42 years,” said Carey, who has worked at Denver East as a physical-education teacher.

“Our basketball team has been a bright light for a community that so long lived in darkness. We had gang problems and gang wars. We had a lot of negative things going on in the community, and the basketball program at East was one bright light,” he said.

Bert Borgmann, an assistant commissioner with the Colorado High School Activities Association, the governing body for prep sports, said there is not likely a coach in the state who shoulders more pressure not only to win, but to carry a community. Other observers agree.

Rudy Carey
Coach Rudy Carey of Denver East High School passed the benchmark of 800 career wins while coaching boys basketball last season. He recently retired from teaching physical education but continues to coach Angels basketball. Photograph by Jathan Campbell / Mile High Sports

“There’s that really important piece around the community that he’s built. We have an abundance of parents and community members who offer their time,” said Terita Walker-Berry, athletics director for Denver East High School. “Our games aren’t just filled with our student body, but it’s also members of the community. We have people who come to be a part because he does support whole athletes, as opposed to just winning teams.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who was a student in one of Carey’s gym classes, proclaimed Feb. 16, 2019, as “Rudy Carey Day in the Mile High City” and congratulated the coach during a school assembly.

Well before he coached at Denver East, Carey attended and played basketball at the school, earning honors as an all-state guard. From there, he came to Colorado State University, starring on the court and graduating in 1974 with a degree in social work. Carey coached at Western Colorado University in Gunnison and at George Washington High School in Denver, then took over as head coach at Manual High, where he landed three of his nine state titles. He returned in 1992 to Denver East where, according to Mile High Sports magazine, Carey has had “the greatest coaching run in big schools in state history.”

Carey said he returned to Denver East not only to coach players, but to mentor students at an economically, racially, and academically diverse school. Even the Carey School of Basketball, which offers after-school programs and skill camps, aims to “create fundamentally sound basketball players and productive members of society,” according to its mission statement.

Last spring, Carey retired from his teaching job but plans to continue coaching Angels basketball. In practice, he may still bark; on the sidelines, he may still howl. Yet Carey, known for his impassioned game-day presence, also plans to continue pushing student-athletes to gain life skills that enable them to pursue professional careers.

Once asked if he was proud of all his victories, Carey answered that he had to be a proud man to win all those games.

“Basketball is one game where, if the rules are correctly applied, the true skill set will prevail,” Carey said. “That’s the same thing in life. If you prepare yourself, your true skill set will prevail if you do the right things in life.”