Kenny Evans Jr. grew up in Pine Bluff living the normal childhood life of an athlete participating in the three main sports — baseball, football and basketball. By the time he was in junior high, Evans was proving himself on the hardwood and impressing those around him with his leaping abilities.
As Evans continued to mature, both mentally and physically, he was looking for answers, searching for his chosen path. It had always been a desire of Evans to play basketball in Fayetteville for the University of Arkansas and then-head coach Nolan Richardson. And with the ability to perform slam dunks paralleled by few with his jumping prowess, it appeared as if the young Evans was well on his way to obtaining his goals.
But something happened when Evans reached the eighth grade that changed his destiny. And while he did find his way to Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas, he did it in track and field instead of basketball.
That chosen path eventually landed the talented jumper in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Born Kenneth W. Evans, II on April 6, 1979, to Kenneth W. Sr. and Kathryn Evans, Kenny Evans Jr. was the oldest of three children. He has a sister, Kendra Evans Jasper, who resides in North Little Rock, and a brother, Kendrick Evans, who lives in Pine Bluff but attends school in Little Rock.
He played baseball in the summer, football in the spring and basketball during the winter. But he found basketball more to his liking and worked at his game until he reached the junior high level where his abilities started to be recognized.
He played under Ronald Moragne while in high school and found himself searching for answers on the path he would follow. He enjoyed basketball but something was telling him that it could be time to explore other options.
“Basketball was my first love,” Evans said in a phone interview with The Commercial from his home in Richardson, Texas. “I was kind of known as a high flyer.”
After being benched by Moragne during the King Cotton Classic at the Pine Bluff Convention Center one year, Evans took that as a sign that there was something else out there, something higher.
It turned out to be a high-jump bar.
“I was trying to decide if I was going to continue playing basketball,” Evans said. “I was asking God to give me a sign to either keep playing or go after track and field. The King Cotton was a chance for me to be seen by college coaches and scouts. Coach didn’t like the way the first team was playing so he put in the second team. I was sitting on the bench missing an opportunity to show scouts what I could do. I took that as a sign to leave basketball and go to the track.”
He got his first opportunity to attempt the high jump in the gymnasium one day when then-track coach Prestard Jordan lined up a group of guys and asked them to attempt to clear the bar.
“He took to it like a duck to water,” Jordan said, recalling vividly the day of the informal tryout.
Evans was asked to try out for the track team in the seventh grade but refused.
“I didn’t want to run,” he said. “So I did study hall. I thought I would have to be a sprinter and I didn’t want to do that. Coach Jordan was trying to find someone for the high jump so he lined everybody up. It just came to me easy and I soared over the bar.”
Evans continued to play basketball and football, though his tenure as quarterback came to an end one day after taking some painful hits.
“He was playing football too,” Evans Sr. said. “But he came home one day and said his line wasn’t blocking and he was getting smashed. He said he didn’t want to do that anymore.”
And as his interest in high jumping increased, his level of interest in other sports diminished. He left the basketball team and began working with Jordan on perfecting his technique in the high jump.
And while there are various aspects of the reason behind the split from basketball, Jordan ensured Evans wasn’t just quitting before taking the gifted athlete under his wing.
“He was a good player,” Jordan said of Evans’ ability in the gym. “And in no way would I let him run track after quitting basketball. I wouldn’t even let him jump until I talked to coach Moragne. But something happened in basketball and I’m not sure what happened over there.”
Whatever it was motivated Evans to drive harder for success.
“He has always been the type of person that set his mind on something and went after it,” Evans Sr. said. “Once he got into track he exploded. I had honed him to play basketball. But once he showed his desire in track, I continued to encourage him.”
For the remainder of his prep career at Pine Bluff High School, Evans leaped over the competition, eventually garnering All-American status three times and claiming three state titles in his field of choice. He set a state high jump record on April 4, 1997, at 7 feet, 5 inches at the Texarkana Relays, a record that still stands today.
He lost only once in his final two years, ironically to Pine Bluff teammate Willie Helloms, in a meet at Camden following his state record jump.
“I remember being upset about not winning,” Evans recalled. “Looking back I realize that I was acting like a child. I remember Willie telling me it was all right and to calm down.”
He also had Jordan in his ear.
“I always felt like he cared about his athletes and their well being,” Evans said of Jordan. “He was doing it for us, not for the recognition. He wanted us to make it out of Pine Bluff and make our dreams come true.”
As Evans’ high school career drew to a close, offers and interest from colleges across the nation began to come in. Arkansas coach Dick Booth finally convinced Evans to make the voyage to Fayetteville to join the Razorbacks.
“At the time I had no clue what Arkansas had,” Evans admitted. “But I knew I was going to be around guys that were working to do the same thing as me. It was a totally different environment from what I grew up in.”
At Arkansas, Evans found Booth’s coaching techniques somewhat controversial and would reconnect with Jordan for help when he was having trouble.
“My first year I was the first freshman to ever win a national championship,” Evans said, recalling his 1998 indoor title. “Even through my career coach Booth changed some things and I struggled a little. He wanted me to look a certain way.”
But looking a certain way was not producing the same results as when he cleared 7-2 as a high school sophomore and 7-5 as a senior at Pine Bluff.
“He called me and said coach Booth was telling him to do something different than what I had taught him,” Jordan said. “I told him that he was dealing with one of the best track coaches in the nation and he needed to do what he told him.”
But Evans knew his ability had diminished and his full potential was not being met. So he went rogue and took matters into his own hands, and feet, after failing to qualify for a meet.
“The week before the SEC championships I snuck off and worked by myself,” Evans said. “I went back to a 10-step approach and qualified. I wound up winning the SEC and then took that same approach and won the NCAA’s.”
After entering college as the 1996 and 1997 Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year, Evans was starting to fit the bill. He went on to earn eight All-America accolades while in Fayetteville and picked up three SEC Indoor High Jump titles in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
He was also the ’98 SEC outdoor high jump champion and cleared a career best 7-7 at the 2000 NCAA indoor championships, staking him to a runner-up finish.
In his eight NCAA Championship appearances, both indoor and outdoor, he claimed one title (1998 indoor), two runner-up finishes (1999 and 2000 indoor), four bronze finishes (1999, 2000 and 2001 outdoor and 2001 indoor), and one fourth-place finish (1998 outdoor).
But Evans never lost sight of reaching an even higher mark by competing for his country as part of the Olympic program.
“The year I made the Olympic team was my junior year (at Arkansas),” Evans said. “It was just the natural progression after the NCAA’s. If you qualified you had the choice of trying to make the Olympic team. I watched the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta and had a dream to try to do it.”
Evans’ eventual run to his 13th-place finish in Sydney came easy for the natural-born jumper. But it didn’t come without pitfalls of his high-flying acrobatics that allowed him to clear heights others failed to match.
The road to his NCAA title in ‘98 was jeopardized by a hamstring injury two weeks prior to competition.
“I was running sprints after practice one day and something popped,” Evans said. “It forced me to take two weeks off and it turned out to be a good thing. When I got to the meet my legs were fresh.”
Evans went on to jump 7-5, claiming his lone NCAA title.
Traveling with Arkansas’ Booth three months early to Sydney afforded Evans the opportunity to experience the culture unlike native Pine Bluff. On a private island reached by boat, Evans witnessed wallabies, crocodiles, exotic birds and a various array of wildlife unseen in the Deep South.
In Olympic Village, Evans rubbed elbows with the likes of NBA greats Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning, Ray Allen and Gary Payton, who Evans described as laid back and respectful and the one person he met who made the most impact on him.
But even with the extra-curricular activities, Evans never waivered from his work ethic and remained focused on winning a gold medal.
Evans fared well in the prelims with a second-place jump of 7-5 1/4. Two days later he found himself taking the world’s center stage in the finals of the Olympic Games.
Evans failed to raise the bar. Instead, his jump of 7-2 1/2 meant no podium position for the future Arkansas graduate.
As Evans was completing his career in Fayetteville, an Achilles injury threatened his natural ability. He wore a boot to protect the injury, but it depleted his true aptitude as a natural leaper.
The injury never quite healed and still affects him at times today as he goes about his daily routine as an analyst for Coca-Cola in Dallas.
Evans attempted a comeback in 2007 but the pain in his heel thwarted the effort.
The legacy of Kenny Evans will not end in Sydney as his son, Keenan Evans, continues in his father’s footsteps, claiming a district title in high jump in junior high and currently attends Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas. He is also a standout basketball player and is being recruited by the likes of Texas A&M, Texas and Arkansas.
The talent pool runs deep in the family as Evans’ wife, Shantel Reed Evans, was a star basketball player at Pine Bluff and a four-year starter at UAPB.