Khayla Rooks to spend Valentine’s Day again at McKale Center, where dad became star

Sean Rooks‘ spirit still lives at McKale Center.

It continues within Arizona’s program, a symbol to all players who go there that goals can be met.

Rooks, “Wookie” as he was affectionately called because of his name and his 6-foot-10 and 250-pound frame, was a post player with raw skills from Fontana, Calif., who redshirted as a freshman. He became an All-Pac-10 selection as a senior in 1992 and then a 12-year NBA veteran.

He coached almost 10 years at the pro level and interviewed for an assistant coaching position with the New York Knicks the day he passed away from a heart attack in 2016 at the young age of 46.

Rooks’ spirit in the most special way exists at McKale with his daughter Khayla.

Khayla Rooks placed the heart balloon on her dad’s poster at McKale Center last year when Washington played Arizona on Valentine’s Day (Khayla photo: Washington Athletics/ Sean photo: Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Khayla and the Washington Huskies will play Arizona at McKale Center on Valentine’s Day for the second consecutive year.

What are the odds that on the symbolic day of love that Khayla will be in Tucson playing in the same arena where her dad became a star?

“It’s really ironic … it’s special to me, to be honest, because my dad used to make Valentine’s Day really big for all the women in his life,” Khayla said in a phone interview Saturday. “He sent us cute little cards and cute little gifts reminding us how much he loved us.

“Valentine’s Day was really special to me because of that.”

Washington’s coaches showed some love to Khayla last year presenting her with a red heart-shaped balloon in the locker room. Before she left on the team bus following the game, she taped that balloon on to her dad’s poster-sized tribute in one of the hallways at McKale. Her brother Kameron and mom Susanne O’Brien visited her that weekend from California.

Khayla Rooks with her mom Susanne and brother Kameron (Rooks family photo)

Kameron also had the opportunity to play at McKale when he was with California. He played the Wildcats also close to Valentine’s Day in 2017, on Feb. 12, only about eight months after his father’s death.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been growing up here, going to his basketball reunions and watching him play, it was just weird coming back here,” Kameron said to reporters after the game.

Arizona made Sean Rooks part of its intro video before the game out of respect for Kameron and the family.

“I’ve seen it before when I made my visit here, but it put a smile on my face,” Kameron said. “Every time I hear his voice, it puts a smile on my face, and I love seeing him, and that’s all I can see right now.”

Kameron transferred to San Diego State the following year and is now preparing for a pro season in Australia.

Khayla Rooks has 10 starts this season, the most in her career, but she has been affected by a knee injury in recent weeks (Washington Athletics photo)

Khayla is in the last month of her senior season. The year has not gone as planned because of a knee injury and COVID-19 restrictions that have prevented her mom from attending games.

She has played limited minutes of late, and missed the game against Stanford on Jan. 31, because of the knee. She played 25 minutes off the bench in Friday’s 50-35 win at Arizona State.

Khayla has started 10 times this season, which nearly matches the 15 she had in her previous three seasons.

“It has definitely been a learning process,” Khayla said of her Husky career. “It’s been a time that I have matured and grown into a woman on and off the basketball court. It has put me through some challenges.”

Khayla said she is motivated by her dad’s spirit to get past those difficult times.

“He prepared me a lot for the challenges,” she said. “I still have text messages from him before my high school games and stuff, and I read them before games. Kind of get that same motivation and hear his words.

“He used to say, ‘Trust the process and enjoy the journey.’ That’s kind of what he lived by, so I am just kind of trusting the process and trying to enjoy it.”

Khayla is majoring in political science with a law minor and will earn her bachelor’s degree in May. She plans to study for her master’s next year at Washington and eventually become a homicide detective.

Her last trip to Tucson as a college player will be without her mom or brother because of COVID-19 protocol.

In addition to her dad’s time on the Arizona campus, Tucson is a special place for Khayla because her mom and dad met while they attended Arizona.

“It’s a surreal moment and bittersweet being back here,” Khayla said. “I wish my dad was here to watch me play. My mom has always come out here. My mom always showed me around the town and showed me where her and my dad stayed and what they used to do back in the day.

“It painted a good picture. We’ve always stayed at this same hotel, the Marriott, and I used to stay here when I was younger coming out here with my family. It’s such a surreal moment being back here on the Arizona campus.”

Khayla will return to McKale Center on Sunday morning for the noon game against the Wildcats.

Her dad’s spirit will be there on yet another special Valentine’s Day.

“My mom told me, ‘Make sure you go say hi to your dad for me,'” Khayla said. “I always go and see his picture in the hallway.”


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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