For Kirk Haston, a freshman member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, there’s one aspect of legislative work that reminds him—much to his surprise—of his days playing basketball at the high school, college and professional levels: sportsmanship.
“I have seen people on the floor or in committees who have severe disagreements and really go at each other, but the game stays on the court,” Haston (R) says. “There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, there aren’t any hard feelings and the relationships are still good. Same thing in basketball. You could get into a yelling match during practice or in a game, but afterward, you’re going out to dinner or getting together, and everything’s fine. You can’t dwell on things.”
Haston says he’s enjoyed every minute of his rookie season in the House.
“The part I enjoy the most is sitting in a room with a bunch of people from different backgrounds, deep in the weeds of policy, and trying to hash out an idea that works," he says. "That’s fun to me.”
His experience in the legislature has been the latest in series of efforts he’s made over the past decade to “branch out, to see if I had any non-basketball talents, and to put them to good use.”
The only child of a single mom, Haston grew up in tiny Lobelville, Tenn., where he was a straight-A student and led his basketball team to a 37-0 season en route to the state championship. That helped the 6-foot-9-inch center earn a scholarship to Indiana University to play under legendary coach Bobby Knight.
Kirk Haston was a star basketball player at Indiana, and later wrote a book about his time spent with coach Bobby Knight. Photos courtesy Kirk Haston/Twitter.
After a breakout season his junior year, when he led the Big Ten Conference in scoring, averaging 19 points a game, Haston opted to enter the 2001 NBA draft, in which he was picked 16th overall in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets. But, slowed by injuries, he was waived by the Hornets after two seasons, after which he played for a year in the NBA’s developmental league and had a brief stint with a professional team in Italy before suffering a career-ending knee injury.
Over the next several years, he married his college girlfriend, completed his degree in sports management and returned to Tennessee to take a job as a teacher, health coordinator and high school basketball coach for the Perry County school system. Between 2012 and 2016, he earned a master’s degree in arts and education and published a book, "Days of Knight: How the General Changed My Life," a reminiscence of his relationship with Knight on and off the court. The book was designed “to balance out a lot of the negative things” associated with the coach, who was a behind-the-scenes source of support for Haston after the death of his mother in a tornado that struck Perry County in 1999, his freshman year at Indiana.
Haston traces his interest in running for office to a day-long field trip to the Tennessee Legislature that he arranged for a group of 12th graders in 2016.
When Haston decided to run in 2018, he leaned on his background in sports and gave himself numerical goals. In his playing days, he focused on putting up 1,000 shots; now it was 1,000 doors to knock on by the July primary—a goal he reached right at the buzzer.
“I found myself thinking, ‘This is where the action is, where they make the decisions everyone likes to complain about.’ And being in public education, I had a lot of concerns myself,” he recalls. “So later on, just out of curiosity, I looked at a list of legislators’ professions and found there were no active educators—not one—and I began to think I could bring that perspective to the mix.”
When Haston decided to run in 2018, he leaned on his background in sports and gave himself numerical goals. In his playing days, he focused on putting up 1,000 shots; now it was 1,000 doors to knock on by the July primary—a goal he reached right at the buzzer. “I ended up getting to 1,000 homes right on the dot,” he says. “At one house, the dog did bite my hand pretty good, but the owner at least let me put a sign in his yard.”
A Focus on Education
He fondly recalls Knight’s endorsement, which he used in his campaign materials: “I’ve known a lot of dumb politicians in my day, and Kirk won’t be one of them.”
Haston eked out a victory in a three-way Republican primary and went on to win with 80% of the vote.
As vice chair of the House Education Committee, Haston has focused his energies on expanding students’ access to career/technical courses and apprenticeships and reducing the urban-rural digital divide. Broadband currently reaches only about 50% of his largely rural district.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown “how big that divide is, with ramifications for students, health care and business,” he says. “Right now, we can’t even offer online instruction. Kids are having to work off hard copies that are sent home. So all of this has shed a bright light on the need to get our rural students better connected.”
Even before the pandemic struck, the legislature was planning to take up a rural broadband initiative in the 2021 session, Haston noted. “Now, I expect we’ll have a lot more focus on that as a result of what we’ve gone through this year.”
Suzanne Weiss is a Denver-based freelancer and frequent contributor to State Legislatures.
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