J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kansas has found success recruiting the East Coast again

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

JERSEY CITY, N.J. | In his visits with recruits, Bill Self normally does most of the talking. But in this case, Tyshawn Taylor had to speak up.

 

They were discussing the East Coast players who had already signed with Kansas in the 2008 recruiting class: Quintrell Thomas of Newark, N.J., and the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, of Philadelphia. Taylor had played against all three, but when his team played the twins' team one summer, a scuffle had broken out.

 

"These twins, they're rough guys," Taylor warned Self.

 

"Yeah," Self responded, "but that's good when you're on the same team."

 

"You're right," Taylor reconsidered. "It is different."

 

In 15 years at Kansas, Roy Williams brought in one East Coast player, and here was Self, trying to sign four in one year. Anyone who has seen Self work a living room will say he is a great salesman, but even for him, extracting a fourth player from just off the Jersey Turnpike seemed a bit extravagant.

 

Taylor had plenty of questions about leaving home for a place like Kansas. Most important, would he be bored out of his mind?

 

He was a city guy, fast-talking, fast-moving and ever-tied to his cell phone. Georgia Tech was after him, which meant Atlanta. He had been committed to Marquette, which meant Milwaukee. But, then again, Thomas had chosen KU over Maryland and UNLV, and the twins picked the Jayhawks over hometown Villanova. The peer pressure was being applied.

 

"Once you go on a visit," Thomas told Taylor, "you can't not go."

 

Taylor, sitting in the food court of a shopping mall just across the Holland Tunnel from Manhattan, fiddles with his cell phone. He still can't believe it's happening, two kids from Jersey and two kids from Philly moving to Lawrence, Kan.

 

"This is a story," he says.

 

Fittingly, the story begins with a Jersey boy.

 

***

 

Kansas hadn't entirely disappeared from East Coast consciousness under Williams, but the Jayhawks weren't trying to make inroads, either. They had switched their focus to California and to herding in the homegrown talent from the Heartland.

 

To get back in the game out East, Self needed someone with real connections to the area. Enter KU assistant coach Joe Dooley, who grew up in West Orange, N.J., and played at St. Benedict's in Newark, where he once set the school record for career points.

 

If that wasn't enough of a connection, longtime St. Anthony's (Jersey City, N.J.) coach Bob Hurley coached against a teenage Dooley, and St. Patrick's (Elizabeth, N.J.) coach Kevin Boyle has known Dooley for many years.

 

No matter where he's been, Dooley has cultivated his relationships back home.

 

"Dools is a Jersey guy," says Dan Hurley, son of Bob, brother of former Duke star Bobby and the coach at St. Benedict's. "People trust him. There's a certain language that people speak here. People don't have a whole lot of time for B.S., and people speak pretty freely and honestly. Joe is very upfront."

 

The 2008 recruiting class would be critical for the Jayhawks, who would lose five seniors and probably seven or eight scholarship players. Dooley first laid eyes on Thomas, a 6-foot-8 power forward from St. Patrick's, in April 2007. The Jayhawks caught wind of Taylor, a 6-3 guard from St. Anthony's, in July.

 

Both Thomas and Taylor were considered "late bloomers," and it would be Dooley's job to make sure they would finish blooming in Kansas. Dooley spent much of July in his native state, planting the seeds.

 

But Dooley's most time-consuming assignment was still to come. In early September, Self received a call from Dan Brinkley, the Morris twins' high school coach. They were in prep school at Apex Academies in Pennsauken, N.J., and they had just been released from the letter of intent they signed with Memphis. Brinkley asked Self whether he was interested in Marcus, a 6-8 swingman, and Markieff, a 6-10 power forward.

 

"We went from not knowing anything about the twins to having a great chance to get them," Self says. "I'm still fired up about them. They're big."

 

***

 

PHILADELPHIA | Walk through the doors of the Hank Gathers Recreation Center, and you find out how big Marcus and Markieff Morris really are.

 

Gathers is a Philly institution, cheese steak for ballers. All the greats played here. Wilt Chamberlain played here. George Major, a family friend who works at Gathers, sees the twins choosing KU over Villanova as a missed opportunity for his city.

 

"If they would have stayed here," Major says, "they would have brought Philly back on the map."

 

Marcus and Markieff are hanging out on the Gathers steps, across the street from a North Philly housing project.

 

"I don't even know where Kansas is!" a friend yelps. "Ya'll gotta go to the league after your second year!"

 

The twins laugh and head back to their grandparents' place, where they have been living since their house burned down during their junior year.

 

That fire changed the twins' understanding of what home is. When they lost everything, they had nothing but each other.

 

"I saw them grow even closer to their mother," says Brinkley, their high school coach.

 

Marcus and Markieff dote on their mom. Angel Morris has worked for 20 years as an operating-room attendant at Temple University Hospital. She puts in long hours, and the family shares one car. Each day, one of the boys wakes up early and drives Angel to work. To decide who has to get up, they square off in a video game the night before. Winner gets to sleep in. The boys drive together to pick her up each night.

 

"It's seamless," Brinkley says.

 

The twins' relationship with each other is even more unique.

 

"When it's just the two of them, it would be the same thing as having one person with you," says Rich Marcucci, their coach at Apex Academies. "I don't think I've ever seen them when they're not dressed the same. If they are on two different ends of the court during drills, by the end of the drill, they'll be together. They're always touching each other."

 

The twins are so connected they might as well be one.

 

"You can't tangle with one twin," Marcucci says. "You get one twin, you get the twins. If the mother is around, you might get the whole family."

 

With Angel prepared to move to Lawrence along with the boys later this summer, it's easy to see why the twins were able to make the decision to leave Philly and make a new home at KU, far away from what they've always known.

 

"We'll be with our mother," Markieff says.

 

***

 

Joe Dooley sports slicked-back hair and a gold necklace, but he doesn't just look the part of a Jersey guy. He's the first person to tell you, in typical Garden State fashion, that the nightlife in Hoboken is just as good as in New York, and that the Jersey Shore - not the Hamptons - is the place to visit for a weekend getaway.

 

As Self and Dooley made their way up and down the Jersey Turnpike in September for in-home visits, Dooley gladly played the role of host. He would take Self to his favorite Italian joints and pizzerias, only to get some attitude from his Oklahoman boss.

 

"He's proud of his roots now," Self says. "I give him crap all the time: 'Joe, this pizza's not any better than anywhere else.' And he'll say, 'Oh yeah it is, you just don't understand.' And I'll say, 'Keep eating that cardboard, Joe.'"

 

Self and Dooley made in-home visits with Thomas and Taylor and went to watch the twins play at Apex. Listening to Tommica Thomas, Quintrell's mom, you'd think Self had these visits down to an art form.

 

"He was in and out within an hour," Tommica says, "where a lot of the other people were on me and calling me constantly. He sold my son within an hour of being in the house."

 

Down at Apex, it was more of the same.

 

"Kansas was always even-keeled," Marcucci says. "When everyone else was stressing out, Kansas never acted that way. I never heard Kansas mention Villanova."

 

Now, the official visits were set. Thomas would be first up in late September. When Thomas got off the plane in Kansas City, Dooley was there to pick him up. The drive to Lawrence was unlike anything Thomas had ever seen.

 

"There's nothing out here," Thomas recalls thinking. "There's no cars on the road. In Jersey and New York, it would have to be some kind of natural disaster."

 

***

 

NEWARK, N.J. | In the zit-killer aisle at Rite Aid, you realize how wild it is that 17- and 18-year-olds have decisions in their hands that will affect the trajectory of their entire families.

 

Quintrell Thomas will be the first Thomas man to go to college, and he has a breakout on his chin, and he simply can't go another minute without more pimple pads.

 

With graduation fast-approaching, Thomas gets reflective.

 

"I'm really nervous," he says. "My senior year went by just like that. Every year of high school goes by a little faster."

 

There weren't a lot of fast times to be had at St. Patrick's, a Catholic school with strict rules, but Thomas tried his best. He had quite a battle with the sisters in regard to his tardiness - "Every time you're late," Thomas says, "you get an extra week's detention" - but, for some reason, Thomas doesn't remember ever going to detention.

 

"The girl that puts detention into the computer, she likes me," Thomas admits.

 

Thomas knows he can't stop time. It's those darned New Jersey public buses, which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.

 

It's that unpredictable route that delivers him back to Tommica and his 4-year-old brother, Quian. Tommica became pregnant with Quintrell when she was 19. Now, she does the best she can. This year, Quintrell was worried she would lose her job at Bear Stearns, so he cut back on his eating. He lost weight.

 

"I'm going to miss him like cooked food," Tommica says. "We have a very open relationship because there's like 20 years between us. It makes him uncomfortable sometimes, but that's life."

 

Tommica is honest about her wish for Quintrell to stay close to home. But now that he's made the decision to go to KU, Tommica wants him to understand one thing: He's accountable mostly.

 

"He thinks that (tardiness) is not going to matter in college, for some strange reason," Tommica says. "I'll have to call him in the morning and get him up."

 

***

 

The parties. That's what Quintrell Thomas was most impressed with during his visit to Lawrence. All of the guys knew who he was. So did the girls.

 

Speaking of girls, Thomas also got to see the cheerleaders on his visit. They were there when Thomas was taken to Memorial Stadium to watch a video specially made for him.

 

After Thomas realized there were actual people inhabiting the city of Lawrence, he was sold. He committed to KU soon after returning back to Jersey. One down, three to go.

 

Next up were the Morris twins, who would be coming for Midnight Madness. KU lore states that if a kid attends Late Night at the Phog, he is a lock to wear crimson and blue. Marcucci remembers coaches out East telling the twins not to be wowed by the mystique of Late Night. They didn't listen.

 

Late Night "was all she wrote," Marcus says. "I fell in love with the Rock Chalk."

 

Now it was three down, one to go. Taylor was supposed to visit KU in early November, right before signing day. But he would not make it to Lawrence, instead committing to Marquette after his official visit.

 

Taylor already felt like a Golden Eagle, watching as many Marquette games as he could during the season. But, on April 1, Indiana hired Marquette coach Tom Crean as head coach. When Taylor heard the news, he felt betrayed.

 

"(Crean) led me to believe that all these things were gonna happen for me," Taylor says. "When he left, I was like, 'Man, you left me out to dry. Now what happens if I can't go to another school?' A lot of stuff was going through my head."

 

***

 

JERSEY CITY, N.J. | Jeanell Taylor is a mom with a simple mission: Get all of her kids to 18.

 

"I want my kids to bury me," Jeanell says. "I don't want to bury any of my kids."

 

Pick up the paper, she says. Every day, somebody gets shot. At least, that's how it seems.

 

"It happens everywhere, but Jersey City alone, they bury a lot of kids," Jeanell says. "It's the ones that don't have a life taking the lives of others that got a life. I got my son to this point. I just watch him."

 

Like a hawk. With two weeks to go before Tyshawn leaves, Jeanell isn't leaving anything to chance. She's got all of his friends' cell-phone numbers, and she's not afraid to call.

 

Jeanell became pregnant with Tyshawn when she was a junior in high school and dropped out soon after he was born. After six months, the father split, leaving Jeanell with a baby boy and a dependency on government assistance.

 

Tyshawn had to grow up fast. He understands responsibility more than most 18-year-olds, which became evident when Crean bolted for Indiana. Tyshawn, despite being a player capable of leading St. Anthony's to a 32-0 record, worried that he wouldn't find another school that could get him to the NBA.

 

"I almost feel like if I don't make it to that next level, then it's just going to be my mother struggling for the rest of our lives," Tyshawn says. "I don't want that. My mom is 37. She still has time to do things. I feel like it's on me."

 

Tyshawn's worries were noble but unwarranted. As soon as word spread that Taylor was going to ask out of his letter of intent to Marquette, Bob Hurley's phone started ringing. Kansas found time to call from San Antonio at the Final Four.

 

"Wow," Taylor thought. "I must be important to them if they're calling me while they're at the Final Four."

 

The day after Taylor was officially released from his letter, Dooley and Self were in Jersey. Taylor visited KU a few weeks later and committed soon after.

 

Back in Jersey, there is a sense that it all worked out for the better. But that doesn't stop Jeanell from scolding Tyshawn for getting a citation on the light rail. Tyshawn saw the train leaving the station and jumped on without buying a ticket, and he got caught.

 

"Stupid stuff like that," Jeanell says, shaking her head. "Those tickets aren't cheap."

 

***

 

Joe Dooley is on the elliptical machine at a hotel in Portland, Ore., watching an NBA playoff game, talking on his cell phone about this class he largely put together, all at the same time.

 

"Time management," Dooley explains.

 

Dooley's job is never done. Taylor and Thomas are now on campus, enrolled in summer classes. The Morris twins are still in Philly, waiting for results of correspondence classes to see whether they have qualified.

 

Getting the twins to campus has been Dooley's lasting work. He has called the boys every day that the rules allow, sometimes late at night. It's as if Dooley can't sleep until he knows the boys will be playing for KU in the fall.

 

"We talk to Dooley every day," Markieff says. "He calls me 'Big Time.' "

 

Of Dooley's attention, Marcus says, "That's what Memphis lacked."

 

It's not just picking up the phone, either. Dooley has visited Apex often this year. Sometimes, he won't even speak to the boys. He just wants them to know that he's there.

 

"Without a doubt," Marcucci says, "Joe was the guy. Coach (Self) and everyone else kind of put that mantle on his shoulders. This is your project basically, these two kids."

 

Marcucci is confident the twins will qualify in time for the fall. When they do arrive in Lawrence, Dooley might finally be able to take a breath. It's been quite a year, winning a national title and putting together a class that would make any Jersey guy proud.

 

"I think assistants get way too much credit," Dooley says, deflecting the spotlight.

 

Self gives Dooley most of the credit for this class, and they already are working on the next one. The Jayhawks are in the running for two top-10-caliber players in the 2009 class, Lance Stephenson of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Dominic Cheek, a teammate of Taylor's at St. Anthony's.

 

Kansas has firm footing again out East, and people are taking notice.

 

"Kansas is Kansas," Marcucci says. "You can't discount what Bill Self is to Kansas, that image, that professionalism, and you've got guys like Joe going around beating the bushes. That's a formidable foe."

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