KU's Bill Self and Brandon Rush know they must rely on each other
By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
LAWRENCE | They can finish each other's sentences now.
Just the other day at a Kansas basketball practice, the Jayhawks were going over a new out-of-bounds play. When time came to run the play, Brandon Rush knew what was coming. He'd heard it a thousand times.
"Let's see what it looks like," Rush blurted out, stealing his coach's go-to line.
Everybody laughed. No doubt, the phrase didn't have the country twang of its usual owner, but KU coach Bill Self had to appreciate his star player's effort anyway.
"He's the funniest guy on the team," Self says.
Truth be told, Rush shouldn't have been at that practice. If not for a freak injury, he'd be counting his money as an NBA rookie. Self knows how lucky he is to have Rush back. After two years spent figuring each other out, they have one last chance to make their ever-evolving relationship pay off.
Self and Rush know each other well now. They've been through the battles together, but there's still some mystery left between the All-American player and his big-name coach. Self wonders why Rush won't try harder in school, why Rush won't embrace the role of dominant scorer, why Rush won't be more of a vocal leader for his teammates.
"He still frustrates me," Self says, "and I'm sure I frustrate him. But it's been a good fit."
From the moment they first spoke in the summer of 2005, Rush and Self have needed each other for very different reasons. Now, as the No. 4 Jayhawks embark on another run for what is quickly becoming an elusive national title, Rush needs Self to help make him into an NBA lottery pick. And Self needs Rush to take him where he's never gone before.
"I want to get him to the Final Four, since he's never been," says Rush, a Kansas City native. "We were so close last year. We had a great team, but the players didn't come through at the end."
How well do Self and Rush actually know each other? They played "The Newlywed Game" - known in the 1960s and '70s for tearing relationships apart on television - to find out.
QUESTION: What would Brandon say is his go-to move?
RUSH: One-dribble pull-up.
SELF: One dribble left, step back.
Bill Self, of course, had heard of Brandon Rush. Brandon's oldest brother, JaRon, was a freak of nature on the court. While at Illinois, Self had coached against the middle brother, Kareem, when he played at Missouri.
Self would have loved to have Brandon, but he just didn't think it was possible. He had heard that the Rush family - because of lingering feelings over JaRon's botched recruitment to KU - didn't like Kansas. Self had also heard that Rush, even though he had pulled his name out of the NBA draft, wasn't going to play college ball.
But as soon as word spread at an AAU event in Kansas City late in the summer of '05 that Rush had qualified academically to play, Self's mind started to wonder. Rush to KU? Self already had commitments from three McDonald's All-Americans - Mario Chalmers, Julian Wright and Micah Downs. Just thinking about getting Rush felt greedy.
That didn't stop Self, though. His program had just been through utter hell the four months before that. Self knew that KU fans wouldn't soon forget the first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Bucknell or the J.R. Giddens saga that erupted a month later. Mix in the departure of four talented seniors, and Self was willing to make a phone call that many schools wouldn't.
The rap on Rush was that he didn't care about school and that he was lazy. He'd attended four high schools and left Kansas City to finish school at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina. All he cared about was getting to the league.
Self left the AAU gathering, dialed a contact and put out a feeler. Sure enough, Self got Rush on the phone, and the two talked for the first time. Self took one thing away from it.
"Brutally, brutally honest," Self recalls.
Rush was surprised to be talking to Self at all. He had been considering Illinois and Indiana, among others, but liked the idea of playing close to home. He'd heard positive things about Self, that he was down-to-earth and let his kids play. So Rush decided he'd pay Self an official visit.
On that visit, Self talked candidly to Rush about the attention he'd have being the youngest Rush brother playing 30 miles away from Kansas City. He said people would be watching his grades, waiting for him to fail.
"Why should I have a problem with that?" Rush told him. "I'm a good kid."
Right then, Self was sold. By the end of August, Rush had committed to Kansas, and news had spread of Self's last-minute recruiting coup. Thanks to a recruit that Self fully admits he didn't deserve, KU began to move on from Bucknell and Giddens.
"We were kind of in one of those deals - "Oh jeez, what next?" Self says. "Brandon, out of the blue, came to us, and I think he pumped life right back into our program in a big way."
QUESTION: What would Self say is his biggest complaint with Rush as a player?
SELF: Not aggressive.
To get where he wanted to go, Brandon Rush needed Bill Self, too. Rush is the first to admit that - no offense to his other coaches - he'd never been coached before. His raw ability wasn't enough to get him into the first round out of high school.
"It was just like, 'Go score,' " Rush says. "Don't worry about defense."
Rush didn't really know what to expect from Self, but one thing was clear to Self about his 6-foot-6 freshman guard: He wanted to be coached. At Kansas, Rush was challenged by a coach to be responsible for the first time.
"He quickly realized how things were going to be when he stepped on campus," says Rush's best friend, Tim Blackwell, a senior guard at UMKC. "Just being held accountable for everything you do."
Surprisingly, it wasn't accountability that put Rush in Self's doghouse his freshman year. The Jayhawks needed Rush to take more shots. Rush was supposed to be a hothead who would relish that role, but he was the opposite. Self began to make Rush run on the treadmill every time he would pass up an open shot in practice or a game.
When it comes down to it, Rush is like a puppy dog. He just wants to be loved. He worried - and still worries - that people won't like him if he takes a lot of shots or misses a big one.
"It's just me being a very unselfish player and making everybody happy," Rush says. "I don't like people being mad at me. I've always been like that. It's something I'm working on, but it hasn't improved that much."
Blackwell thinks it's simply a personality thing.
"He's a quiet person," Blackwell says. "He's not going to go into a room full of people and control the conversation in the room. He's going to let another person start the conversation. If they talk to him, he'll talk. I can see his personality on the court."
That's why Rush has excelled as a defensive player at Kansas; it's something not many people notice. While Self wishes Rush would be more aggressive, he has come to accept that his star will always be a reluctant one.
"I don't want the spotlight," Rush says. "I want it on the whole team."
QUESTION: What would Brandon say is his worst memory with coach Self?
RUSH: Losing in the first round (to Bradley his freshman year).
SELF: When he knows that I'm upset with him. Because he hates to disappoint. He's a pleaser.
In Bill Self's perfect world, he'd connect with each of his players every single day.
It's so easy with players like center Sasha Kaun, who would stop by Self's office every day if he could. With Rush, it's been tougher to break through. He rarely comes by the office just to chat, even though he knows that Self's door is open.
"He'll come by the office, and I'll say, 'Brandon, why haven't you been by in a while?' " Self says. "And he'll say: 'I don't want to see you. I always get in trouble when I see you.' "
Self isn't alone. Rush has always kept a tight group of confidants. Blackwell has no doubt that growing up as the little brother of JaRon and Kareem Rush has made him that way.
Rush's circle of trust includes Blackwell and a few others. Self isn't sure whether he has worked his way in.
"I still don't think he trusts as much as he could," Self says. "I think I'm in his circle when he wants me to be in his circle."
Rush says that Self is, but that he's not surprised Self isn't sure. Rush first began to trust Self at the end of his freshman year, when his coach was going out of his way to stick up for Rush with the media.
"He helped turn my whole reputation around, saying I'm a good kid, saying that I'm doing good in school, saying all these great things about me," Rush said. "It has turned the way everybody thinks of me."
Self cleared the way for Rush to have a big sophomore year and bolt for the NBA. He never once thought Brandon would return for a third year. So as the deadline to announce approached in late April, Self was making preparations for how to leak the news. He had hoped to have Rush come in for a news conference with all of the local media.
Instead, Rush broke the news that he was declaring for the draft in an exclusive interview with The Star. Self was totally blindsided. He certainly didn't feel like he was in Rush's circle then.
"That was a situation that disappointed me," Self says. "He'd be the first to admit, that's not what we talked about. That bothered me because, as a coach, you always want to be on the same page with your players on how you're going to approach something."
In the months since, Rush has realized that all Self wanted from him was the honesty he had shown in their first conversation.
"He just wanted to know," Rush says, "and I didn't tell him at all."
At that point, Rush started preparing for the draft and his new life. The last thing he ever expected was that he'd be in Self's office a month later, emotional after learning that he'd torn his right ACL.
Rush and Self are rolling through "The Newlywed Game," and the couple have guessed right on six of 11 questions. Last one:
QUESTION: What would coach Self say is his favorite memory with Rush as a player?
SELF: I would say him and Julian and Mario, all three of those guys not quitting and coming from 17 down with 8 minutes left to beat Oklahoma their freshman year.
RUSH: I'll say winning back-to-back Big 12 titles.
Rush, when told of Self's answer, could only shake his head.
"Dang," he said.
So is this a match made in hoops heaven? Kansas fans will know in about five months.
If not, it won't be because Rush and Self didn't want their relationship to work. Self has been blown away by Rush's commitment to rehabbing his injured knee. He estimates that Rush, out of about 150 rehab sessions, was only late or uninspired for three of them.
"He's a lot more responsible than I thought he was," Self says. "I'm really proud of him."
The power of positive thinking has been evident with Rush. There haven't been many bad days.
"It taught me a lot of discipline," Rush says. "It's kind of made me a better man, too."
But will Rush be a better player? Self believes it can happen, even though Rush will have lost some of his explosion. Self is so confident that Rush will be NBA-ready that he once again isn't factoring Rush into his future plans.
Of course, this is Brandon Rush and Bill Self, so you never know. Remember, they weren't even supposed to be together.