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Drinking was his big problem

February 25, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, MO. — A couple of times a week, JaRon Rush meets friends at a gymnasium to play basketball.

No crowd. No television cameras. Nowhere near the big time.

Which is fine with Rush. The Kansas City schoolboy legend is done trying to be, well, legendary. Spit out the other side of a national scandal, two checkered seasons at UCLA and dark years lost to alcoholism, he just plays.

"There's no pressure on me," the 27-year-old said. "It's fun to be out there smiling and laughing."

His problems began in the late 1990s, when it was discovered that AAU coach Myron Piggie had paid him $17,000 to play on a talent-laden travel squad.

The controversy turned into a criminal prosecution, Piggie sentenced to federal prison for mail fraud, and Rush suspended by the NCAA for much of his sophomore season at UCLA, where he averaged 11.6 points.

But a bigger problem hovered in the background. It dated to his days as a Kansas City phenom, all those expectations.

"I'd go out drinking," he said. "That's what took the pressure off."

At UCLA, where Rush showed flashes of brilliance, there were whispers about erratic behavior. When he left school in 2000, the roller-coaster ride began.

With no NBA teams showing interest, Rush landed in rehab, which cleaned him up enough for a shot at the pros.

But the Seattle SuperSonics cut him at the end of camp in 2001 -- keeping childhood pal and fellow Kansas City native Earl Watson instead -- and the drinking resumed.

"I felt like all my friends were in the NBA and look at me, I'm just a bum, no money in my pocket," Rush said. "I came back to Kansas City, living at my mother's house on the couch."

Watson and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin kept in touch, urging him to get help. Glenda Rush, his mother, recalled that she "prayed and prayed every day."

In 2002, Rush arrived at a turning point. He returned to rehab in Florida and, more important, let go of the game.

"Basketball was my whole life to that point," he said. "I needed to realize there were other possibilities out there for me."

It was tough coming back to Kansas City, knowing that some would see him as a failure. But for the most part, he said, people have been kind.

Rush recently met with a reporter at the public relations firm where he works as a researcher while finishing college. Dressed in dark slacks and a white shirt open at the collar, diamond studs in each ear, he seemed relaxed.

This winter, he has been coaching his 9-year-old son Shea's team and will start as a high school assistant next season.

"I'm finding a life that's different from being on the court," he said. "And I'm comfortable with it."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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