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There's No Place Like Home

Kansas turns out to be the spot for Brandon Rush, whose older brothers had their basketball careers marred by controversy

February 25, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, MO. — It turns out that Brandon Rush had some unfinished business back home.

Back where his brothers had run into trouble. Back where people had labeled him a failure.

"I had a lot of pressure on me," he said.

The Rush family qualifies as basketball royalty in this part of the country, three brothers who rank among the most celebrated schoolboy players in Kansas City history.

But it has been a star-crossed bloodline. Rush's older brothers, JaRon and Kareem, got swept up in a national scandal in the late 1990s, caught receiving thousands of dollars from their AAU coach.

There was further bad blood when JaRon ended up at UCLA instead of nearby Kansas, just down Interstate 70, and Kareem went off to rival Missouri.

Brandon Rush soon ran into problems of his own. The baby, the quiet one, he was perhaps least suited to the scrutiny that came with carrying the family name.

Falling in with a bad crowd, he struggled in high school and transferred from one school to the next before fleeing Kansas City altogether and enrolling at a private academy back east.

"They pointed at me and said I was the dumb brother, the lazy brother," he recalled. "That I'm not going to amount to anything."

Which makes it all the more startling to find him -- a few years later -- playing guard at Kansas, a sophomore leading the team in scoring as the sixth-ranked Jayhawks roll toward the NCAA tournament.

"Nobody thought I'd come back," he says. "They wondered why."

*

The youngest in the family by five years, Rush was just a kid when the troubles began.

The basketball cognoscenti in Kansas City had tabbed his brothers at an early age, steering them onto AAU teams and into an exclusive private school across town, light years from the poor streets where the family lived.

It was soon discovered that AAU coach Myron Piggie had paid more than $35,000 to five players. According to court documents, about half went to JaRon; Kareem received approximately $2,300.

Piggie pleaded guilty to a mail fraud charge and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison. The brothers eventually served NCAA suspensions at their respective colleges.

"I was kind of young," Brandon Rush says softly. "So I didn't really know what was going on."

Because his brothers were often away from home -- staying with people who lived close to their private school, then off at college -- Rush barely got to know them.

He did, however, feel their presence in other ways. People began to watch him in junior high, wondering if he would be as talented.

"He didn't like the attention," said Tim Blackwell, a friend since elementary school. "When you talked to him, he wouldn't say much, just short, simple answers. I think it was because of all the stuff his brothers had been through."

Soon after, his grades began to falter. In his first three semesters of high school, Rush attended three different schools.

He talks about the scrutiny from basketball fans and about peer pressure. Mostly, he says, "I really was lazy."

Oddly enough, it was an AAU coach -- not Piggie -- who stepped up to help him.

*

Glenda Rush could not stand the thought of her youngest leaving home. But she knew that he needed help and when AAU coach John Walker suggested a private school far from Kansas City, she reluctantly agreed.

"It was horrible," she said. "But when he was under me, he was acting like a baby all the time."

Brandon received a scholarship to attend Mount Zion Christian Academy, the small Durham, N.C., school that had produced NBA star Tracy McGrady.

Durham provided a welcome anonymity -- no one off campus recognized Rush. Moreover, it forced him to grow up.

"Just living on my own, I knew I had to do things for myself," he said. "I had to manage my time, my money and I had to manage school too. It helped me get stronger."

His game flourished. Rush was a two-time all-state selection and, as a senior, averaged 21 points, six rebounds and five assists a game.

Those numbers -- combined with a 6-foot-6, 210-pound frame -- started whispers that he might jump straight to the NBA.

After all, while JaRon had flamed out after two seasons at UCLA, Kareem had been a star at Missouri and was playing for the Lakers.

Rush entered his name in the draft but withdrew after hearing that he probably would not be a first-round pick. At that point, he turned his sights to college, listing Oklahoma and Indiana among his favorites.

As for Kansas, with all that family history, no one gave it much thought.

No one except Coach Bill Self, who was still relatively new on the Lawrence campus. When August rolled around and he heard that Rush still had not signed with a school, Self called Walker.

"Hey," he said, "I think we owe it to each other to at least visit."

*

The possibility that his little brother might return home worried Kareem Rush, who recalled the attention focused on his family as "crazy." But the Jayhawks had an ally in their corner.

"KU was the place where I wanted to go," JaRon said. "I thought it would be a great place for Brandon to be at."

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