OMAHA, Neb. – What would you do if your uncle was beaten to death with a hammer?
Would you lie in bed all afternoon, despondent and depressed? Or would you wipe away your tears and go to history class like Kansas' Darnell Jackson?
What if someone called with news that your baby son was dead? Would you drop out of school and move back home? Or would you leave after the funeral like Sherron Collins and drive eight hours to lift weights and play pickup basketball?
What if you were Rodrick Stewart, whose adopted brother was shot and killed while waiting at a traffic light? Or Sasha Kaun, whose father was likely murdered in Russia? Would basketball really seem all that important?
"We're probably the No. 1 team in the country when it comes to dealing with death and tragedy," Stewart said. "Any time one of us starts feeling down, we know we can step into this locker room and find strength."
Their roster is stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA draft picks. They’ve won four straight Big 12 titles and 46 of their last 50 games. Still, as successful as they’ve been on the court, the most impressive thing about the Kansas Jayhawks is how they’ve persevered off of it.
"I heard a quote the other day that said, 'Ten percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent is how you deal with it,' " guard Russell Robinson said. "We've played the hands we were dealt as best as we could."
Dead parents. Murdered friends and relatives. Gang-infested neighborhoods. Absentee fathers. Almost every key member of Kansas' team has achieved college stardom after overcoming obstacles that would've forced a weaker person to wilt.
The more you hear their stories, the tougher it is not to root for the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament, where they will face UNLV in a second-round game Saturday at the Qwest Center. Relating to these players is easy because, in many ways, they're just like us.
Athlete or not, everyone faces adversity at some point. Each of us will deal with hurt, anger and grief. But while some are forced to do it alone, the Jayhawks persevered together. It's a team full of players that, in tough situations, have made all the right choices for all the right reasons.
Now, more than ever, it's paying dividends on the court.
"Everything that's happened has brought us closer together," forward Darnell Jackson said. "We've got a tight circle, a tight family. You see some teams out there arguing with each other on the court. We don't do that. When we're out there you can see how much we enjoy playing together."
No Kansas player has experienced more offcourt trauma than Jackson, a senior who's averaging a career-high 11.6 points.
In the eighth grade Jackson's absentee father, James Howard, was shot and killed by Oklahoma City police after he attacked a jogger. As a high school senior, Jackson arrived at the scene moments after a friend's murder. A few years ago his close friend, Glen Davis, died after being shot in the head by gang members.
Jackson's uncle was murdered, too, and his grandfather died in 2006. "Just last month his cousin was killed in a shooting." The worst tragedy, though, occurred in the summer of 2005, when a car carrying Jackson's mother, Shawn, and grandmother, Yvonne, was struck by a drunk driver in Las Vegas. Yvonne Jackson died a week later from the injuries she sustained in the collision.
"I don't know of anyone," coach Bill Self said, "that's had to deal with more at such a young age than Darnell."
At times, the tragedies seemed to be taking their toll on Jackson. Last January he drove home to Midwest City, Okla., with no plans to return to Kansas. Self caught a flight to meet Jackson and convinced him to return.
This season Jackson broke down crying as he left the court at halftime of a game, but a hug from teammate Mario Chalmers assured him that he was in the right place.
"There are a lot of people out there that think we get the red-carpet treatment because we play basketball," Jackson said. "I wish those people could trade places with us so they could see how hard it is to be a college athlete and a student at the same time.
"We go through so much. You're away from home and so much stuff is happening, but you can't do anything about it. You can't go back home. You have to stay."
Collins may have felt like giving up after his son, Sherron Jr., died a few days after his birth in the summer of 2006. But then he remembered the rigorous trek he'd made to get to Kansas in the first place.
Much of Collins' childhood was spent in the Lathrop Homes housing project in Chicago, where fights, prostitution and drug deals were commonplace in the courtyard. Collins' father had gang ties and was in jail for drug-related incidents for most of his childhood.
As a teenager Sherron's best friend, Cedrick, was shot in the head and killed seconds after leaving Sherron's home. Earlier this month, Crane High School – Collins' alma mater – made national news when gang members shot and killed a student and hospitalized another by beating him with a golf club in broad daylight near the front steps of the campus.
Because he had basketball, Collins managed to stay clear of such riff raff and earn his diploma. When he experiences tough times at Kansas, he knows his teammates are there to help him cope.
"Sometimes we all need somebody," Collins said. "I think overall we've got a good core of guys that really cares about each other. We're like brothers on this team. When someone is down we try our best to pick them up."
That kind of gesture was certainly needed when Stewart's adopted brother, Allen, was shot as he sat alone in his car at a traffic light last month in Seattle. The murder happened the same week that Jackson's cousin was shot and killed.
"We had two murders this week within the immediate family," Self said at the time. "I've never coached that before. I don't know the coaching manual on that."
There are other stories, too.
Kaun's father, Oleg, was found dead in a parking garage when Kaun was 13. The cause of his passing remains a mystery, although Kaun's family believes it was related to Oleg's job as a computer programmer for one of Russia's biggest banks.
Brandon Rush grew up without guidance from a father figure and Russell Robinson was reared in the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn.
Even the ancillary members of Kansas' program have encountered tragic times in recent weeks. Mary Hudy, the mother of Jayhawks strength coach Andrea Hudy, lost her battle with cancer the morning before the team's regular-season finale against Texas A&M.
Before they took the court that day, the players sent Hudy a text message offering their condolences.
"She wrote back and told us to go win another ring," Collins said.
A few hours later Kansas returned to the locker room as Big 12 champions for the fourth consecutive year. Now they're five victories away from accomplishing something even more special.
Kansas (32-3) has not won a national championship since 1988.
"This would be something positive we could hang our hats on," Robinson said. "After all the negative things we've been through, we've got an opportunity now to do something great."
In some ways Robinson is missing the point.
The Jayhawks already have.
- Sherron Collins
- Darnell Jackson
- Kansas Jayhawks