CHICAGO – The NBA draft is still a few days away, but as Brandon Rush lounges on the sofa of his Chicago apartment, the former Kansas guard is already busy fulfilling his first professional contract.
A memorabilia company is paying Rush $4,000 to autograph 800 trading cards by the end of the summer. Last night he made it through 75 before his eyelids got heavy. Today he's hoping to knock out 100 more.
"I've got nothing better to do right now," Rush says, "and it's easy money."
Rush better get used to it.
Perhaps more than any player, Rush's draft stock has soared since NBA teams began conducting individual workouts early this month. Once pegged as a late first- or early second-round selection, Rush is now expected to be taken anywhere from No. 11 to No. 17 in Thursday's draft.
"Brandon Rush," one Western Conference scout says, "showed us dimensions in his game that we never knew existed. He could help our team immediately."
Such remarks are common among the NBA coaches and general managers who have watched the 6-foot-6 Rush work out in person during the last month. The comments couldn't be more welcome.
After all, during the past seven years, Rush has grown used to criticism. Not praise.
The high school principal who said he wouldn't amount to squat … the recruiting analysts who labeled him "uncoachable" and wondered if he'd ever be as good as older brothers JaRon and Kareem … the fans with the "Rush Can't Read" signs and the doctors who questioned whether he'd bounce back from offseason ACL surgery.
"The list (of detractors) goes on and on," says William Bazzle, Rush's advisor and longtime friend. "Other than O.J. Mayo, I don't know if there's a player in this draft that's been scrutinized for as long a period of time as Brandon.
"He's had to prove himself over and over and over. He always believed in himself. Now – finally – I think everyone else believes in him, too."
Shortly before midnight Saturday, Rush lifted his travel bag from the carousel at Chicago's O'Hare airport and headed toward the parking lot. Rush is known around Kansas' campus for walking and sending text messages at the same time but, on this night, after a three-hour flight from Portland, he moved briskly to the car.
"Let's go," he says as he plops into the passenger seat. "I'm ready to get to the crib."
It's easy to understand why Rush is fatigued.
In May he signed a short-term lease on a 35th-floor apartment overlooking downtown Chicago so he could train with Tim Grover, the man who for years worked exclusively with Michael Jordan.
Lately, though, Rush's home has been an airplane or a hotel room.
Phoenix, Sacramento, Toronto, Orlando, New Jersey. Rush has worked out for 12 teams since June 3. Each workout called for Rush to engage in one-on-one drills with another player in the draft such as Chris Douglas-Roberts, Shan Foster, Chase Budinger or even Mario Chalmers, his former Kansas teammate.
After each session Rush sent the same text message to Bazzle or childhood friend Tim Blackwell: "I put 'em in the trunk today."
"In these workouts … I've been doing these cats," Rush says. "Teams are seeing a lot of things from me that they never saw when I was at Kansas."
Indeed, Rush's role was limited during his time with the Jayhawks, and he was fine with that.
A big reason Kansas won the national title was because Rush sacrificed his individual stats and bought into Bill Self's team concept. Rarely did Rush force a bad shot or dribble into traffic. Even though he led the team in scoring during each of his three seasons, there were times when Rush was criticized for being too passive by settling for three-pointers.
"One thing I got really sick of during the season was people telling me I needed to be more aggressive," Rush says. "I'd smile and say the right things, but really I wanted to say, 'Shut the hell up. You don't have any idea what it's like to play on a team like this … a team full of superstars.'
"Playing for Kansas is different than playing for other schools. We didn't need a guy to go out there and take the game into his own hands. That would've hurt the team … not helped it."
Still, because he was holding back, draft prognosticators had him going in the second round throughout most of the regular season. But that changed once Rush began his individual workouts.
All of a sudden he started putting the ball on the floor and beating his opponents off the dribble. He worked to improve his skills in the paint, where he could use his size to create matchup problems with smaller shooting guards. Even Rush's left hand – long considered a weakness –has improved dramatically through hard work at Grover's Attack Athletics Training Center.
"This isn't a knock on Brandon," Grover says, "but he gives the appearance that he's going through things so effortlessly. He's so graceful and athletic out there that he just glides. It looks like he's not working hard when, really, he is."
NBA teams like Rush for other reasons, too.
While some players have measured shorter than their listed height, Rush is legitimately 6-6 with arms that hang down to his knees. Defensively, he's one of the better players in the draft, as scouts repeatedly reference two of his performances against Kevin Durant last season.
"The good thing about Rush," one scout says, "is that he can come in and help someone right off the bat. On the right team, he could play a lot of minutes immediately because he's so seasoned."
It's also well-known that Rush was one of the most popular players among his teammates at Kansas, the school he almost never attended. Rush entered the draft out of high school but withdrew when it became clear he wouldn't be a first-round pick. Rush declared after his sophomore year in 2007 but tore his ACL a few days before the pre-draft camp.
"I've had a lot of GMs tell me that going to Kansas was the best thing for me," Rush says. "They say I look like a completely different player than I did coming out of high school."
Late last month, in preparation for Kansas' trip to the White House to meet the President, Rush went to Rochester's Big & Tall shop on Chicago's Magnificent Mile and purchased a $1,000 suit.
"No more baggy pants and no more ball caps, no more hip-hop," recalled the saleswoman who fitted Rush. "When he put that suit on you couldn't see his tattoos. He looked like a professional young man."
Rush smiled upon hearing those comments.
"It's a part of life I've got to live right now," he says. "I can't wear white T's all the time anymore. I've got to dress up and get used to that kind of thing. I guess I've got to change my image a little bit."
Not that it needs much repairing, especially when you compare it to the perception folks had of Rush when he signed with the Jayhawks in the summer of 2005.
By that point, Rush had attended four high schools. One of them – Westport High School in Kansas City – banned him permanently following a series of suspensions during his sophomore year for missing classes and failing to turn in assignments.
Rush transferred to Mount Zion Academy in North Carolina and eventually signed with the Jayhawks, but fans were skeptical because of his older brothers.
JaRon Rush is arguably the greatest player in Kansas City high school history. But he made a foolish decision to enter the NBA following his second year at UCLA and wasn't selected and has battled alcohol problems ever since.
Kareem starred at Missouri and eventually played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Hornets, who cut him in 2006 after accusing him of having a poor work ethic. He now plays for the Indiana Pacers.
"Everyone compares him to his brothers," says Rush's grandmother, Jeannette Jacobs. "But what people don't know is that they were never that close. JaRon is six years older than Brandon and Kareem is five years older. They were always out of town playing AAU in the summer and Brandon was by himself.
"Even when I took Brandon to their high school games he hardly paid attention."
Brandon, though, certainly took notice when JaRon and Kareem were caught accepting money from their AAU coach. The situation led to college suspensions for both players and caused others to wonder if Brandon would also fall victim to similar temptations.
"Kareem and I never talked to him about the pressures that go along with being a Rush … mainly because we didn't know he was going to be so good," JaRon says. "He's handled it well, though.
"One of my main goals, and I think I speak for Kareem on this, too, is to keep improving my relationship with Brandon. I think it's gotten pretty good over the last few years."
Bazzle, who has known Rush since he was 14, says he can't see how Rush could've handled the scrutiny that's followed him any better.
"Brandon proved himself time and time again," Bazzle says. "Everyone always wanted to see how he'd react to this or how he'd react to that. They kept waiting for him to fail."
"With the way people were watching Brandon," Bazzle says, "everything with him had to be perfect. He couldn't afford to slip up on anything … and he didn't."
Back at The Sterling Apartments in Chicago, Rush is taking a break from his signing session.
A friend has come to town for a visit, and the two order a pizza from Marcello's. DVDs such as "SemiPro" and "21 Grams" rest near a 40-inch plasma, and there are always things such as FaceBook and MySpace to pass the time.
"The days are going by too slow," says Rush, cracking open a bottle of Vitamin Water. "All this sitting around is making me nervous."
Most mock drafts have Rush going 15th overall to Phoenix. At worst, he figures he'll go 17th to Toronto.
"I just want to go somewhere that's a good fit, somewhere where I can play a lot," Rush says.
"I need to do well those first few years so I can get a second contract and set myself up for life."
Yes, Rush is about to be a millionaire. He says he'll probably buy a black Escalade and a few chains, but other than that he has no plans for any lavish purchases. He hired former Kansas player Doug Elstun to manage his finances because he "wants to be smart" with his money.
One expense Rush has already incurred is for the suit he'll wear on draft night. It's tan with a creme-colored shirt and brown shoes.
"It'll go well with my skin," Rush says. "I want to look clean. It's a big night, but I'm ready to get it over with. Hopefully there are bigger things ahead."
- Brandon Rush