If Rodney McGruder wasnt serious, he wouldnt be where he is today.
By KELLIS ROBINETT
The Kansas City Star
He wouldnt be Kansas States leading scorer. He wouldnt be on his way to receiving a college degree. And he certainly wouldnt be preparing to play in his third consecutive NCAA Tournament.
If not for the no-nonsense approach he takes to the game he loves, McGruder figures he would be back home in Washington, D.C., blending in with everyone else. Thats not him.
Growing up as the youngest of four children, he was part of a sports family. One of his brothers played football, the other liked boxing. His sister took to basketball and taught him how to dribble. He watched as all three developed into high school athletes, but moved on to other interests before the age of 18. None has graduated from college.
He wanted more.
They really wanted to get jobs and work, but I stuck with it, McGruder said. When I got to high school, I stuck with sports. I fell in love with basketball from day one. It was just fun. I knew the places it could take me. I wanted to be the first one to graduate college and do something a little bit different.
It didnt take long for that dream to become reality. Before McGruders senior year of high school, coaches lined up with scholarship offers, but he chose K-State after visiting Manhattan.
He liked the town and enjoyed the fans. He saw himself being able to focus and develop his game.
Three years later, he is K-States best player and unquestioned leader. Its all he ever wanted.
Best of all, he got here on his own terms.
Coming into his junior season, most expected McGruder to be K-States go-to player. He was K-States No. 2 scorer and top rebounder as a sophomore. But he had never handled the burden of speaking up when others were down.
The last two players to do that were Michael Beasley and Jacob Pullen. McGruder was nothing like them. Not only did they make highlight plays on their way to professional careers, they had outgoing personalities.
Beasley told jokes and kept his teammates loose. Pullen made bold statements and also made the locker room fun.
McGruder is quiet. His game revolves around mid-range jumpers and rebounding. He doesnt turn on the charm in front of cameras. He couldnt recreate any of that.
If youre somebody Im with 24/7, then youll see me joking. I can be a character, McGruder said. But if youre somebody I only see once in a while, youre going to think Im the most serious man on the planet.
Still, he demanded to follow in the footsteps of Beasley and Pullen.
I wanted the role, McGruder said. I wanted to be a leader. It was something I was looking forward to and felt I was ready for. People talked to me about how to approach it, but I just try to be myself. I dont want to change. I dont want to be anybody else. I want people to remember me for me. Not the guy who acted like Jacob Pullen or acted like Michael Beasley.
McGruder knew it wouldnt be easy, but what he lacked in personality he tried to make up for with intensity. What he lacked in charisma he figured he would make up for with 30-point games. He could lead a team in rebounding as a 6-foot-4 swingman. Why couldnt he lead a team in the locker room, too?
Most of all, he wanted his work ethic to rub off on others.
So far, it has.
Rodney keeps things serious, freshman guard Angel Rodriguez said. If you dont bring it to practice, or arent doing what youre supposed to do, hes the guy who will score on you every time he has the ball. He will embarrass you.
McGruder also comes in early and stays late to watch film with K-State coach Frank Martin. McGruder has gone out of his way to learn other positions so he can act as a coach on the court.
Hes definitely a rising leader, senior Victor Ojeleye said. Hes very talented. Hes taking a role that shows how he has put the team on his back. He has helped guys grow mentally through his words and made plays when we needed them.
Martavious Irving chuckles when he thinks about the first time McGruders serious demeanor took control of K-States locker room.
It happened in December during the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. For much of his time with the Wildcats, Irvings job was to lead the team onto the floor with a pregame dance. He had done it for more than two years.
But McGruder told him to stop.
I like things being serious going into games, McGruder said. It shows that were ready. If youre down there joking and playing around, guys might take this as a joke. I dont want that. I want people taking games seriously.
Irving was hesitant to comply, but when McGruder asked the rest of the team if they were willing to give up the pregame dance, Irving was the first to support him.
At first they looked at me like, What? Come on, we always dance before games, McGruder said. Then I said, Wouldnt it be more fun to just go out there and win? Martavious said, Yeah. Then another person said, Yeah. Then we were on the floor and we won. It was great.
McGruder still allows the team to dance before some home games, but not all. When the Wildcats won back-to-back games at Baylor and Missouri to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament, they went straight from the locker room to the court.
They were all business. They were at their best. Just the way McGruder likes it.
If anyone questioned McGruder as a leader before dropping a home game to Kansas in early February, they didnt following a vital win at Baylor a few days later.
McGruder left his stamp on this team in between.
Coming into the KU game, McGruder had been slowed because of an infected blister under one of his toes. He couldnt run at full speed and was held out of practice. For more than a week, he watched his teammates from a stationary bike, pedaling for hours with nervous energy.
He didnt like it at all, Martin said. Rodney has a lot of pride in doing work. Some guys try to take shortcuts. He doesnt. He embraces it. He attacks it. He thrives on hard work. Its in his nature to be on the court and out there competing.
He tolerated the situation when K-State was winning. But sitting out drove him mad when the Wildcats lost back-to-back games to Texas and Kansas.
The next time the Wildcats practiced, McGruder was on the court, coaching staff and trainers be damned.
As players began to scrimmage, McGruder forced his way onto the court.
Martin took one look at him and screamed. McGruder didnt budge.
I stayed in, McGruder said. Not being able to practice, that really hurt me in games. I got winded really fast, and I wasnt playing well. I said, I have to be in practice. I wasnt missing anymore. I wanted to win.
With a more relaxed player, Martin likely would have pressed him to rest. But he knew there was no changing McGruders mind.
He walked past me and just said, Im practicing. Leave me alone. Martin said. I could have made him come out, but thats one of those times when you have to trust your guy.
McGruder, a second-team All-Big 12 player this season, has NBA hopes. But no matter what happens, he will always have a soft spot for this team.
Just a couple weeks ago, people counted us out, McGruder said. Look at us now. We stuck together and stuck with it. Were going to go as far as we can.
The Wildcats are following the same pattern as past teams led by Beasley and Pullen. But they took a different path. Without McGruders serious demeanor, K-State wouldnt be where it is today.
He has earned the respect of every single person in that locker room, Martin said. It didnt happen by accident. It happened because of how he approaches things and the person that he is.
To reach Kellis Robinett, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/KellisRobinett