Sitting inside a high school gymnasium in De Soto, Tarik Black leaned forward in a folding chair and shrugged his shoulders at the implausibility of his story. For one, he does not see his story in the lens that you may see it — as amazing or unbelievable or any other hyperbolic adjective. He expected this, he says, to be an NBA big man. Yes, he really did.
In general terms, though, a college basketball player is not supposed to average 13.5 minutes per game as a senior — and then log more minutes per game as an NBA rookie. Basketball players are not supposed to go undrafted after a four-year college career — and then make 39 starts the next season, finishing third among all NBA rookies in rebounds per game. Basketball players are not supposed to do what Black accomplished as an NBA rookie.
“I didn’t want to put any limitations on myself,” Black says.
A year ago, Black, a 6-foot-11 big man, left Kansas after his only season in Lawrence — a year he describes as “positive” though not overly productive. A graduate transfer from Memphis, Black came to KU for the 2013-14 season, hoping to build up his pro stock while manning the middle for an elite program. Instead, he spent much of the season battling foul issues and playing behind emerging star Joel Embiid, who rocketed from project to lottery pick over the course of one season.
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His role receded into the background, but Black never complained. He adopted Embiid as his de facto younger brother. He played the role of wise sage on a team with three freshman starters. He took his minutes as they came, averaging 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds during his final season.
“Being at KU, I didn’t have the best season here,” Black says. “But I also went through some things in transferring here.”
One year later, Black looks at his year at Kansas as an opportunity to grow. Without his year under Kansas coach Bill Self, maybe he wouldn’t have latched onto a roster spot with the Houston Rockets after going undrafted last June. Without his year at Kansas, maybe he doesn’t shake off the hurt of getting cut in Houston and find a home with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I grew as a man here,” Black says, pausing to sign an autograph before a KU barnstorming game at De Soto High School on Friday. “That’s more important than putting the basketball in a hoop any day of the week.”
It was that perspective, Black says, that helped him earn a roster spot in the NBA as an undrafted free agent. First, he impressed the Rockets coaches with a solid performance during the NBA summer league. Then he filled in capably while All-Star center Dwight Howard battled injuries during the season’s opening months. Black averaged 4.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in 25 games for the Rockets. But he was deemed expendable when the Rockets needed to cut salary to add Josh Smith. In late December, just after Christmas, Black received word. He was being waived.
“Tarik did a great job,” Rockets Coach Kevin McHale told the Houston Chronicle then. “I told him he'll be picked up in our league.
“I told him in preseason, I said, ‘Tarik, you have to go out and open people's eyes. You didn't get drafted.' But he came in and had (15) rebounds in a (preseason) game. Everybody around the league is saying, ‘Dang, what did we miss on Tarik Black?'
“I really liked coaching him. A wonderful young man. It's a tough business, this league.”
In the days after being waived, Black said he was “shaken.” He was at home over Christmas, as the Rockets played at Memphis, and he had hosted Howard at his parents’ house. But days later, he was picked up by the rebuilding Lakers. The move, he says, ended up being a turning point.
“I had never been through it before,” Black says. “But when I sat down and thought about it and prayed on it, it was actually the best thing for me.
“In LA, my points jumped, my rebounds jumped, my stats spiked, so obviously it was a better situation for me.”
Back in Lawrence, his former college coaches watched with admiration as Black carved out a spot in the league.
“He’s the best teammate ever,” KU assistant Norm Roberts said in late February.
Black averaged 7.2 points in 38 games with the Lakers. He provided a presence inside and an active body on the boards. On April 12, Black snared 19 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks, the most by a Lakers rookie since Leroy Ellis in 1963. In his final 10 games, he shot 69.8 percent from the floor, the best mark in the NBA during that span.
“It’s all situational and opportunity,” Black says. “Just because somebody gets more playing time or scores more, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more talented or talent. It’s just situational and it’s all about getting the opportunity.”
After the season, Black returned to Lawrence for a couple weeks to work on finishing his master’s degree in African-American studies. He still needs a few more credits, but before leaving Lawrence on Saturday, he set up a plan to take classes remotely this summer. If he finishes his coursework, Black could become the rare active NBA player to hold a graduate degree. Yet he doesn’t see this as particularly impressive, either. Black always imagined he would return to finish what he started at Kansas.
It’s a familiar theme. One year ago, few expected Black to find a home in the NBA. But he did believe, and that was enough.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But I also didn’t want to put any limitations on anything,” Black says.
“God has blessed me a lot. I didn’t want to put any limitations on what God can provide me with.”