They grew up near 43rd and Cleveland streets, wearing each other out in nearby Vineyard Park. Travis Releford and his younger brother Trevor would spend hours on the court, playing out different scenarios in gyms across the heart of Kansas City.
Travis was the spindly athlete, the older brother who liked to slash to the bucket. Trevor was the compact point guard who felt most natural with the ball in his hands.
On Saturday night, after Kansas’ 64-62 victory over Ohio State in the Final Four, Trevor Releford had a flashback. Now a sophomore guard who starts at Alabama, Trevor had watched his older brother score 15 points and grab six rebounds against Ohio State. Travis also made five of seven shots and four crucial free throws down the stretch.
“He was the guy,” KU coach Bill Self said.
And when Travis picked up his phone after the game, there was a special message awaiting from little brother: One more game for the national championship.
“He texted me and was like, ‘Growing up, this is something we always talked about,’ ” Releford said. “Now I finally get that chance.”
After four full seasons at Kansas — time marked by sitting, waiting and watching — Releford will be on the floor tonight when Kansas tips off against top-ranked Kentucky inside the Superdome. With a victory tonight, it is believed that Releford, who played his high school ball across the state line at Bishop Miege, would become just the third basketball player from the Kansas City area to start for a NCAA champion. The kid whose career began in the parks off 43rd Street would be able to claim bragging rights on so many others from the neighborhood — and the others nearby.
“He’s just a basketball player,” said L.J. Goolsby, who coached Releford during the summer on the KC Pump N Run AAU team.
Of course, during Releford’s first three years in Lawrence, that wasn’t always easy to discern. He arrived on campus in the summer of 2008, in the afterglow of the Jayhawks’ most recent NCAA championship. That recruiting class featured six players: forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris, forward Quintrell Thomas, junior college forward Mario Little and guard Tyshawn Taylor. Only Taylor and Releford remain — and only Releford has another season to play.
The reason stems from conversations with Self before Releford’s sophomore season in 2009-10. He had played just seven minutes per game during his freshman year, and now the Jayhawks, a team that would eventually earn a No. 1 seed, had a logjam at the guard position. Sherron Collins was slotted in at point guard. Taylor was returning. So were juniors Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar. Adding to the competition, freshman Xavier Henry was arriving on campus as one of the more-heralded recruits in recent memory.
Instead of just sitting, Self sold Releford on a future where he could be an impact player — if he redshirted and waited.
“I knew it was best for me,” Releford said last week, “and best for the team.”
After returning last season, Releford still played sparingly, including just 14 total minutes over the season’s final nine games. But the exodus of Reed, Morningstar and freshman Josh Selby off last year’s team finally provided a window.
Releford responded by averaging 8.6 points and 4.3 rebounds while starting and playing more than 30 minutes per game.
“Travis is the ultimate glue guy,” Self said. “He’s the guy you need on your team to give your team the best chance to be good.”
In practice, teammates say they shake their heads at Releford’s ability to escape from a busted play with a dunk or contort his body in just the right way to win a loose ball. In many ways, it’s almost old-school — the college swingman that eschews the three-pointer in favor of spins, dips and pump-fakes at the basket.
“A little unorthodox,” teammate Conner Teahan said.
Back in high school, Bishop Miege coach Rick Zych used to talk about Releford’s defensive potential. Observers might have seen a 6-foot-5 swingman who could finish at the rim. But in those days, Zych saw the attributes of an elite defender: length, quickness, a knack for maneuvering through traffic. Self saw the same thing.
After a season of serving as the Jayhawks’ de facto defensive stopper on the wing, Releford could face his most significant test Monday. When the Jayhawks return to the Superdome, and the ball goes in the air, Releford will likely be matched up with Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-foot-9 small forward with guard skills. Fellow freshman Anthony Davis may win the accolades and praise, but so much of the Wildcats’ success has been dependant on the matchup problems Kidd-Gilchrist can create.
“He’s got a huge challenge, obviously,” Self said. “He’ll be guarding a guy a majority of the time that’s bigger than him. He’s always found a way to respond for us.”
On Sunday afternoon, Releford sat inside the Superdome and talked about family. His teammates, yes, but also his mother and siblings. Venita Vann has raised a household full of kids, and now one will get the opportunity to make history tonight. His mother is in town to share in the moment, Travis said, and so is Trevor — two brothers back in the same gym.
“That’s part of like a family thing,” Travis said. “If one is having a great moment or great success, than we’re all enjoying (it) and feeling the same way.”