Sam Mellinger

Barstow's Shea Rush is making his own way

By Sam Mellinger

smellinger@kcstar.com

Shea Rush is 15 years old with big brown eyes and a long body he's growing into. This is the age of every possibility. This is what he's been raised for. The other day, a friend told him he looked like Barack Obama. Shea liked that. He smiled. Cool, he thought.

Politics could be something. His basketball coach at The Barstow School jokes that he'll vote for Shea someday. But Shea, who makes A's and B's in advanced classes, talks about other things. A future in aeronautical engineering, perhaps. Or architecture, like his grandfather. Maybe basketball, like his father and uncles.

This is Shea Rush, the high school freshman with the last name he did not choose and will never live up to - or down to. His father is JaRon Rush, perhaps the greatest high school player in Kansas City history. The oldest kid in the second generation of the area's first family of basketball wants to see what the sport can do for him.

Mom is a teacher at Barstow. She's raising Shea with the help of her parents, both of whom have doctoral degrees. He is a kid becoming a young man, making his own decisions, drawn to the sport that once made his father famous.

He is ready to navigate the looks and talk that come with being a Rush kid playing basketball in this town in part for the purest of reasons: Shea likes that his dad loves watching him play.

"I don't tell many people that, " Shea says. "But I feel like I have a good connection to him with that, so it's nice."

Shea smiles when he says this. Nobody can be sure how his story will turn out, of course. He's just a kid. But already, Shea has options his father never knew.

Fifteen years ago, JaRon Rush was a freshman at UCLA, half a country away from home and battling demons of alcohol and expectations. Back in Kansas City, the son few knew about was being raised by his ex-girlfriend and her parents.

JaRon and Sarah Hofstra met at Pembroke Hill. Shea was born during JaRon's senior year. Sarah was in college at Kansas by then, but she transferred to Rockhurst so she could be closer to her parents in Kansas City. All three adults drastically changed their lives for Shea, who was raised from the beginning with his father's last name. Sarah wants him to be proud of where he comes from, but it's a touchy navigation in a city that remembers JaRon as much for his fall as his rise.

"It's important for us that he have his own sense of identity, " Sarah says. "Comparison is hard."

Shea is learning his father's story. His family didn't tell him much in the beginning, but that's changed as he's grown older. He watched a documentary in which his father talked about past mistakes, overwhelming expectations and a fight with alcoholism. This past Christmas, Shea's maternal grandparents gave him the autobiography of Roy Williams, the North Carolina basketball coach who recruited JaRon hard in the 1990s while at KU.

The first thing Shea did was flip to the back and look up his old man's name. He didn't know the coach's side of things and wanted to learn what the world could read about his father.

JaRon lives a good life now. He and Sarah are friendly with one another and sit together at Shea's games. He is 33, on a good path and working a 9-to-5 job checking insurance applications at a company owned by Tom Grant, the local businessman who took in JaRon as a kid and paid his way through Pembroke Hill.

That's about when the problems started for JaRon, too. Even in a town with two major pro sports franchises, JaRon was among its biggest stars. His recruitment was national news. The NCAA investigated his relationship with Grant, a KU booster, and his AAU coach, Myron Piggie, served 37 months in federal prison for paying $35,500 to five high school players - including JaRon.

JaRon started drinking in high school before Shea was born. Those were complicated times. JaRon says now he felt pressured into playing basketball - pressured by the adults around him and by his own talents, which first drew national exposure when he was about the age Shea is now. By JaRon's sophomore year, kids he played against talked with awe of facing a guy they expected to be in the NBA someday.

That's not how it turned out, though. JaRon played two years at UCLA and struggled chasing his dream while his son grew up two time zones away. He had some good moments on the court, like hitting the game-winning shot on the road against then-No. 1 Stanford. But he was still drinking, heavier now, and without much structure. The NCAA suspended him 15 games during his sophomore season for accepting money from Piggie, and alcohol helped him cope.

JaRon missed Kansas City and came back whenever he could, in part to see Shea. He went undrafted by the NBA, played one season in the ABA and then checked into rehab. In high school, he was the best of the three blue-chip Rush kids; today, he's the only one who wasn't a first-round NBA draft pick. Kareem starred at Missouri and then played seven seasons in the NBA. Brandon won a national title at Kansas and is now with the Golden State Warriors, recovering from a knee injury.

JaRon's story is usually framed in that context: perhaps the best high school player Kansas City ever produced, and the only one of his brothers not to reach the NBA. He has said he felt as if people came to know him only as a failure, and for a while that made him drink more. It's certainly made raising a child with the Rush name more complicated. When JaRon was arrested for DUI in 2002, his blood-alcohol content was nearly four times the legal limit. He went back to rehab.

By 2003, he was no longer playing basketball. But JaRon says that's when he became a regular fixture in Shea's life. Today, JaRon and Sarah recognize that their paths went in different directions, but they talk frequently, often about Shea, often about other things. JaRon lives within walking distance of Shea, who still lives with Sarah and her parents, and sees him once or twice a week.

Father and son have a standing date to shoot baskets on Sundays at a local gym. Sometimes, they play pickup games together. Shea is growing fast. He's 6 feet 3, about an inch shorter than his dad was at the same age.

JaRon picked his son's name in part because of his friend Schea Cotton, a prep basketball star one year older than JaRon. Cotton never played in the NBA, either. So Shea, son to one prospect who didn't make the league and named after another, is trying to make a different way.

Basketball is dear to both their hearts, but Dad is careful not to let the relationship become all about hoops.

"That was my only outlet, basketball, " JaRon says. "Everybody wanted me to be something I wasn't. They wanted me to be better, expected me to do something amazing. I want it to be different for Shea."

Shea Rush has the genes of a basketball star and the childhood of a scholar. He gets books for his birthdays, and reads them. He's an only child, raised in a multigenerational family by a mother with a master's degree, a grandmother so driven she skipped her doctoral hooding ceremony to start a teaching job sooner, and a grandfather who last year won the H.O.P.E. Award for outstanding teaching and concern for students as a professor at Kansas.

That grandfather, Phil Hofstra, worked 10 years for what is now Populous, heading the design studio for the world's leading sports architectural firm, formerly known as HOK. Some nights, Phil brought work home with him. That meant help from the grandson.

"I want to architect with you, " Shea would say.

Shea's childhood became something of an intellectual immersion. Both grandparents have shifted career paths well into adulthood, and Hofstra received his doctorate four years ago. Mom has changed professional focuses as well and now runs the online learning program at Barstow.

That means Shea is the product of a family built on the belief that education is a lifelong journey, that what you do at 25 doesn't have to be what you do at 35. Maybe that's why Shea is slow to focus in on one professional goal. It's definitely why his family encourages the exploration.

"There are just so many opportunities out there, " he says. "I'm open to so many things, and I like so many things it's hard to pinpoint one. I feel like if I limit myself, I can't get the full amount of opportunities I want."

When Shea quit basketball around the fifth grade - around the time Brandon was starring at KU - nobody in the family thought much of it. Shea had too many other interests. Snow skiing, for instance. Cross country. Soccer. Baseball. Besides, the family always pushed his brain much more than his body. When the three grown-ups talked about current events around the dinner table, they expected Shea to hold his own in conversation.

If the president made an important speech, the adults discussed it and they wanted Shea's thoughts. The economy, housing market, Afghanistan - Shea learned quickly that debates included him.

"We want him to create his own best self, " Sarah says. "He's kind of an old soul."

But basketball is important to Shea now, too. Sarah, wary of the inevitable public comparisons, admits concern about this. She also knows he made this decision on his own, so she will cheer him on.

Shea is developing into what Mom calls a "work for the assist, not the shot" kind of player. JaRon's scouting report is of a finesse player, a standout defender with a good court presence. As a freshman, Shea is finding his way with the varsity. His coach, former KU guard Billy Thomas, thinks Shea will grow into a good college player, if that's what he chooses. Shea thinks about that sometimes. But it's not what he enjoys about the game.

"It's a release from my everyday life, " he says. "That feeling when you're on the court is special, you know? It's a real pleasure to get to play with some of my close friends and get to progress and be the best I can."

Shea knows the comparisons are coming. He hears them already. Sometimes, he says, it's comforting to know that basketball is in his DNA. That gives him confidence, that someone he's so close to loves the game and can help him along the way. Other times, he doesn't need to hear another story from another coach about how good Dad used to be. This is part of Shea's journey, too.

The gap between father and son is closing, by the way. Student is learning from teacher. Their time in the gym is a mix of pickup games and one-on-one and laughs. Shea wants to beat his father, but JaRon isn't the type to let his son win. Dad is still undefeated, except for a game of P-I-G last summer that Shea won on a half-courter, arms raised in the air and that big smile beaming back at his father.

Shea says he'll never forget that feeling, at least not until he wins one-on-one.

"Oh, man, I won't forget it either, " JaRon says. "My son's growing up. That's all I could think about. My son's growing up."

Shea Rush might grow up to be the smartest guy on a good college basketball team, or the best basketball player in a top architectural firm. Maybe both. He is in the business of collecting possibilities, not diminishing them, and this includes an interesting mix of himself and his father.

He says his dream school is North Carolina. Part of that is the campus in Chapel Hill, but he will also tell you he thinks Williams "is a great man." The other school he mentions is Kansas, in no small part because of what basketball games feel like there. Shea has heard enough of his father's story to know JaRon regrets not playing for Williams at Kansas.

Mention this to Shea, and he smiles. Laughs a little. He knows what you're thinking. He was raised to be Shea, not JaRon's son. But maybe becoming his own man means embracing the part of himself that strangers notice first.

"Maybe a piece of me wants to live out what he didn't get to do, " Shea says. "But I don't think so. I want to be my own person. Living in that shadow is tough, especially being a basketball player. But that's OK."

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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