Sam Mellinger

Shea Rush will play for Roy Williams, like his father wasn’t able to do

The kid with the last name that defines him to strangers is a man now, or at least a young man. Shea Rush stands 6-foot-6, an inch shorter than the father so many in Kansas City remember, but that’s only if you don’t count the high-top.

He is 18 years old, friendly, smart enough for the Ivy League and a talented enough basketball player that he will be a preferred walk-on at North Carolina next season. But, at the moment, he is stumped.

North Carolina is his dream school, partly for its business school, but also because of its basketball coach. Roy Williams recruited Rush’s father in the 1990s. JaRon Rush was one of the nation’s top recruits and committed to Williams’ Kansas program before a wave of drama led the offer to be rescinded. Williams and JaRon Rush have not spoken in the nearly 20 years since, but in separate conversations recently each expressed regret of how it ended.

So, back to Shea Rush. The Barstow senior is asked if he wants to play at North Carolina so badly because of his father, because playing for Williams will mean doing what his old man could not. In other words, is this dream yours, or one you created for your dad?

“That’s a great question,” Rush says. “My girlfriend asked me that question, too. Am I just going there because I have to? Because I feel, almost, that pressure? And …”

His voice trails off. For a moment, he is lost in thought.

“I don’t think so. I really don’t. But it’s nice. It ties a nice bow on it …”

Another pause. Rush was an infant when Williams took back the offer to JaRon Rush. Shea Rush’s love for Williams came from a distance at first, with no push or pull from his family, and predated knowing anything about what happened with his dad. That has to mean something, right?

“But, I don’t know,” the younger Rush says. “It’s tough. Maybe. Maybe that’s what it is, and I just don’t realize it.”

Williams is on the phone, and more than anything else he wants you to know that this isn’t about JaRon Rush. Williams is insistent about this, but the conversation begins with Williams remembering the time he saw Shea Rush’s mom and grandmother at a North Carolina summer camp four years ago.

“I do remember them,” he says, “to say the least.”

Williams has always valued walk-ons, perhaps more than most other coaches at major programs. North Carolina is one of only a handful of Division I programs with a junior varsity team, and sometimes that’s where Williams gets his walk-ons. Other times he finds them through regular recruiting trips or other connections.

Once, Williams’ son came home from a high school basketball game telling him he had to see this guard from Topeka. Williams did and was impressed enough to offer a spot on his Kansas team. That was C.B. McGrath, who today is an assistant to Williams with the Tar Heels.

When Rush first started going to North Carolina’s summer camps, they intentionally put him with older kids to see how he’d hold up. Rush came to basketball around seventh or eighth grade, so his skills are still refining, and there is enough talent in that long and naturally athletic body to imagine him being a contributor before too long.

James Michael McAdoo, then a rising star at North Carolina, was the referee on Rush’s court. McAdoo thought Rush was a fine player but was more impressed with how he interacted with the other kids. Then, when the games were over and virtually everyone headed back to their dorms, Rush stayed by himself to pick up all the used water cups on the floor.

Williams admits regret about how it ended with JaRon Rush and looks forward to seeing him again and, in Williams’ words, “closing that gap, too.” But Williams stresses this is more about Shea Rush’s own talent, and the nature of a teenager who, without prompting, picks up other people’s trash after playing basketball.

“This is not about completing a circle with my relationship with JaRon,” Williams says. “This is not about, ‘Boy, I’m finally getting a Rush.’ It’s not about that at all. It’s a wonderful kid, who’s really impressive as a young man, who I think will help our basketball program.”

A pause.

“That other stuff is 1 percent,” he says. “Or one-tenth of 1 percent.”

JaRon Rush is a former Kansas City high school basketball star who has battled alcoholism and never had the professional career so many expected, and he knows that’s how his life is defined in the minds of many.

He’s always wanted something better for his son. JaRon Rush was happy when his son wanted to play basketball. What parent doesn’t want to share something they love with their child? Shea Rush lives with his mother, Sarah Hofstra, who maintains a friendly relationship with JaRon Rush. One thing both parents have always agreed on is that their son’s life should be about more than a sport.

With the perspective of adulthood, the older Rush says he felt pressured into basketball — pressured by adults around him, and by his prodigious talents. His son’s life should be more than that. Better than that.

“I’m just so happy for him that he’s able to go to a school he’s dreamed about ever since he was little,” JaRon Rush said. “My No. 1 thing was always just to get an education. Finish out school, like I wasn’t able to.”

JaRon Rush and Williams still haven’t talked. Hofstra was the one who took her son to camps and communicated with the coaches. JaRon Rush thinks it’ll be nice to talk with Williams again, but this is very much a dad talking and not a former recruit.

“I’m glad he’s coaching my son,” he said. “We’re going to shake hands, he’ll probably ask how are things going, I’m going to tell him the truth and we’ll move on from there. That’s in the past. I was young, made a mistake, and that’s something I have to live with. I’m just glad my son gets the opportunity to pursue his dream of playing for one of the greatest coaches in basketball.”

Shea Rush is the kind of 18-year-old who not only knows the wisdom of old philosophers but can drop their work into conversations without it sounding awkward, and how many kids do you know like that?

He is talking about North Carolina, and why even if he never plays a minute he would rather be there than start four years at one of the Division II programs that recruited him. The idea is about being happy, and about doing what you love instead of worrying about success, because if you love something enough you’ll master it and success will follow.

This is where he quotes the British-born American philosopher Alan Watts, and a Google search confirms the paraphrase is accurate.

“He said it’s better to have a short life doing what you love doing instead of a long life doing what you don’t,” Rush says. “That sticks with me. This is what I want, it’s what I’ve always wanted. It still doesn’t feel real.”

Now Rush is talking about when he first thought this dream might be real. It was last November, when North Carolina was playing in the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center. The father of a friend of Rush’s has a connection to the Sprint Center and was able to get floor seats directly across from the Tar Heels’ bench.

The coaches saw Rush, and Williams even smiled and pointed at the Tar Heels logo on Rush’s shirt. When Carolina won late, they noticed him jumping up and down in celebration.

Now, he’s going to be doing that celebrating on the Carolina bench. A dream turned to a goal, and now a goal is reality.

“I’m really glad I picked up those cups,” he says, laughing. “Those cups are crucial. I never knew how important those cups would be.”