With less than a second left in Kansas’ rotten first half against Eastern Kentucky on Friday, Jayhawks sophomore Jamari Traylor was goaded into a three-shot foul against the Colonels’ Orlando Williams.
It was the appropriate exclamation point on a spell that featured nearly as many KU turnovers (13) as baskets (14), and Traylor girded himself for the wrath of coach Bill Self with the game tied.
“He let me know that was probably one of the dumbest plays ever and how could I be that careless. But I shook it off,” Traylor said. “That’s not a good feeling, I can tell you that.”
And yet something more, something forged by his past, also informed Traylor’s thinking.
“You can’t get too low on yourself. Never get too high on yourself,” he said. “Coach is going to let you know how it is, he’s not going to sugarcoat anything, so you’ve got be a man and swallow the pill. You know what you did.”
What Traylor did, ultimately, was play the game of his life, hoarding 14 rebounds and 17 points for his first career double-double in an 80-69 victory. Good timing, too, as second-seeded KU was reeling and in real jeopardy of losing to the 15th-seeded Colonels.
Alleviating at least some of the void left by the absence of injured Joel Embiid, Traylor scored 16 points in the second half as KU lurched away late in a game it once trailed by nine. The Jayhawks advanced to play 10th-seeded Stanford on Sunday.
Afterward, Self told his team he didn’t know if Traylor had ever had a finer game, and the Jayhawks gave Traylor an emphatic shout-out in the locker room.
“He gave us so much energy tonight,” sophomore forward Perry Ellis said, “there (are) no words to explain.”
And few to explain how Traylor came to be here now, somehow not merely intact but thriving.
Jim Valvano’s “Survive and advance” has become the mantra for March Madness. It also speaks eloquently to Traylor’s tale and trail to this moment.
“I’m fortunate to (be) where I am every time I wake up,” Traylor said.
As he sat in a corner of the KU locker room, Traylor reflected briefly on his once-chaotic and seemingly hopeless plight, the circumstances that could only figure to ensnare him in an unforgiving cycle.
He synthesized it into a bite-size piece.
“I was homeless growing up,” he said, “and I faced a lot of adversity.”
That’s an absurdly oversimplified version of the severe straits that included his father being sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking, his mother banishing Traylor from their home in Chicago because of his habitual insolence and Traylor spending time in juvenile detention facilities and taking shelter in abandoned buildings and rusted-out cars.
He has known searing cold and deep hunger and true despondency.
But he found deliverance long before Friday, thanks in part to the tough love of his mother, who works night shifts at Ford.
And to the guidance and nurturing of a high school coach, Loren Jackson, who saw something in Traylor before he saw it in himself.
Having people around him and behind him and pushing him and “telling me I can do things,” Traylor said, “that’s pretty much all you need as a young kid.”
Because of what he called “my life situation,” Traylor didn’t play organized basketball until his senior year of high school.
For that matter, he really wouldn’t even go as far as to say he played much pickup ball.
“Just with friends a couple times,” he said. “I didn’t know X’s and O’s or anything. Pretty much had to be taught the game. It was a slow process. I wasn’t really good when I first started.”
But with the encouragement of Jackson, Traylor soon started to blossom and became a commodity after following Jackson to IMG Academy in Florida.
He had something to believe in.
As an NCAA partial qualifier, Traylor sat out the 2011-12 season at KU. It was frustrating then, but is now something he sees as a blessing in disguise considering it was just his third year of organized ball.
“It wasn’t the end of the world,” Traylor said, “and it did a lot for me.”
Those words reflect a certain spirit and perspective that Self appreciates enormously.
At a KU camp last summer, Self said he’d never been more proud of someone he’d coached and had Traylor speak to some 800 aspiring players.
“We have a bad day when our coach puts us on the bench; or we have a bad day when our parents get onto us, and we don’t like what they have to say, even though we know they’re right,” Self said then. “Those are bad days. Try going three or four days without eating. That’s a real bad day.”
Self also tends to use Traylor’s story when he tries to motivate the team to persevere, Traylor said Friday.
You think you might have it rough, Self will tell them, and then explain about Traylor.
“He definitely lets everybody know that he’s proud of me,” Traylor said. “And he let me know after the game. I love my coach, and I know he’s got love for me, too.”
Still, Traylor also has an uncommon aptitude for knowing what this moment means.
“I know every time I come out there I’ve got to play like that, and that’s why I play like that,” he said. “I’m happy every time I come out on the court; I know I could be in a lot worse position than I am right now.”
So in March, time to survive and advance, Traylor says, “If you can’t play in a little pressure, then you might want to go home.”
That he can handle, particularly from Self, whom Traylor knows has his best interests in mind.
“Life situations are just the same as basketball situations ,” he said. “Anything off the court can translate on the court.”