Rock Chalk Weekly: Inspiration Personified
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Download the app:Written by Erin Meyer, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Jamari Traylor walks into the players’ lounge on a rare day off. No practice, no film, nothing. He sits down wearing a headband featuring the Tasmanian Devil and sips on a blue Gatorade.
“Coach gave us the day off. It was much needed,” said Traylor with a laugh and a shrug.
The Kansas men’s basketball team had just defeated Big 12 contender West Virginia the night before 75-65, a great win for the Crimson and Blue. A 6-foot-8 power forward, Traylor had two blocks, raising him to 14th on the Kansas all-time blocked shot list. Despite his success at Kansas, Traylor wasn’t always this fortunate.
Traylor grew up on and off the streets of Chicago, Illinois. His mother worked two jobs to support him and his brother, Jamani, and his father had been arrested. Traylor was constantly in trouble at school and with law enforcement. Trouble reached home and there were times Traylor was kicked out of the house and homeless. Then one day, he received a phone call that would ultimately change his life for the better.
Loren Jackson, a well-respected coach out of Chicago, was interested in Traylor. He asked Traylor to work out with him one day.
“I don’t even know how he got my number,” Traylor said with a chuckle. “I don’t know why he took an interest in me. I was absolutely terrible when I first started.”
Traylor then began playing organized basketball. He was 16 years old. But Jackson took more than an interest in Traylor’s athletic abilities. He made sure Traylor had food, a place to stay and someone to look up to.
As Traylor continued to work with Jackson, he improved rapidly. He transferred schools to stay with Jackson and by the end of his junior year, he had multiple colleges keeping a careful eye on him. He decided it would be best to transfer to IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida, with Coach Jackson. It was there that the Kansas Jayhawks took interest in him.
“I was just dunking, messing around and I guess they noticed me,” said Traylor.
“We were down there recruiting a kid named DeAndre Daniels who ended up at UConn (University of Connecticut). Kurtis (Townsend) was actually the one who was like, ‘Hey check this athletic kid out’ so we watched Jamari. We thought Jamari would be the kind of guy who would be a great addition to our program,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said.
Traylor was asked to visit Lawrence. He spent a weekend with Kansas standouts Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson. It was then he knew Kansas is where he needed to be beginning with the 2011-12 season.
“It just felt like a family to me. That was something I wanted in a school,” said Traylor.
He committed to the Jayhawks in 2011.
Traylor worked hard to get his grades up and earn a high score on his ACT. However, the transition to Kansas wasn’t the easiest. He and fellow freshman, and eventual best friend, Ben McLemore, were declared “partial qualifiers” and couldn’t participate in team activities until second semester. Even then they could not play in games or travel with the team. The NCAA wanted them to focus on academics.
“As NCAA partial qualifiers, Jamari (Traylor) and Ben (McLemore) came in with a purpose when it came to academics. They wanted to prove people wrong and I remember both saying they will graduate from KU,” said Dr. Scott Ward, KU Associate Athletics Director Academic and Career Counseling.
Traylor made the best of his situation. He and McLemore became best friends through common backgrounds and the situation at hand. McLemore had grown up in a rough part of St. Louis and he also focused on his academics while passionately supporting the success of his teammates.
“We came to KU with a similar situation and that semester we really grew close because it was just us,” McLemore said, now a guard for the Sacramento Kings. “We are still very close and will always be.”
Even when Traylor became eligible to play, academics remained an important part of his life. He graduated in December of 2015, earning a degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences, something many are proud of him for.
“It was not a negative for him to be held out; he got an extra year and he graduated early. I think that speaks volumes to the type of kid he is,” Self said.
Dr. Ward agreed.
“For Jamari to graduate and reach that goal is a testament to his hard work and determination in the classroom,” Ward said.
As for Traylor, he remains humble.
“Coach always tells me how amazing this opportunity is. I’m so lucky to have these opportunities,” Traylor said. “It’s funny because we have these guys in the NBA that make all this money, but I have a degree. Where I come from, I think that’s amazing.”
His determination to succeed fills all aspects of his life, inside and out of the classroom. Traylor is described as aggressive and tough on the court. In his career as a Jayhawk, Traylor has averaged 3.5 rebounds, 3.6 points and 15 minutes per game. This season, Traylor is averaging 2.8 points and 13 minutes per game and trying every day to meet Self’s expectations to stand out on a loaded bench.
“He challenged me to be more energetic. He said I wasn’t bringing it,” said Traylor of Self.
So Traylor brought it.
“He’s become so much more aggressive and has brought so much energy. From the years I’ve known him, he’s gotten so much more energetic,” said senior forward Perry Ellis.
The relationship between Traylor and Self continues to grow, just like Traylor’s basketball skills. In fact, according to Self, he’s never been more proud of anyone he’s coached.
“He can be a great defender and obviously he’s an exceptional athlete,” said Self. “I’m proud of how he’s used his story to motivate others instead of letting it tear him down.”
Traylor’s success may not come in the form of statistics and he may not be the best player on the court, but he is a selfless inspiration to his teammates and peers. His energy brings spirit and intensity to the team.
“His personality and leadership off the court and then his energy and hustle on the court really help this team,” said fellow teammate, Landen Lucas, of Traylor. “He has this personality and confidence that he probably got growing up that he carries over. Even if times are tough, we know that we can look toward him for leadership.”
Both Ellis and Lucas agreed that Traylor’s game against Texas on January 24, 2015, was one of the most athletic hustles they have ever seen.
Kansas was leading 23-21 when Traylor caught the ball despite an impressive zone from the Longhorns. He turned toward the basket and attacked the rim. It was blocked by Texas’ Myles Turner. Traylor sprinted the length of the floor after Texas’ Demarcus Holland and blocked his attempt at a dunk at the rim. Not 15 seconds later, Traylor missed an offensive rebound and landed on a camera man. As Traylor regained his footing, Texas ran the floor only to be met with a block by Ellis. The ball rolled to the half-court line where Traylor dove to take possession. Kansas finally scored during the sequence when guard Frank Mason III finished at the rim and drew the foul. The entire sequence took 41 seconds.
“I’ve never seen anyone hustle so hard,” said Ellis. “It really was one of the most incredible sequences I’ve seen while at KU.”
Self even called it “the best hustle play he’s seen in his time at KU.”
Another memory of Traylor’s athleticism and toughness came against Michigan State on November 13, 2012, in Traylor’s first full season on the court.
“He had this amazing dunk and then a block against a fast-break,” said Lucas. “It was insane.”
Despite the challenges he’s been through, Traylor has always been known as one of the toughest players, mentally and physically, on and off the court. Traylor attributes this strength to his mother.
“We didn’t always have the best relationship, but she never gave up on me. She worked night shifts to support her two kids. She just kept everything together on her own. I appreciate her for that. I can’t wait for her to come to Senior Night,” said Traylor. He will suit up for the final time in Allen Fieldhouse on March 5.
Traylor has seen a lot in his five years as a Jayhawk, including four and what should be five NCAA Tournaments. His favorite memories, however, don’t even involve himself on the court.
“My freshman year we made it to the 2012 National Championship game. Ben (McLemore) and I sat in the stands by Larry Brown at the game and he was just talking, coaching really, throughout the whole game. You don’t get to do that every day,” Traylor said.
Another favorite was when the team beat Iowa State in Ames in 2013. The game was one where fellow teammate, Elijah Johnson, scored 39 points.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was probably my favorite game to this day. It’s funny that none of my favorite memories involve me,” Traylor said with a smile and a laugh.
But that’s Traylor, humble and supportive.
After the season, Traylor hopes to continue playing basketball. However, it’s his plans after basketball that are more remarkable. Traylor wants to open an after-school club for underprivileged children in his hometown of Chicago.
“There’s not a lot of positive things going on [in Chicago] when you’re young. All you see is violence. Hopefully when these kids see someone that grew up on the same streets as them and he was able to get a degree, it’ll motivate them,” Traylor said.
The organization Traylor plans to open someday would allow children to explore interests in sports and other activities, as well as a place to do homework and make friends.
“I think one thing about Mari (Traylor) is that they feel like they’re one of the fortunate ones. There’s many others that grew up in the same neighborhoods who didn’t have the opportunities they did. I think it speaks volumes of young people’s characters who want to give back to their community,” Self said.
All in all, Traylor still can’t believe where he is today.
“It’s crazy that little kids look up to me, and that my life could inspire other people,” Traylor said.
If one thing is certain, Traylor has lived an incredible life despite the challenges he faced growing up. It’s his goal to take those hardships and turn them into motivation for someone in a similar situation. No matter where life takes him, Traylor wants to be inspiration personified.
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