RCW: From apples to sunflowers
Sophomore guard Jayde Christopher’s journey to becoming just the second Kansas women’s basketball player to hail from the state of Washington.
Although she first picked up a basketball because it sounded like fun and it was something she had grown up around, the game provided sophomore guard Jayde Christopher the opportunity to venture outside her comfort zone in the Pacific Northwest and find a new home in the Midwest.
Nearly 1,900 miles from Allen Fieldhouse, Christopher grew up in Federal Way, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Surrounded by her favorite landmarks like the Space Needle and Seattle’s Great Wheel, Christopher decided early in her recruitment process to leave the hustle and bustle of the city and everything she knew to pursue her basketball dream.
Her dream to play college basketball and the notion of spreading her wings to fly from home for just a few years led Christopher to Lawrence and the University of Kansas.
“At first, I really wanted to go to the University of Washington, but they didn’t show an interest, so I decided I kind of wanted to leave home,” Christopher explained. “I have been in Seattle for so long, why not go somewhere else?”
And with that, Christopher was open to leaving the Pacific Northwest, but she had two conditions. Wherever she ended up, Christopher needed to feel comfortable. The second stipulation was to have a family away from home, and she found both with Kansas women’s basketball.
“Having the family atmosphere was super important to me and it is to Coach Brandon (Schneider) too,” said Christopher. “He is a big reason why I decided to come to KU. I could’ve gotten out of my commitment, but Coach Brandon reached out and I still felt comfortable.”
When Christopher first decided to attend Kansas, it only took one official visit and one night to commit to former head coach Bonnie Henrickson and the Jayhawks. After Late Night in the Phog, she was sold on KU and Lawrence.
“I came out for Late Night my senior year and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I have to go here, this is the place,” Christopher said. “I went back to the hotel and told my mom, ‘I think I’m going to Kansas.’ No other school has anything like Late in the Phog. I was sweating and I wasn’t even in the game.”
Shortly after the 2014 edition of Late Night in the Phog, Christopher signed on the dotted line and would join the Jayhawks in 2015. Christopher knew little about Kansas other than the rich basketball tradition, which was enough for her to move halfway across the country.
“I didn’t know much about Kansas except basketball was huge and the weather in the winter is something else,” said Christopher.
The frigid winter temperatures didn’t detour Christopher from making Kansas home for the next four years. Whether college takes you 20 or 2,000 miles away, homesickness can hit, especially your first year. For Christopher, the transition was a little easier as a piece of home moved to Kansas with her.
“I thought my freshman year, I was going to be really homesick, and I missed home, but I knew if my brother was here it would make me more comfortable being so far from home,” Christopher said. “I was always talking to my brother and checking in with him every weekend to see what he was up to. It was cool knowing that I could always talk to him and go over there or he could come over here. It felt more like home.”
The same time that Christopher became a Jayhawk, her older brother, Robert, joined the Washburn men’s basketball program. For her first year in Kansas, Christopher could lean on her brother and had a familiar face in the bleachers at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We went to each other’s games when we could,” said Christopher. “He was always on my pass list and he would put me on his. It felt like high school when we would go to each other’s games. I used to go to his games and he would come to mine, only now it’s a step above that. It was cool that we both got to play so close to each other.”
While having her brother nearby cured any signs of homesickness, it was her basketball family that really made Kansas feel like home. Christopher wasn’t the only member of the KU women’s basketball program that traveled a great distance to get an education and play basketball.
“The team made the transition of moving away from home a lot easier,” Christopher explained. “A lot of them are far from home too, so we all bonded over that. There are quite a few from around here, but Caeylnn (Manning-Allen) is from Chicago, Aisia (Robertson) is from California and a couple others, so we shared a bond and it made me feel at home.”
The three Jayhawks from the West Coast quickly bonded and represent the left coast together in the middle of Kansas. But, it wasn’t just Robertson and Jada Brown (Las Vegas, Nevada) who made Kansas feel a bit more like home.
Christopher’s roommate and teammate, redshirt junior Sydney Benoit, has become more than just a teammate. She has become Christopher’s family away from home. Benoit even brought Christopher, a city girl from Washington, home to the farm in Smith Center, Kansas over a recent break from academics and athletics.
“She actually went to my house for Thanksgiving, which was fun,” said Benoit. “We took her to see the cows. She’s scared of animals, especially dogs, so we took her to the cows. My dad kept trying to get her to go in the pens, but that obviously didn’t happen.”
While the cows may not have brought a smile to her face, there isn’t much else that can keep Christopher from showing off her big smile. Whether on the court or away from the hardwood, Christopher is known for her smile and sense of humor that can ignite a room into laughter instantly. Her ability to make anyone laugh is one of the things her teammates love most about her.
“Honestly, Jayde is so goofy, funny and loveable,” Benoit said. “Not just in practice, but off the court too. She brings that (sense of humor) to the team and makes practice fun, which can make it more enjoyable. Everyone gets along with her, which is a good trait to have.”
Being able to get along with just about anyone is a trait that Schneider says has helped the Jayhawks’ team chemistry tremendously since Christopher set foot on campus.
“Jayde appears to never have a bad day and it’s just a bed of roses for her,” said Schneider. “She relates to everyone and has such a positive impact on our (team) chemistry. She is probably one of the most likeable kids I’ve ever been around.”
As a freshman, Christopher had a lot of adjusting to do and with no seniors on KU’s roster, she was thrown into the fire in one of the best women’s basketball conferences in the country.
“(The change) from high school to freshman year was hard,” shared Christopher. “I’ve never had practices like this. I thought I’m going to show up, tie my shoes and get into some layup lines, but we were running and shooting, while we’re also working on defense and tempo.”
Christopher appeared in 31 games and started five contests during her rookie campaign and averaged 14.2 minutes per game. Christopher and her fellow freshmen played more minutes combined than any other rookie class in the Big 12 Conference.
“Last year was rough, but our chemistry has gotten a lot better,” said Christopher. “We had a lot of young players and we were able to mature in the short time span. Being able to go to Europe was probably the best because we were able to connect more, especially with all the new players.”
Although Kansas went 6-25 in its first year under Schneider, many of the Jayhawks grew up quicker and got a lot more experience on the hardwood. More importantly, the Jayhawks have become closer since traveling to Europe and facing the adversity of the 2015-16 season.
“Now that I am a sophomore and have matured a little bit more, I know what to expect and what my coaches expect from me,” Christopher said.
While Christopher sees the growth in herself, her teammates see a change in the guard in her second season with the Jayhawks too.
“Jayde has become more a vocal leader and she has become a stronger person on and off the court,” said Benoit.
“Jayde is definitely a work in progress, but she has grown so much,” Schneider said. “As a point guard, especially from a defensive perspective because she hadn’t played man-to-man before there was a lot of terminology and schematically things she had to pick up on quickly, from the leadership perspective she leads by example and we are still challenging her to be more vocal, but that’s just part of the maturation process.”
Moving far from home may not have been an easy choice and it’s still not a piece of cake since stepping foot on campus. But, Christopher jumped at the chance to spread her wings and fly away from the big city nestled in the Pacific Northwest only to land in the small college town that has captured her heart.
“I love downtown Seattle, seeing the Space Needle lit up, the Great Wheel and the gum wall,” said Christopher. “Seattle is huge and Lawrence is a small town. It’s more of college town and it’s different. I can’t explain it, but the atmosphere is awesome.”
KU had the perfect mixture of family atmosphere and college-town charm to convince Christopher to trade in her Washington apples for Kansas sunflowers. The perfect combination drew Christopher away from the big city to continue her education and basketball career.