LAWRENCE — It was October 2004, and Mario Chalmers, then a senior in high school, arrived at Allen Fieldhouse for his first glimpse of “Late Night in the Phog.”
On the floor, KU seniors Aaron Miles, Keith Langford and Wayne Simien went through the usual song-and-dance routine. But as Chalmers remembers it, he took a few moments to soak in the atmosphere and gaze up at the jerseys hanging in the rafters. Chamberlain. Manning. Pierce. And so on.
“I recognized a lot of those names,” Chalmers says.
More than eight years later, after a three-year career at Kansas that included an NCAA title and one unforgettable moment, Chalmers is joining those names in the rafters. Kansas announced Thursday that Chalmers will have his No. 15 jersey retired during halftime of the Texas game on Feb. 16 at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It means a lot to me,” Chalmers said Thursday, after finishing up a practice with the NBA’s Miami Heat. “Being up there in the rafters with guys like Paul Pierce, Drew Gooden, Wilt Chamberlain, it’s a great accomplishment, and it makes me proud to be a Jayhawk.”
Chalmers becomes the first Kansas player to have his jersey retired since Wayne Simien on Jan. 29, 2011 — and the first player recruited by current KU coach Bill Self. Kansas no longer has hard-and-fast rules on jersey retirements (numbers aren’t retired), but Self mandated a five-year waiting period. It’s likely that at least one or two more players from the 2008 NCAA title team will have their jersey retired. But Chalmers will be the first. His credentials: One NCAA championship; one Most Outstanding Player award at the Final Four; and one miracle.
Chalmers, of course, etched his name in Kansas lore by swishing a game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds of the national championship game against Memphis — a shot that is still replayed before every home game at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I’ve seen the shot more than you’ve guys have, believe it or not,” said Self, who called Chalmers the most clutch player he’s had at KU. “It still gives me goosebumps to see it.
“Mario is such a unique guy, in my opinion, because he was as ornery as we had. He was ornery. But he smiled, and he had that boyish grin.”
Now in his fifth season with the Miami Heat, Chalmers was part of his first NBA championship last summer. This season, he’s averaging 7.9 points and 3.4 assists as the Heat’s starting point guard.
He says people don’t bring up The Shot as much as they used to. (“It’s been what, five years almost?” he says.) But he’ll be able to re-live it once more in February, when he returns to Allen Fieldhouse.
“You never forget your college experience,” Chalmers said. “That was three of the best years of my life. I made some close friends there, and just really became a man at that school.”
Consistent Kruger — When Self took over at Illinois in 2000, he inherited a talented and muscled-up roster that was perfectly constructed to play Big Ten basketball. It was the ideal situation for a coach entering his first major job, and Self had former Illinois coach Lon Kruger to thank.
“We were slow,” Self said. “But we were big, and we were tough. He left us some guys.”
Kruger, who had left Illinois to coach the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, will bring his latest program into Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday when the Oklahoma Sooners face Kansas at 3 p.m. Oklahoma, 13-4 overall and 4-1 in the Big 12, has been one of the league’s surprise teams this season. And Kruger, in his second season in Norman, is positioned to take his fifth school to the NCAA Tournament. He has accomplished the feat at K-State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV.
“Consistency,” Self said. “He’s the same all the time — at least from the outside looking in. He is cool on the bench, which I’m sure translates to practices.”
What if — Most coaches are loath to consider hypothetical situations, and Self is no different. But Self was asked on Thursday if he’s ever wondered how redshirt freshman guard Ben McLemore could have impacted last season’s team, which finished one victory short of Self’s second national title. McLemore had to sit out the season as an academic partial qualifier, and he watched Kansas’ Final Four run from the sideline.
“We would have been deeper,” Self said, “we would have had better practices. We’d be better this year, because they would have practiced last year. There’d be a lot of things that would have made us better. But I’m not sure, at the end result, winning 32 games and playing in the national championship game, we could have done a lot better.”
But is there a little bit of Self that wishes McLemore and fellow redshirt freshman Jamari Traylor could have suited up against Kentucky in the NCAA title game? Maybe.
“It would have been fun,” Self said, “running another couple athletes out there against Kentucky.”