LAWRENCE — Naadir Tharpe is telling a story from back home, one that his father would have loved. It’s about hard work, order and learning your place.
In his first two seasons at Kansas, Tharpe, a 5-foot-11 reserve guard, has had a crash course in all of the above. One year after suffering through what he calls one of the toughest years of his life, Tharpe is now averaging 5.2 points and 2.8 assists for seventh-ranked Kansas, which opens the Big 12 Tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Sprint Center.
But on a March evening in Lawrence, Tharpe sits in Allen Fieldhouse, rubbing his left hand over his right biceps, drinking in a long, warm glance at the words on his arms. There’s story here, too. A good one. But first, you must hear about Ronald Tharpe’s window-washing business.
In Worchester, Mass., Ronald Tharpe was a lovable character who seemed to know everyone. He was an assistant bank manager, doting father on his five sons and a descendant of a military family. But above all else, Naadir says, his father was a worker. So on Saturday mornings when the clock struck 7, Ronald would roust his sons for a day of window-washing. They did pizza parlors and local businesses and residential homes. And if Naadir or any of his four older brothers tried to sneak in some sleep in the car, Ronald would roll down the windows and let the New England weather take over.
“That cold air blowing in,” Naadir says, smiling, “you really couldn’t get any sleep.”
The brothers, Naadir says, did it for the extra allowance. If you wanted to go meet friends on Saturday night, it was nice to have a little cash in your pocket. But all these years later, the memory means something different.
There was an art to washing windows, a technique and detailed sequence, passed down from brother to brother.
“Those were the last times we were all together,” says Tishaun Jenkins, Tharpe’s second-oldest brother. “It was just beautiful.”
More than seven years later, Naadir Tharpe came off the bench for KU and dropped in a game-winning shot in the final seconds of a double-overtime victory over Oklahoma State on Feb. 20. It was the biggest basket of his life — one that helped KU hold onto the Big 12 title for the ninth straight season — but it was also a reminder.
Those are the nights, he says, when he misses his father the most.
The end came too soon.
It was June 2, 2006, and Naadir returned home to find blood on the floor of his house. His father had been battling lung cancer for close to a year, but this didn’t seem right. Naadir wasn’t ready for this. Nobody was.
When Ronald and Naadir’s mother, Lori, had told the family about his dad’s illness in 2005, Naadir had figured it was just a phase.
“He would get the treatment and it’d be over,” he says now.
His father had been his rock. He had been at nearly every basketball game he’d ever played, screaming a few familiar words from the bleachers: “No mercy.”
Everything about Ronald Tharpe seemed larger than life: The way he smiled; the way he’d taken in Tishaun and two other Jenkins brothers and raised them as his own; the family ties to a rising political family from Chicago. Naadir’s paternal grandmother, Zenobia, was the younger sister of a man named Fraser Robinson Jr., whose granddaughter Michelle would one day become the First Lady of the United States.
This cancer fight, the family thought, would be no different. But on that day in 2006, Ronald Tharpe’s heart failed under the stress of chemotherapy. He began coughing up blood, Tishaun says, and he died shortly thereafter. He was 47.
“It was hardest thing I’ve gone through in my life,” Naadir says. “I wasn’t gonna see him anymore at my games, I wasn’t gonna see him anymore. That was it.”
The inside jokes. The postgame talks. The Saturday window-washing. All gone.
“I was 14,” Naadir says. “I was ready to go into my freshman year, and he was gone.”
In the year after his father died, Naadir says that basketball began to feel hollow. For years, he had pored over games with his dad. Now, his security blanket had been ripped away.
“There wasn’t anything I was playing for,” Naadir says. “And I felt like, when I lost him, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
But if Naadir had lost his father, he had four older brothers willing to step up: Abdullah, Tishaun, Kaamil and Jaarmil. The family had always been tight, and now they would have to be tighter. Tishaun, a former small-college star at Salem State, would talk to Naadir after games. For a time, the boys even picked up some of their dad’s window-washing clients.
And slowly, Naadir says, his drive came back.
“I just kind of thought about my father,” Naadir says. “My father never threw in the towel. He worked every single day of his life.”
His basketball talent would earn him a scholarship to Brewster Academy, a prep school in Wolfeboro, N.H. And soon, KU coach Bill Self was showing interest in the friendly point guard from Worchester. He wasn’t highly ranked, but the kid had a natural charisma. On his official visit, Naadir showed up in a shirt and tie.
“The biggest thing Naadir had going for him were his intangibles,” Self said. “Everybody likes him. He’s funny and he makes everybody feel at ease.”
In the fall of 2011, during Naadir Tharpe’s first month at KU, Tishaun visited his brother. As they walked on campus, a young kid walked by on crutches.
“Hey!” Naadir yelled out, calling the kid by name.
A moment later, Tishaun stopped. His brother had been on campus a month. How did he already know some random stranger’s names?
“He’s in my English class,” Naadir answered.
This was Naadir in his natural state, making friends, talking to strangers, always smiling. But inside, he says, he was hurting. He had picked Kansas because he wanted to play for a winner, but now he couldn’t get on the floor. He was far away from his family. And even worse, his long-time girlfriend, Janine Spring, was set to give birth to their daughter in January.
When Amara Grace Tharpe was born on Jan. 21, 2012, Naadir was in Austin, sitting on the bench as Kansas beat the Longhorns.
“It was horrible,” Tharpe said. “It was the majority of the time. I had to look myself in the mirror and ask ‘Is this what I really want to do?’ ”
One year later, as his daughter was celebrating her first birthday, Naadir had finally claimed a spot in the KU rotation. His daughter was healthy, his mind more free. The distance can be tough, Naadir says. (Amara lives with her mother in Massachusetts.)
But the hardest part for Tharpe is that his father was always there for him. He hasn’t been there for his daughter, he says, but he will.
“It’s no longer about me, and what I want to do,” Naadir says. “It’s about her. I have to set out a life for me, to provide for her.”
As he says these words, his left hand rubs at his right shoulder. A Batman-themed tattoo covers his biceps, and here’s that story he wants to tell. His father, he says, was a big movie guy. Loved all those superhero films. So after he died, he got a tattoo in memory of his father — one with the only two words that made sense.
“I look at it,” Naadir says, “and I think about what he would say, and I just smile.”