MANHATTAN — Imagine 3-year-old Rodney McGruder climbing on top of a bicycle for the first time.
What do you see? His father helping him onto the seat of a children’s bike with training wheels? McGruder wearing pads and a helmet?
That’s what McGruder’s mother, Rodine, wishes she remembers. Instead, she recalls McGruder pushing his older brother’s 10-speed Huffy to the top of their driveway in Washington D.C. and using concrete steps to reach the seat.
As he balanced himself, his parents panicked. Their son was trying to zoom downhill without training, protection or supervision.
“I started screaming, ‘Rodney! No! No! No!’ ” McGruder’s mother says now. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Calm down, mom. I got this. I can do this.’ My husband and I stepped back. We were holding each other.
“He took off and I didn’t know if he even knew where the brakes were. I looked at my husband and said, ‘You’ve got to go catch my baby. My baby can’t fall.’ But he didn’t fall. He was looking at us like we were crazy. He took off and never stopped.”
In many ways, that story mirrors McGruder’s basketball career at Kansas State. When he committed to the Wildcats out of high school, many wondered if he would be able to adjust to life in a college town halfway across the country. Even if he did, there was no guarantee he would prosper on the basketball court.
He was not the crown jewel of his recruiting class. Other members of his AAU basketball team, the DC Assault, were more highly regarded. First came current NBA forward Michael Beasley. Next was Jamar Samuels. Then there was McDonald’s All-American Wally Judge.
McGruder, though talented, never had that kind of hype.
Throw in the departures of the assistant who recruited him, Dalonte Hill, the man who coached him, Frank Martin, and his best friend, Judge, before his senior year and there were plenty of reasons to doubt his future.
Today, he is K-State’s best player and unquestioned leader. The senior wing just helped the Wildcats win their first conference championship since 1977 and is preparing to play in his fourth straight NCAA Tournament. He will leave K-State as one of the program’s best players, ranking in the top 10 of career points and rebounds.
All while making good grades and avoiding trouble.
He became a consistent force for his team during an inconsistent time.
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Maybe a different path would have been easier, but that didn’t interest McGruder.
As the youngest of four children, he learned by watching. One of his brothers played football, so McGruder tried linebacker. The other took up boxing, and McGruder saw toughness up close at his fights. His sister played basketball and taught him how to dribble. He watched all three develop into high school athletes and choose jobs over sports and college.
He wanted more, quitting football at a young age to focus on basketball. He was so serious about the sport that he joined a traveling team and asked his parents if he could transfer to Arlington Country Day, a basketball-centric school in Florida, as a senior.
His parents were reluctant, but decided that if he accomplished a long list of goals, which included making the honor roll, he could go.
“He has always caught on fast,” said McGruder’s father, Rodney Sr. “He was able to master anything he put his mind to. He did everything we asked, so we had no choice but to support him and let him go. He’s just so persistent. When he really wants something, he goes out and gets it.”
His parents were also unable to argue when McGruder told them he was going to play basketball at K-State.
“He likes to focus, so he figured the farther he was away from friends and distractions, the better off he would be,” McGruder’s father said. “Even back home when friends were around, he would always try to distance himself from them. He didn’t want to hang around the wrong crowd. He wanted to be a leader.”
By all accounts, McGruder has matured into one of those.
“Rodney means everything,” said sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez. “He’s our go-to guy. He’s the most experienced guy we have on our team. He leads by example. He’s always working hard before, after and in practice.”
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Above all else, McGruder is serious. That’s what makes him a good leader.
He often keeps to himself, spending evenings at home or in the gym. He doesn’t have many hobbies, dedicating his life to religion, basketball and family.
He is quiet, preferring to lead by example rather than calling team meetings. He thinks wins speak louder than words.
So much so, that he is one of the few athletes at K-State without a Twitter account.
“Twitter is nothing but trouble,” McGruder said. “My sophomore year, we banned Twitter, because of things that were said on there. People want to speak their mind on Twitter. I would rather just tell someone face to face or talk it out with my friends than put it out there on some website.
“It’s not me. I’m not into social media.”
But that doesn’t mean he is oblivious to the thoughts and needs of those around him. He listens, and offers help when he can.
Last year, he heard one of the team’s student managers, Sean Frye, was having problems with his roommates. Frye complained of around-the-clock arguments. McGruder offered a solution: They could share an apartment.
“He called me one day and said his roommate was willing to move in with other friends if I wanted to live with him,” Frye says now. “It was unexpected. I never even asked for that. But it made my life a whole lot better. It just shows how loyal a guy he is.
“He’s never been that vocal of a guy, but he has taught me a lot as a friend. When I am struggling with something I don’t have to talk to him to get advice. I can look to his example and think how he would handle the situation. It’s surprising how much that helps.”
McGruder has the same kind of influence with his teammates.
How could he not? Along with Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez, he is a member of the most successful senior class in K-State history.
They all get credit for winning 101 games together, but McGruder has been the group’s engine. He leads K-State in points (15.7) and rebounds (5.4) and was an All-Big 12 pick. He doesn’t explode for high point totals every night, and his mid-range jumper and no-nonsense playing style don’t make for highlights. But he is consistent and his teammates look to him for guidance.
“They trust in me,” McGruder said. “That’s a great feeling as a leader to know they have trust in you. We have accomplished a lot of great things together. Hopefully there is more to come.”
As a freshman, he helped the Wildcats win a school-record 29 games. As a senior, he can match that win total by helping the Wildcats reach the Sweet 16, and break it with three wins in the NCAA Tournament.
Without him, none of that would be possible.
“He’s workmanlike and I think that consistency — he may not score 20 every game, but you know you are going to get a great effort – has made him a dominant force,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said.
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McGruder’s biggest contributions have come during times of crisis.
During his sophomore season, K-State suffered losses and player defections. Judge quit, and it looked like the Wildcats were headed for the NIT.
Instead of complaining about how things transpired, McGruder practiced until he became a complementary scorer next to Jacob Pullen. Together, they led a late-season charge into the national polls and the NCAA Tournament.
“You can worry or you can work and you can pray,” McGruder said. “I never really worry about things. I get over them, because if you are concerned then other opportunities can pass you by. I never want that to happen.”
Still, some wondered if McGruder would transfer when Hill left for Maryland that offseason. Those concerns lingered when Martin left for South Carolina last spring. The coaches he promised to play for were gone. So were the majority of the teammates he promised to play with.
No one could blame him for looking elsewhere. Heck, Weber was so worried he might transfer that he had an assistant coach, Chester Frazier, call McGruder before he took the job. Then he flew to Washington D.C. to visit McGruder’s family.
McGruder appreciated Weber’s efforts, but they turned out to be unnecessary.
“He never thought about transferring,” McGruder’s father said. “I’m sure that situation was rough on him. It would be rough on anybody. But you could tell he had that drive to stay and finish what he started.”
Despite the changes around him, McGruder wasn’t going anywhere.
“You can’t find a better person,” Weber said. “Obviously, it would have been easier for him to transfer closer to home, but he never doubted we could win this season and his decision has benefited us. He came in every day with that workmanlike attitude. When he is the face of your program, it makes it so much easier for everyone else.”
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Is McGruder good enough to play in the NBA? Will he play professionally overseas? Will he pursue a career outside of basketball?
All McGruder knows is that he wants to make the most out his remaining time at K-State.
That attitude has helped him and K-State prosper together for four seasons.
He fought through some challenging times along the way, but the guy who didn’t know anything about living in a college town never wants to leave. He has grown so fond of Manhattan that he wants to own a house at Colbert Hills Golf Club someday.
“They are beautiful,” he says.
Wherever he ends up, his family is confident of one thing: He will be successful.
Nearly 20 years after McGruder’s maiden voyage on a bicycle, his mother has stopped worrying about her youngest son.
“He is a man now,” McGruder’s mother said. “He has developed in so many areas that I’m almost speechless. He always has something positive to say. Even when he is going through something he just tells me, ‘Mom, don’t worry about it. I’ve got this.’ And he always does.”