KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The heart and soul of the Kansas Jayhawks grew up near 33rd and Prospect, a Kansas City kid in so many ways. On long summer days, Travis Releford would ride his bike past Central High, or go play basketball at Vineyard Park on the East Side.
The heart and soul of the Kansas Jayhawks would wake up early, making the drive across the state line to Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park. These are the places where Releford grew into one of the best prep basketball players in the country.
You may know most of this story by now. On Friday night, Releford, a Kansas senior, will start for the top-seeded Jayhawks in their NCAA Tournament opener against Western Kentucky. In a glistening arena just a few miles from where he was raised, Releford will make a final run through his hometown. In some ways, it’s the culmination of a story of perseverance and quiet determination. When so many wondered if Releford could cut it at Kansas, he stuck it out, waiting his turn, never complaining.
“It’s just a great story for Kansas City basketball,” says Rick Zych, Releford’s coach at Bishop Miege.
But do you know the rest? Do you know about the quiet kid who showed up at Miege as an unsure freshman, the basketball star who would spend hours working to catch up in the classroom?
Do you know that Releford spent his childhood taking trips to visit an incarcerated father, a man who was ripped out of his life before he could even walk?
Do you know the story of a young father destined to make up for the sins of his own dad?
Do you know about the avid bowler who joined a team with a bunch of “regular dudes” from KU because he thought it’d be fun?
On Wednesday evening, Releford went for a walk with his best friend near KU’s team hotel in Kansas City. It had been months since Michael Gholston Jr. had seen Releford, and they had plenty of catching up to do.
“We were just playing AAU ball,” Releford says, reflecting for a moment on Thursday evening. “(We played in) pickup leagues around the city. And now I’m playing in the tournament in my city.”
Michael Gholston says his best friend has always been loyal, and maybe that’s what made the decision so difficult.
In some ways, it was easy. Travis Releford decided to leave Central High in 2004. There were better educational opportunities at a private school. And the basketball competition would be tougher as well.
One of Releford’s good friends, Melesa Johnson, was also a student at Miege. And Melesa’s mother, Melinda, had convinced Releford and his family that Miege could be the path to a better future.
But that still meant Releford had to say goodbye to his of teammates. He had decided to leave at semester, but he hadn’t told anyone. So in December 2004, after a tournament game in Cameron, Mo., Releford announced that he wouldn’t be coming back.
“We ended up riding back to the city,” Melinda Johnson says, “and I could tell that it was really tearing at him.”
There was no question, though, that it was the right decision. Releford had spent his childhood on the East Side, the second-oldest child in a family with six children.
His mother, Venita Vann, was always keeping the kitchen full of life and home-cooked meals. But his father, Tracy, had been convicted of second-degree murder when Travis was just a baby, and his relationship with his father was limited to prison visits and phone calls. That also meant that Travis was thrust into a father-figure role with his two younger brothers and two younger sisters. One of those younger brothers, Trevor, would also attend Miege and is now a starting guard at Alabama.
“He always made sure Trevor was taken care of,” said Zych, who coached both at Miege. “And never worried about himself.”
Releford found a father figure in Gholston’s dad, Michael Sr., and he found structure at Miege. There were harder classes, and teachers and coaches that would push him in the classroom.
“It was gonna take time,” Zych says. “And he was willing to put in the work. So he came so far — even more academically than athletically. For him to be a college graduate, it’s just a super story.”
On the basketball court, Releford’s stock was already rising. By the time Releford was a sophomore, Kansas was sending then-assistant coach Tim Jankovich to Miege practices and games. In the summers, Releford would play for KC Pump N Run, an AAU program coached by L.J. Goolsby.
Kansas would offer a scholarship, and Releford would sign. And more than five years later, on this season’s senior night, Zych and Goolsby sat behind the Kansas bench as Releford gave his senior-day speech.
“The young man he is and the man he has become,” Goolsby says. “It’s more than basketball.”
The story goes like this: After Releford’s freshman year, he went into to meet with Kansas coach Bill Self.
Releford had barely played during his first year at KU, and Self wanted Releford to redshirt. Self believed Releford could be a 1,000-point scorer; he just needed more time.
In the air-brushed version, Releford agreed, sat out a year, and then slowly transformed into a starter on a Final Four squad in 2011-12 and the third-leading scorer on this season’s team at 11.5 points per game. But this version glosses over a few things. For one, Releford didn’t want to redshirt. Not at first.
For a couple days, he thought it over. Maybe Kansas wasn’t the place for him. Trevor would soon be choosing a school. Maybe he could transfer and they could play together again.
In the end, those thoughts lasted just a couple days. Releford had come to Kansas to play. And that’s what he was going to do — even if it meant a redshirt.
“I’m going to prove to the coach,” Releford remembers thinking, “(and) to myself that I belong here.”
A few weeks ago, on senior night at Allen Fieldhouse, Self stood in front of the crowd and talked about Releford. The lockdown defender. The transition scorer. The senior that gives this Kansas team its personality and toughness.
“The rock of our team,” Self said.
Releford’s teammates make plenty of jokes about his age. He’s 23 and a fifth-year senior.
But there’s one that’s just too easy. Releford is somewhat of an avid bowler. His high score is somewhere in the low 200s. And so, earlier this season, he was approached by a group of KU students.
“Just regular dudes,” he says.
They wanted him to join their bowling league. And Releford said yes. Why not? It sounded like fun.
“Now I’m on the team,” Releford says.
This is the Releford that friends and teammates describe: the one who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
But Releford has had a different focus during his last two years of college. His son, Travis Releford Jr., was born in January 2011, and friends saw something change. Maybe it was maturity, or the motivation to break the cycle of fatherless children.
“It just gives Travis something where he’s driven,” Goolsby says. “Because he wants to make sure he’s successful to be that really good role model for T.J.”
On Wednesday night, Releford told Gholston the latest about T.J., and then the topic turned to basketball. Gholston, who finished his playing career at UMKC last year, is now a graduate assistant at Southeastern Oklahoma State, preparing to coach. And Releford had an idea.
“He’s gonna try and play ball until he can’t play anymore,” Gholston says. “And then he’s gonna come to me and hopefully I can put him on my staff.”
But first, there’s one more NCAA Tournament run, which begins just a few miles from 33rd and Prospect. On Thursday evening, the heart and soul of the Kansas Jayhawks sat in the middle of the KU locker room inside the Sprint Center. The past five years have flown by, but in this moment, he felt right at home.
“The rock? The glue guy? I don’t know what it all means,” Releford says. “I’m just a guy that will do whatever it takes for our team to win. If it’s the littlest things I gotta do for that game, I’ll do it.”