LAWRENCE — It was late last summer, and Naadir Tharpe had a problem. So he did what any Kansas player does when something goes awry.
He took out his cell phone, took a deep breath and dialed his coach.
Bill Self was on a summer golfing trip in Scotland when the call came through, and an anxious Tharpe tried to explain what had happened. He had gone to Chicago to visit teammate Jamari Traylor, and together, they had played in a pro-am summer game. They had done well — perhaps too well — and their names appeared in a local paper in Chicago. For Traylor, a native of Chicago, it was fine. But for Tharpe, a native of Worchester, Mass., it was an NCAA violation — one of those esoteric rules that limits where players can play in the offseason.
As Self listened to the story, he remained calm.
“Coach doesn’t get on you right then and there,” Tharpe said, “because he wants to figure out how to fix the situation.”
But moments later, it was clear. This was something that even Bill Self couldn’t fix. Tharpe would have to miss at least one regular-season game, and Self suddenly turned on his starting point guard.
“Why would you do that?” Self asked Tharpe. “That was dumb; that was dumb; that was dumb.”
Here it was, the summer before his junior season, and Tharpe was already disappointing his head coach. In a few months, Kansas would begin the most intriguing season of Self’s tenure. The most heralded class in school history was arriving on campus, and the Jayhawks were in position to win a 10th straight Big 12 title and were NCAA title contenders.
The Jayhawks had transcendent talent, but they were also painfully young. So there was really no choice: Self would be relying more than ever on an undersized junior guard who once profiled as a career backup.
“He needs to be our most valuable player,” Self said before the season.
Self needed Tharpe to be a second voice on the floor, to lead with personality and charisma, to be just like all those other Kansas point guards during the Jayhawks’ historic conference title streak. For the next year, Self and Tharpe would need to grow closer than ever before.
But for a moment last summer, Self felt more like a dissatisfied dad.
“When you have that relationship,” Self said. “It’s a little bit like the point guard is your son.”
• • • •
Bill Self has coached many point guards. A future NBA star from Texas. A high-school scoring machine from the Bronx. A 5-foot-11 dynamo from the streets of Chicago. But if there’s an original template for a Bill Self point guard — a Floor General 1.0 — Self may have stumbled upon it in a Tulsa sandwich shop in the summer of 1993.
Self, then 30, was a first-year coach at a moribund Oral Roberts program. Earl McClellan was a freshman from Providence, R.I., who had come to college to pursue a life in the church. McClellan had zero interest from Division I schools, but he still believed he could offer something to a college program. So when he saw the new Oral Roberts basketball coach stroll into a Subway for a late-night meal, it felt like fate.
McClellan was the young player that wouldn’t stop calling Self, “Sir”, and Self was the young coach that needed all the help he could get. Self invited McClellan to walk on, and by the end of the season, he was starting. Three years later, McClellan had helped Oral Roberts to the NIT, jump-starting Self’s coaching rise.
“He still owes me money for those years I walked on,” McClellan jokes now.
McClellan created something of a rough template for a Self point guard: The intangible qualities can be as important as quickness or skills. If Self found the right blend of charisma and toughness, he could win with anyone — even point guards he found in a Subway.
“I personally felt like I was able to thrive in his environment. I felt like I got him and understood him,” said McClellan, a pastor in Dallas who maintains a relationship with Self. “He was the general, and I was the captain.”
Over time, Self’s ideas about the point guard position began to crystallize. As he traveled from Tulsa to Illinois to Kansas, he would begin recruiting more talented players. But he still coveted the same qualities: Personality and leadership. He wanted a player that could “cut the head off” an opposing guard on the defensive end. He wanted players that could handle the daily challenges in practice.
“Mental toughness,” McClellan said, “that’s all he talked about.”
“Coach is hard on his point guards,” KU assistant coach Norm Roberts said, “because he wants them to take command in everything they do.”
From Deron Williams at Illinois, to Russell Robinson, Sherron Collins and Tyshawn Taylor at Kansas, Self became less concerned with the numbers. Instead, he found a soft spot for the kids that wanted to battle.
“You look at it at the end of the day,” Self said. “Well, he’s not a great shooter. He’s not the best passer. All he does is win. That to me, is what a point guard is.”
Naadir Tharpe wore a tie on his official visit to Kansas. To Tharpe, it was like a job interview. So he wanted to make a solid impression.
Bill Self liked him from the start.
Tharpe was a senior at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, and he had already built quite a reputation on the summer circuits for his friendly personality. Even in high school, Tharpe was probably the fourth or fifth best player on his team. The Brewster roster was loaded with future NBA players. So Tharpe had to complement his star teammates.
He also had limitations. He was a little undersized — 5-11 with a wiry frame — and just a fringe top 100 prospect.
“We thought he could come in and be a nice backup,” Self said. “Great personality and be a great program guy. But he’s exceeded it.”
Some of it has been necessity. On a team where freshmen play nearly 55 percent of the minutes, Tharpe is the only remaining scholarship player from Kansas’ Final Four run in 2012.
“He always would tell me: ‘These guys don’t know. These guys don’t know,’” Tharpe said. “You’ve been able to play in games last year. You know what it’s like.”
Looking back, Tharpe said, he probably put too much pressure on himself. He knew he had to lead, but he didn’t know what that meant. He struggled during an early-season tournament in the Bahamas, and by early December, he lost his starting job to freshman Frank Mason for two games.
“He was going through a tough time,” said sophomore forward Jamari Traylor, one of Tharpe’s closest friends.
Mason started in consecutive losses at Colorado and Florida, and after the Jayhawks had fallen to 6-3, Self called in Tharpe for a talk. Self mentioned Tyshawn Taylor, the once embattled KU guard who led the Jayhawks to the NCAA title game during his senior season. He mentioned Elijah Johnson, who played out of position last year but still helped KU earn another No. 1 seed.
“You know what they did,” Self said, “and you know what we need.”
It was the final days of December, and Bill Self was livid. Kansas was facing Toledo inside Allen Fieldhouse, and Tharpe had started the game with a couple turnovers and a defensive breakdown.
Self called timeout.
“He was just blasting me throughout one whole timeout,” Tharpe said. “He blasted me for like two timeouts straight. I was (ticked), I was (ticked) off ... because I feel like the dude hit some tough shots.”
Tharpe was furious, but he was also motivated. Self had challenged him, and he wanted to prove he was as tough as the guards that came before him.
“You don’t want to let him down,” said Tharpe, who is averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 assists while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. “I started playing much better after that.”
Tharpe finished with 20 points and eight assists that night, and the Jayhawks are 15-3 since Tharpe replaced Mason in the starting lineup in midseason. More than seven months after Tharpe called Self with a problem, the Jayhawks can clinch a share of their 10th straight regular-season Big 12 title with a victory over Oklahoma on Monday night.
At times, the Jayhawks still need more consistency. Roberts said Kansas is asking Tharpe to distribute and look for his shot from the outside. Self is pushing Tharpe to be more active on the defensive end. If Kansas wants to reach the Final Four, Tharpe still may need to be the Jayhawks’ most valuable player.
“If you want to be good defensively, you cut the head off,” Self said, “It’s hard to cut the head off if your point guard is not great defensively.”
This is life as Bill Self's point guard. All season long, Tharpe said, Self will ride you. He will poke and challenge ... and he will praise. Self admits he’s toughest on his point guards, but he’s also the most flexible. His guards get offensive freedom. They get the keys to a blue-blood program. And over time, they gain the most valuable tool of all: Self’s trust.
“I love Coach Self,” Tharpe said. “He tests me a lot. He definitely gets me angry. I know I can’t fight my coach, so I just try to bring it onto the court.”