Tarik Black carried a bag of fresh food as he moved through a hallway inside Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday evening. It was nearly 75 minutes after Kansas’ 95-65 blitzkrieg of TCU, and the autograph line outside the Jayhawks’ locker room was still two or three people deep. Most of the Kansas players were long gone, their dinner in tow, but for the last 20 minutes Black had been sidled up next to a reporter from Sports Illustrated.
The conversation was supposed to last five minutes, but it kept dragging on, more and more questions about KU freshman center Joel Embiid. National magazines don’t come to Kansas to write stories about Black, of course. They come to see Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, two freshmen who could go No. 1 and 2 in the NBA Draft. But they still want to talk to Black, the thoughtful transfer who arrived at KU after graduating from Memphis in three years.
“Hey Tarik!” a fan yelled as Black took out a black Sharpie and scribbled his signature.
But Black, a 6-foot-9 forward, didn’t come to Kansas to be a spokesperson. That was always his mother’s line of work; Judith Black works in media relations for a hospital in Memphis.
No, Black transferred to play a prominent role on a KU team that had a solid opportunity to be an NCAA contender. But life has a funny way of working out sometimes. Through 26 games, Black is averaging 4.3 points and 11.2 minutes, nearly half of what he averaged last season at Memphis. He has battled injury and foul trouble, and you’d expect Black to feel disappointed to leave his hometown school to play behind a freshman star (Embiid). But Black doesn’t see it that way.
“If we’re winning, the pie is big enough for everybody,” Black says. “And if we’re losing, there’s no pie to be eaten.”
When Black chose to leave Memphis after three seasons, he thought he would be getting a meatier slice in his next stop. Schools such as Duke and Kansas lined up for his services, looking for a one-year rental that could provide some bulk and maturity to a front line. Bill Self won out, and Black was voted the Big 12 preseason newcomer of the year.
But while Black’s numbers have been pedestrian, those inside the KU locker room say his impact has been deeper. After starting the season as a starter, he moved seamlessly into a backup role behind Embiid.
“Every practice that we’ve had, I’ve never seen him come in with an attitude,” junior guard Naadir Tharpe said of Black. “(He’s never) down on himself or worrying about himself or not trying to be a good teammate to the younger dudes. He still comes into practice every day with energy.”
While Embiid’s rise has been well-documented, Black has provided some quality insurance while his freshman teammate was hampered by knee and back issues for most of February, missing the Jayhawks’ last game against TCU. Black averaged eight points and 5.3 rebounds during Kansas’ last four games, finally looking more comfortable and active in the paint.
“I think Tarik is playing the exact way we envisioned him playing when we first got him, maybe even a little better actually,” Self said. “He’s doing a lot of good things. He’s very vocal. He coaches through his voice, especially defensively. And he’s getting a lot more confidence offensively.”
After starting in place of Embiid on Saturday, Black will return to a bench role when No. 8 Kansas faces Texas Tech on Tuesday night in Lubbock. But for Black, at this point in his career, that’s just fine.
“To me, it’s all about playing basketball,” Black said. “So starter or not, I’m still playing basketball and I’m still helping this team win.”
For Black, this has always been the goal. When he chose Kansas last spring, he said he did it primarily because he wanted to be part of something bigger. He had spent three years playing at home, and now he wanted some more life experiences. As his one season in Lawrence enters its final stretch, Black still feels comfortable with the decision.
On a team rife with underclassmen, the Jayhawks are a few weeks away from the unknowns of March. And a few years from now, when an older Black looks back at his time at Kansas, he say he’ll look back at March the most. That month, he says, is how he’ll judge his impact at Kansas.
“I just want to help us win games,” Black says, “and help us win it all.”