LAWRENCE — Whether he's in the Kansas basketball offices or visiting home in Burlington, when Tyrel Reed checks his mail, he's liable to find a reminder of just how important his KU career has been.
Letters postmarked from around the Sunflower State, from parents and children alike, are sent to Reed with a consistent message: Kids look up to you. Keep doing what you're doing. You're making us all proud.
"That makes me feel really good," Reed said. "It makes me feel like I'm doing something right. I've just got to continue to do that and keep improving to be the best person I can be."
Today is Kansas Day, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the state's admission into the union, and fittingly, KU and Kansas State will play basketball tonight in Allen Fieldhouse. Hoop fans around the country will be watching on ESPN, and they'll be focused on the talent from Philadelphia (KU's Morris twins), Baltimore (KU's Josh Selby) and Chicago (K-State's Jacob Pullen).
The assumption often made is that Kansas has to go out-of-state for players that can help it win championships, and that has largely been true over the years. But KU seniors Reed and Brady Morningstar, a Lawrence native, have been two of the top seven players for the Jayhawks the last three seasons — an occurrence that even KU coach Bill Self couldn't have imagined.
"I'll be honest with you," Self said, "they've turned out to be better than we recruited them as. You recruit guys and you say 'Yeah, could be a two-year starter, could be a one-year starter, could be a nice blend guy, rotation guy over time.' I didn't anticipate these guys doing... Brady starting as a sophomore and junior, Tyrel probably being our most consistent performer this year. They've had huge impacts, and it just goes to show you, regardless of where you grow up, if you can play, they'll find you."
In year 151 and beyond, Kansas kids can dream big in their driveways and backyards. They can see Reed swishing clutch three after clutch three and Morningstar constantly using his hands to disrupt the opponent and K-State freshman Will Spradling, an Overland Park native, getting praise on television from Bobby Knight as if Spradling is the definition of a fundamentally-sound player.
These guys are different than former KU great Wayne Simien, a Leavenworth native who will have his No. 23 jersey retired into the Allen Fieldhouse rafters at halftime tonight. Simien was a two-time All-American and a first-round draft pick of the Miami Heat in 2005. His skills were going to be noticed by everybody, but still, he knew he wanted to play at Kansas.
"One of the guys I first called was (former KU player) C.B. McGrath, a Topeka native," Simien said. "I can remember having a conversation with him when I was a camper here at Coach (Roy) Williams' camp, just talking to him about how much it meant to be a Kansas kid playing Kansas basketball."
Simien stayed home, and now his name will live on forever.
"It's a big deal to me," Simien said, "especially on Kansas Day and looking up there and not seeing a lot of guys who are originally from Kansas' names up there."
With less natural ability than Simien, Reed and Morningstar are doing their part, too. More kids can identify with their rise to KU, but both of them had notable advantages. Reed's father, Stacy, was the renowned basketball coach at Burlington High, and Morningstar's father, Roger, played for KU during 1974-75.
"My dad would always go out there and work with me in the yard," Reed said. "He taught me when I was a little kid that you always have to work hard for the things you want, you have to take them."
Reed, who also received offers from Missouri, Oklahoma and Stanford, knew he wanted to play for Kansas.
"My heart was always here," Reed said. "I know nothing but Kansas. I'm really proud to be here."
While Morningstar started during their sophomore year and part of their junior year, it is Reed who starts as a senior, averaging 10.0 points and shooting 47 percent from three-point range in Big 12 play. His has been a steady climb that any player should want to emulate.
"He's been probably the hardest worker I've known since I've been here," KU guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "I don't think there's been one day where you'll be like 'Tyrel looks tired today,' or 'He's not going as hard as he did yesterday.' I think that shows in his game. Year by year he's gotten better."
Morningstar's numbers have dwindled during the last year, but still, Self can't take him off the floor. If there's any player that has that glue quality, it's Morningstar, who is averaging 25 minutes a game in league play.
"Having an impact on this team the past couple years, I don't want it to end," Morningstar said. "I'm just taking it all in right now."
Simien, who now lives in Lawrence and serves as a team chaplain, says he is proud of Reed and Morningstar.
"As much as I love all the guys on the team," Simien said, "I can't help but find myself cheering extra hard for guys like Tyrel and Brady, guys who are from Kansas and know everything about what it means to run out of that tunnel and wear the jersey. I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing a lot more Kansas kids have the opportunity to wear the jersey and play well in it."
Through reading those letters, Reed knows the kids are out there. He has relished the chance to provide them a blueprint of how to reach their dream.
"What Kansas kid doesn't dream of putting on that Jayhawk uniform and running out of the tunnel and being able to be there on that court?" Reed said. "I'm blessed to be able to have that opportunity."