At long last, McLemore a Jayhawk

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. – After months of speculation, deadlines pushed back and countless discussions with his family, Ben McLemore put an end to his recruitment Sunday afternoon by officially committing to Head Coach Bill Self and the University of Kansas.

In a way, it was almost a little hard to believe it was finally happening.

The deadline for his decision had come and gone so many times in recent months, and with each time the speculation – and nail-biting – among Kansas and Missouri fans ran a little more rampant.

He's committing to Kansas. No, wait, his mom wants him at Missouri and he's coming around to the idea. Okay, now Kansas is back in the lead and his family is on board.

To Ben McLemore, one of the top prep hoopsters in the Class of 2011, the recruiting process had to feel something like being in the eye of a storm. As his star rose on the national basketball scene, so too did the media attention grow and the fan interest swell.

But Sunday, April 3, in a small media room at the Sears Centre just outside Chicago, surrounded by his family, the cloud of uncertainty parted around him as he announced his commitment to the University of Kansas.

A broad smile lit his face.

"Rock Chalk Jayhawk," McLemore said, and Kansas basketball die-hards across the country let out a cheer.

***

For whatever reason, recruiting mojo has been a little hard to come by on Naismith Drive this year. As the commitments began rolling in during the summer and into the fall, the coffers at Kansas remained empty.

Head Coach Bill Self and his staff broke through in mid-October, when they earned a commitment from four-star point guard Naadir Tharpe of Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy.

Known as a consummate floor general and loaded with intangibles, Tharpe was a good start, but the Jayhawks still had needs and available scholarships to fill.

To the Kansas fanbase, McLemore quickly became something of a must-get recruit. As his deft shooting touch and off-the-charts athleticism sent him skyrocketing up the recruiting rankings during the summer, they heard the whispers that he favored the Jayhawks heavily and waited for a commitment.

And waited. And kept waiting.

They waited as McLemore, whose public high school in urban St. Louis closed its doors for good following his junior season, transferred to Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.

They waited as he visited Kansas officially for the season-opening festivities of "Late Night in the Phog," thinking that, surely, a commitment was imminent.

"He's a Kansas fan and now he's seen 'Late Night,'" they thought. "He's in the bag."

Only things were never quite that simple. Because contrary to popular opinion, he didn't grow up donning the Crimson and Blue of Kansas. Like his mother, Sonya Reid, he was a Missouri Tigers fan.

"My freshman year, I loved Mizzou a lot," McLemore explained. "But as you get older and stuff, things change."

Indeed, much of the speculation among the two rival fanbases regarding his hesitation centered on Reid. Known by those close to her as "Miss Peaches," rumors leaked out that she wanted her son to stay and play for the hometown team.

When asked during the April 3 press conference if they ever butted heads over it, mother and son both chuckled as a family member in attendance called out teasingly for them to be honest.

In many ways, it probably wasn't so different from the decision to let him leave home for his final year of high school.

"It was hard, just letting him leave (for Oak Hill), because it was his senior year and I wanted him to stay home," Reid said. "Leaving was better for his education, so we just went down that road."

In the end, that's what his college decision came down to as well. What was best for him academically and athletically? Which school was the better fit?

It was an intensely difficult decision to make, McLemore admitted. Among his family and other people close to him, people he trusted, some felt that perfect fit was Kansas, while others lobbied for Missouri.

"Every day I'd call my mom, she'd voice her opinion, then I'd give my opinion," he said. "And I did the same thing with Coach (Darius) Cobb. We just kept trying to figure out what's best for me, in the future, in the long run."

Cobb, a coach with the St. Louis Majestics AAU squad, is a close friend of the family and acted as an advisor throughout the process. He saw first-hand how tough things were for McLemore.

On one hand, he explained, there's the pressure of being a hometown kid with Missouri experiencing renewed success under now former Head Coach Mike Anderson and his staff - with whom the entire family had a great relationship.

"At the same token he had a lot of people that were looking at the excitement that Kansas was creating, the national championship, the ability for him to come in and be a premiere player," Cobb said.

Firm plans were set to announce from the NeXt All-American Classic, an all-star game in which he and a handful of some of the top seniors throughout the country had been invited to play.

The night before the April 3 event, McLemore sat down with his mother to discuss things one final time. He wanted to be a Kansas Jayhawk.

She'd been to Kansas, of course, so she knew what the environment was like. She had heard the fans shower her son with love, felt the pulse of Allen Fieldhouse when it is rocking and rolling.

"The excitement was there," Reid said. "And we just felt like that's where he needed to be."

***

So now that he's in the fold, what exactly is Kansas getting in McLemore?

Despite being dismissed along with Arizona-bound Sidiki Johnson from the Oak Hill basketball team in late February - a dismissal that ultimately resulted in his departure from the school - McLemore landed on his feet in Humble, Texas and Christian Life Academy, where he closed out a strong senior campaign on the hardwood.

According to Cobb, he's a player - and a person - willing to do whatever it takes to help the team find success.

"I think Ben is one of the most humble, unselfish kids I've ever had the pleasure of seeing in my life," he said. "Whatever (Head Coach) Bill (Self) wants him to do, he'll do. If he needs 30 (points) a night, he'll give him 30. If he needs 15 assists, he'll give him that. If he needs 40 minutes of defense, he'll do that."

While it's not uncommon – and, in fact, has essentially become the norm – for players of McLemore's level of national prestige to cite playing time as the most important factor in choosing a school.

He, however, enters Kansas with no illusions, which isn't to say he lacks confidence in his own abilities. McLemore knows if he shows up and works as hard as he always does, good things will happen.

"You're not just going to go into college thinking you're gonna get a spot," he said. "I'm going to go in there and work hard every day. I'm going to be in the gym 24/7 when I get there."

For Self and the Jayhawks, recruiting the Class of 2011 doesn't end with the addition of McLemore. There are still a number of lines in the water, most notably perhaps in the direction of Bradenton (FL) IMG Academy star DeAndre Daniels.

At least for a few moments, however, they'll probably allow themselves to enjoy a brief moment of triumph, and maybe a fist-pump when nobody is looking, after landing a talented prospect with whom they have invested so much time and effort.

Jayhawk Nation, on the other hand, wasn't as reserved when news of the commitment began to spread. They were collectively grinning from ear-to-ear.

And now, so to is McLemore.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," McLemore said. "I've got my whole family with me now, and I've made my decision. So I'm happy right now."


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