They saw the movie a decade before their only son was born, but
Ron and Ellen LaFrentz never let go of the name. Rafe Copley was
the character George Peppard played in Home from the Hill, and
Ron LaFrentz thought Rafe was a decent, hardworking, stand-up
guy, the kind of man he hoped his son would be. Ron's story
sounds sweet and charming until Ellen reveals a more plausible
explanation: She and Ron just liked the sound of the name.
Rafe. It was different, original, impossible to get out of their
minds. Rafe LaFrentz. "A nice rhythm to it, don't you think?"
says Ellen. By the time their son arrived, on May 29, 1976, the
LaFrentzes had decided that Rafe wasn't quite original enough,
so they added their own twist and gave the world Raef Andrew
LaFrentz. It didn't matter that he grew to be nearly seven feet
tall; Raef always had a nice rhythm. "Even as tall as he got,"
says Ron, "he never had a clumsy stage."
"The first time I saw him," says Eric Dettbarn, Raef's high
school coach in Monona, Iowa, "he was in the sixth grade, and he
was about 5'11", very lanky. I was teaching, and I went to play
football with the boys during recess. I told Raef to go long,
and I threw him a pass. He sprinted out, dove, made an
unbelievable catch and popped back up. I just thought, Wow, that
kid is going to be good."
That kid eventually turned his talents to basketball, moved on
to Kansas and proved to be better than good. He may, in fact, be
the best college player in the country; through Sunday he was
averaging 21.5 points and 11.6 rebounds for the second-ranked
Jayhawks, who improved to 13-1 with last Saturday's 94-78 win
over TCU. LaFrentz is quickly becoming a household name, which
means Raef isn't so original anymore. According to Ellen and
Ron, at least one baby boy in Kansas City has been christened
Raef, and the name has been given to assorted dogs and cats and
a prize bull in Monona.
Young LaFrentz, a 6'11" forward, earned first-team All-America
honors as a junior and then turned his back on the NBA to stay
with the Jayhawks for one more year. He could have been the
third player taken in last year's draft, which would have meant
a guaranteed three-year contract worth about $9 million, but
folks close to LaFrentz say that wasn't good enough. He has
goals, you see, and he doesn't easily abandon them. He wants to
be No. 1--in the nation and in the NBA draft. He took out a $2.7
million insurance policy and returned to school. "I've had three
great years at Kansas," LaFrentz says. "I've got one more, and I
want to make it the best."
Last season the Jayhawks were widely favored to win the NCAA
title but ended up a disappointing loser to Arizona in the third
round, and LaFrentz was merely one of the top players in the
country. He's back now to finish the job. LaFrentz says he stuck
around because he wants to be "a kid for one more year," but the
look in his eyes tells a different story. A kid? He's still in
college, but he's already a grown man on the basketball court,
teeming with intensity and determined to fulfill the great
expectations that have followed him since grade school. He is
working toward a history degree but says, "Let's face it,
basketball is my major because hopefully that's what I'm going
to do for a living."
LaFrentz isn't in the NBA, but already there's some NBA in him.
He knows giggling and goofing around are no way to prepare for
the likes of Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. The game face
rarely comes off. "I won't say it's a mean streak because he's
not a mean guy, but he's definitely got a competitive streak,"
says Jayhawks coach Roy Williams. "I'll give you an example.
Last year everyone talked about our senior leadership because we
had the best group of seniors you could imagine: Jerod Haase,
Scot Pollard, Jacque Vaughn. But we're playing Nebraska at home,
and we go into overtime, and Raef just takes over. The players
leave my huddle and then huddle up themselves about 10 feet out
on the floor, and Raef looks at the seniors and just says, 'Give
me the damn ball.' Then he goes out and scores 11 points in
overtime, and we win. Now that's a competitor."
"I like beating people," says LaFrentz. "I like matching my
skills against yours and winning, in whatever we play: cards,
board games, basketball. It doesn't matter. I just don't like to
let someone beat me." When asked where his competitive drive
comes from, LaFrentz doesn't hesitate. "My old man," he says.
"He's got a mean streak like nobody else."
Ron LaFrentz, who played at Northern Iowa from 1957 to '60,
stands 6'5" and weighs 240 but seems taller, even more imposing.
Until retiring three years ago, he taught high school industrial
technology, and he talks with a voice so deep and raspy it
sounds as if he caught his vocal cords in a lathe. He says he
has had many spirited games of one-on-one with his son and
insists he can still take Raef in H-O-R-S-E "if I get hot." Hoop
fanatics Ron, Ellen and Raef once drove from Iowa to North
Carolina for one of Raef's AAU tournaments, stopping in Chelyan,
W.Va. (hometown of Jerry West), on the way there and French
Lick, Ind. (hometown of Larry Bird), on the way home. "We had to
wake Raef up on the way," says Ron. "I wanted him to see where
Jerry West came from. That was my hero."
It's no surprise that the LaFrentz family has an affinity for
small-town basketball legends. Although Monona (pop. 1,500)
shares a high school with four other communities, Raef's
graduating class had just 88 kids. Raef excelled as a
competitive swimmer before concentrating on basketball, and he
worked as a lifeguard in the summer. When some fans hear his
name, they assume he's a foreigner, but he's as small-town
America as Opie Taylor.
"You know what the one thing people don't know about me is? I'm
just a big dork," he says. "I like to just hang out with my
friends and be myself. I like to go to the movies with my
girlfriend and just sit in the dark and relax. No one knows I'm
there, no stress, no hype. If there's one thing I don't like,
it's that there's no time for myself anymore."
When asked if his rural upbringing made him an underdog,
LaFrentz says curtly, "I never felt like an underdog in my life.
Basketball is basketball. If you play it right, it doesn't
matter if you're in a big city or a small town."
Indeed, LaFrentz averaged 34.5 points and 16.3 rebounds a game
his senior year and garnered enough notice to be named to
Parade's All-America team. When it came time for him to choose a
college, his decision was broadcast live on radio. Many Iowans
felt betrayed and bitter when the local hero announced that he
had opted for Kansas over Iowa, and LaFrentz received hate mail
and nasty phone calls. "It was just a bunch of crap," he says.
"I didn't go where people wanted me to, and they reacted in a
negative way." Says his father, "It got real nasty, but Iowa
never stood a chance. This is where Raef wanted to be."
This is where Ron wanted to be too. He's sitting in the kitchen
of a rented condo on a golf course in Lawrence, five minutes
from the Kansas campus. His landlord, former Jayhawks guard Rex
Walters, is playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. After Ron
retired from teaching, he and Ellen moved to Lawrence, at least
for basketball season. They had been in the stands throughout
their son's basketball life, and they weren't about to sit out
this marvelous stretch. "I asked Raef, 'Do you mind if we move
down there?'" says Ron. "I didn't want to impose, but he said,
'Not at all. Come on down.' I wouldn't have done it if he didn't
want me to."
Raef, who has his own apartment, insists he likes having Mom and
Dad around. After a dramatic 73-71 victory over UMass on Dec. 10
in which he tapped in the winning basket for the Jayhawks' 50th
straight win at Allen Fieldhouse, Raef was overheard telling his
mother that he had some free time the next day. "So do you want
to go Christmas shopping?" he asked enthusiastically. Hey,
someone has to bring the credit cards.
The rise of Raef has been a family affair. While he was in high
school, he and his parents drove to a summer tournament in
Indianapolis. Bob Knight, who was recruiting Raef for the
Hoosiers, invited them to Bloomington for a visit after the
tournament. The three of them arrived in Knight's office after
midnight and knew right away that Indiana was not the place for
Raef. "We walk in, and the first thing [Knight] says to me is,
'Jeez, you look like crap,'" Ellen says laughing. "And the funny
thing was, I did look like crap. But it was the middle of the
night. We were tired. What do you expect? He just didn't make us
feel comfortable at all."
Williams, of course, did. He told LaFrentz that Kansas was the
perfect place for him, a big-time program in a small-town
setting, far enough from Monona (an eight-hour drive) but not
too far. With teammates like Pollard (now with the Detroit
Pistons) and Vaughn (a rookie with the Utah Jazz) around for
three years, LaFrentz knew he wouldn't have to play center and
would have a shot at a national championship every season. While
the NCAA title has eluded him so far, LaFrentz owns three
conference championship rings and is expected to win a fourth.
"We had a heck of a team last year, best team in the country, I
think," he says. "Arizona just got hot and beat us. Now it's up
to every individual on this team to work hard and make sure it
doesn't happen again."
Just how loathsome LaFrentz finds losing was evident in this
year's rematch with Arizona on Dec. 2 in the Great Eight
tournament in Chicago. He mixed together an inspired assortment
of jump shots, putbacks and spectacular dunks for a career-high
32 points as the Jayhawks avenged last year's loss with a 90-87
Even if Kansas again fails to end up No. 1 in the nation,
LaFrentz has a good chance of going No. 1 in the NBA draft. He's
a natural scorer and relentless rebounder who can run the floor
and block shots. The scouts agree that he could use some muscle
on his bony, 235-pound frame and improve on the defensive end,
but no one in college is more equipped to step up to the NBA and
make an immediate impact. "At this point he's the strong
favorite to go Number 1," says Boston Celtics general manager
Chris Wallace. "And it doesn't matter who comes out. It's Raef's
position to lose."
Wallace believes LaFrentz would have gone No. 3, 4 or 5 had he
declared himself eligible for the 1997 draft. Wallace should
know--the Celtics owned the third and sixth picks. "He wouldn't
have nudged out [Tim] Duncan, and I don't think he would have
gone ahead of Keith Van Horn," says Wallace, "but he could have
gone right after them." To the long list of LaFrentz's stellar
attributes, Wallace adds, "I like the fact that he's lefthanded.
I just think it adds a little trickery that gives him a small
The pros will get no argument from Williams, who says LaFrentz
will make "a sensational NBA player" but continues to remind
LaFrentz that his work is not complete. That clumsy stage he
somehow bypassed in his youth? It might just kick in next year
when he joins the NBA. "He's got to slide his feet better
defensively and concentrate more consistently on the defensive
end," says Williams. "Some days he's very good defensively,
other days he's not good at all. He asked me what his weaknesses
were, and I told him, 'Physical play on defense. You covering
Karl Malone? That could be a problem.'"
Well, they're not paying him to do that yet. For now, LaFrentz
is still tuning up on wide-eyed college kids, shopping with Mom
and attacking the last few months of his basketball youth. Next
year he'll get his money. Until then, he just wants the damn
hesitate. "My old man," he says. "He's got a mean streak like