Reversal of Fortunes Missouri guard Kareem Rush is in the spotlight that once shone on his older brother, JaRon, whose poor decisions may have cost him an NBA career

Feb. 18, 2002
Feb. 18, 2002

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Feb. 18, 2002

Catching Up With...
High School Basketball

Reversal of Fortunes Missouri guard Kareem Rush is in the spotlight that once shone on his older brother, JaRon, whose poor decisions may have cost him an NBA career

In his high school yearbook, Kareem Rush refrained from quoting
Jay-Z or Pink Floyd or Kurt Cobain next to his senior picture,
the way most kids do. Instead he departed from Kansas City's
Pembroke Hill School with a declaration of independence he had
wanted to scream for years: No! I am KAREEM.

This is an article from the Feb. 18, 2002 issue

"I was always 'JaRon's little brother,'" he says. By the time
JaRon, a year and a half older than Kareem, was in the eighth
grade, he had shattered his first backboard and was signing
autographs for dazzled adults. In 1994 HoopScoop rated him the
top high school freshman player in the nation. Kansas coach Roy
Williams would pronounce JaRon one of the greatest schoolboy
athletes he'd ever seen. Kareem? A nice shooter, sure, but quiet,
withdrawn, nothing like JaRon. "Kareem would get very depressed
about it, all the JaRon, JaRon, JaRon," says their high school
coach, Rick Allison. "I'd say, 'Kareem, don't get down. You're
going to get your pub too.'"

Maybe he would, but in Kansas City, circa 1998, JaRon Rush was a
rock star. "And I was just one of the groupies, hanging on,"
Kareem says. "JaRon was living a fairy-tale life. He was the


The Greenville Groove, a National Basketball Development League
team, is calling a play. The words echo like foghorn blasts
through the Roanoke (Va.) Civic Center Coliseum, empty save for
some 200 cheerless souls. On a warmer-than-usual December weekend
in the Shenandoah Valley, there are almost as many people at the
Ford dealership across the street as there are in the stands.


The point guard is calling a play, yet it's as if he's telling
JaRon Rush--the forlorn, towel-draped figure rooted to the Roanoke
Dazzle bench--where he should be right now: in Pauley Pavilion
soaring through his senior year at UCLA, preparing to be a
first-round NBA draft pick. A lottery pick, perhaps. But JaRon
left the Bruins in the spring of 2000, after his sophomore
season. He wasn't drafted. He won't play a minute in this game.
In a few days Roanoke will give him his unconditional release.

Who says it has to be a zero-sum relationship? That more fame for
one Rush has to mean less for the other? Why can't they both
prosper at the same time?

As a junior at Missouri, the 6'6" Kareem is among the finest
shooting guards in the land, blessed with a sweatshop work ethic,
a feathery left-handed jump shot and such balletic moves that his
coach, Quin Snyder, calls him "artistic." Through Sunday he was
averaging 20.1 points for the Tigers (17-7). In many ways Kareem
is the anti-JaRon. He stayed close to home for college. He
resisted the urge to turn pro after his sophomore year. Now
Snyder says he's ready to be a first-round NBA draft choice. A
lottery pick, perhaps.

JaRon, 6'7", has been through so much in the last four years. A
nearly seasonlong suspension as a sophomore at UCLA for taking
money from a summer league coach. NBA rejection. Four stints with
minor league pro teams. And worst of all, alcoholism. Last winter
he spent three months at the Cornerstone Group, a rehab clinic
outside Los Angeles, and he says he has been sober since Feb. 7,
2001. He worked as never before to get ready for the Seattle
SuperSonics' training camp in October. In a pro summer league
game he dropped 34 on Penny Hardaway. Granted, his shot still
needed polish, but the old mojo--the jet-propelled first step, the
rainmaking hops, that whoooosh of energy--the old mojo was back.

So was the smile that could charge a regional power grid. "Mama,
I'm going to make this team!" he told his mother, Glenda, during
camp. A few days later the Sonics made JaRon their final cut. He
cried and cried. Now he's wandering the fringes of minor league
ball. After being released by Roanoke in late December, he was
signed to the Kansas City Knights' practice squad on Jan. 16.

"Kareem's in a good situation," JaRon says, sipping from a cup of
sweet tea. "A lovely situation. Coach Snyder let him do his
thing, let him play. The situation I went into at UCLA, it was
never my team. With Kareem, that's his team. That makes a huge

"JaRon was so good, he stopped working," Kareem says of JaRon's
downward spiral. "He made a stupid decision to come out early,
and he hit rock bottom. But he's building his way back up. He's
been sober for a year. It was never a question of talent; it was
off-court stuff. Now it's only a matter of time before he gets
where he wants to be."

Jeanette Jacobs, JaRon and Kareem's grandmother and the family
matriarch, always thought Kareem should have been the older
brother. "Maybe I babied JaRon too much," she says in the living
room of the East Kansas City house where the Rush boys spent much
of their youth. "Kareem has always been more mature. Where JaRon
made the wrong decisions, Kareem usually made the correct ones."
Her eyelids flutter. She's about to cry. "I never thought Kareem
would be such a star and that JaRon would just fade into the
sunset. I'm as proud of JaRon as I am of Kareem, but it's up to
him. JaRon has to be the one to fix his own problems."

You watch the high school highlight video, and your jaw drops to
the floor. It's 1998 again, and JaRon is a one-man antigravity
device, dunking over and over to the strains of Whooomp! (There
It Is). Tomahawk jams, alley-oops, 180s. While Kareem calmly
sinks three-pointers on the tape, JaRon thunders through his
scenes, the swashbuckling leading man. In his last high school
appearance in Kansas City, he throws down a dunk and shatters a
backboard with such ferocity that cheerleaders scatter in fear
and grown men rush the court to embrace him.

They were polite and easygoing, the Rush brothers, comfortable in
any crowd. So many people were introduced to them, saw their
talent and tried to help, yet JaRon always got more than
Kareem--more attention, more friends, more booty (both kinds).
"JaRon was just given too much," Jacobs says. "It kind of ruined

There was Tom Grant, a Kansas City businessman and
philanthropist, whose foundation sponsored the Rushes' AAU teams
and paid their tuition to Pembroke Hill, the blue-blooded prep
school whose alumni include golfer Tom Watson. Unlike Kareem,
though, JaRon became close friends with schoolmate Joey Grant,
Tom's son, and moved into the Grants' four-bedroom suburban
house when he was a freshman. He did chores (and got grounded if
he didn't), went on family vacations and drove a Geo Tracker
that Tom leased for him. The Grants considered JaRon part of the
family. To this day they keep pictures of him above their

There was Myron Piggie, the Rushes' summer league coach. Piggie
chaperoned them around the country, kept a close eye on the
party-loving JaRon for Tom Grant--and secretly gave the brothers
money. Kareem took $2,300, but JaRon hauled in $17,000, including
the payments on another car, a leased '98 Chevy Blazer. After a
heavily publicized federal investigation (SI, April 24, 2000),
Piggie would plead guilty to fraud and income-tax-evasion charges
in May 2000 and is serving a three-year term at the federal
penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans. The NCAA, for its part, had
suspended the Rushes: JaRon for 24 games of his sophomore year at
UCLA, Kareem for nine games of his freshman year at Missouri.
(The NCAA did not consider Tom Grant's support of the Rushes a
violation because of his long-standing involvement with the

It was then, in the early days of 2000, that the Rushes reached a
crossroads. Each brother turned to a very different source of

They were born on the same day, Oct. 30, the player and the newly
appointed coach. That was the first thing Quin Snyder told Kareem
on that hastily arranged visit to Jeanette Jacobs's house three
years ago, Snyder's first order of business after taking the
Missouri job on April 7, 1999. Pembroke Hill had just won the
Class 2A state championship for the third straight year. It was
Kareem's first title without JaRon, whom he had all but decided
to join at UCLA so they could continue their success on a
national scale, as the O'Bannon brothers had in the mid-'90s.
Snyder made an immediate connection with Kareem, though, and
suddenly Kareem's plans changed. "Coach was cool," he says. "I
was, like, This has got to be fate. So I jumped on board."

The relationship was deepened in St. Louis on Dec. 21, 1999. As
the Tigers boarded their bus to play Illinois that night, Snyder
pulled Kareem aside, steered him into a corner of the
Ritz-Carlton lobby and informed him of his NCAA suspension.
Kareem started weeping. "I'd seen him emotional at times," says
Snyder, who wrapped his arm around the sobbing player, "but never
like that. We had a chance through that adversity to build some
trust. That year was good for the two of us. It wasn't only him
showing up at practice and me coaching him. There was more to it
than that."

"He knows what I'm thinking, and I know what he's thinking before
he even tells me," Kareem says. "It's a special bond." Rather
than sulk during his suspension, Kareem practiced with the second
team, worked on his deficiencies, improved. When he returned, he
scored 16.9 points a game and was named co-Big 12 freshman of the

Yet just as Kareem moved so effortlessly on the court, slipping
like liquid through defenders, he remained elusive to the people
who cared most about him. "He was nomadic," Snyder says. "After
the season he'd drift. He'd go back to Kansas City on weekends
and not make it back on time for class. If you're going to be a
great player, you can't be like that."

"If I'm not around you, I can just...pull away," Kareem says.
"It's nothing intentional. I'll be concentrating on what I'm
doing and forget what's going on in Columbia or wherever. I can
go without talking to somebody for a long time."

So Kareem was required to memorize Snyder's phone numbers and
promise to call him that summer. Every day. No exception.
Sometimes the conversation went like this:

Hey, Coach. Kareem.

You doing all right?


See you later.

Other times they spoke at length, about things besides
basketball. "It let me know he cared," Kareem says.

Kareem took the next step as a player last season, when his
scoring average rose to 21.1. But for a broken thumb on his
shooting hand, which caused him to miss seven games, he might
have been the Big 12 player of the year. Even playing with a
splint, he lit up Oklahoma for 31 points and won national acclaim
by pouring in 29 in a valiant NCAA tournament loss to Duke, the
eventual champion. Mike Krzyzewski said Kareem could transfer to
Duke anytime. "You can't have him," joked Snyder, a former Blue

Snyder says there's more to his star than Kareem likes to reveal.
When pressed, for instance, Kareem says he scored a 1,250 on the
SAT. "I'll be working on a paper for a week," says his roommate,
Tigers guard Josh Kroenke. "Kareem will write it the day it's
due--and get a better grade than I do." Ask Kareem what he's
thinking about these days, and he'll describe his idea for a
nationwide chain of sports bars called The Rivalry. "For example,
in Kansas City you'd have Kansas fans on one side and Missouri
fans on the other, with a bar in between," he says. "Then you
could do Florida-Florida State, Michigan-Michigan State and so

On the court he's growing accustomed, ever so slowly, to a
leading role. "Kareem might actually feel guilty that he's better
than JaRon now," says Peter Kite, one of Kareem's best friends
from high school, "but he's finally accepted that he's a premier

He always wanted to be Kareem, not somebody's little brother, but
that never meant he hoped JaRon would fail. "It's weird," Kareem
says. "I'm used to the situation now, but I think my brother's a
star too. He's just taking a different route."

She begged him not to do it. Glenda Rush's oldest son was on the
line, telling her he was going pro. Hiring an agent. Leaving
UCLA. "I said, 'JaRon, you didn't play enough your freshman year,
and you were suspended most of your sophomore year. Don't do
it,'" Glenda says. "Things would have worked out better if he
hadn't been drinking at the time. That drinking really hurt him."

During his 24-game suspension JaRon found solace not in a coach,
friend or family member, but in alcohol. He had started drinking
in high school, going out with friends and coming home drunk to
the Grants' house. Tom gave him Breathalyzer tests, grounded him,
took him to a psychologist. In time JaRon moved out. At UCLA the
drinking increased. JaRon had to be coaxed back to campus, late,
after Christmas in Kansas City during his freshman year. He
completed a 12-day rehab program, but the drinking persisted.
After declaring for the draft following his sophomore season, he
skipped the NBA predraft camp in Chicago. At a workout for the
Charlotte Hornets, team officials ended the session early. JaRon
was out of shape.

"[UCLA coach] Steve Lavin never told JaRon he was ready," Jacobs
says. "His mother told him not to come out."

Too late. These days JaRon thinks all the time about how he could
still be at UCLA. "It's always in the back of my mind, but I
can't do anything about it now," he says. "I think I made the
right decision at the time. I was supposed to be a first-round
pick. But it was me going out and partying, not playing my game,
that's what really hurt me."

Last year JaRon drifted on and off minor league teams, first in
Kansas City, then in Los Angeles. One night, after a road game in
K.C., a coach found JaRon nearly passed out in the hotel lobby.
His agents, Brian Kramer and Bill Haberman, organized an
intervention. "I realized I needed help," JaRon says. "I needed
to get control of the situation."

This time he spent three months in rehab, hewing to a tight
schedule of meetings and therapy sessions. Tom and Joey Grant
came out and participated. They listened to tales of addiction--a
surgeon who had lost his family, an architect who had gone to
jail. "JaRon is such an endearing kid, you're drawn to him in
terms of trying to help him," says Tom, who paid for the
treatment. "He needed to accept the fact he was an alcoholic and
go from there. Here's a young man who still has his whole future
ahead of him if he wants to pursue it. Those poor people, a lot
of them, their careers and families are gone."

"You're in there with a bunch of people who are addicts just like
you, but you don't want to put that name on yourself," JaRon
says. "You feel you're not one of them, but you really are."

It was a big step, perhaps a lifesaving step. "That takes a lot
of courage, to admit you have a problem," Jacobs says.

If he had only made the Sonics' roster, JaRon's cautionary tale
would have come full circle. "He was the last cut, and the
hardest one," says Seattle associate head coach Dwane Casey.
"Talentwise he gave it to us. He dived for loose balls so much he
got the nickname Human Torpedo. He plays hard, defends, rebounds
well for his size. He just needs to improve his outside shooting
and his ball handling. He'll be in the NBA one day."

Perhaps. Kent Davison, JaRon's coach in Roanoke, had no use for
him, but don't draw too much from that. Davison is playing
hardened veterans, 29-year-olds, in a so-called developmental
league, scraping for wins like any other coach. As for JaRon,
Davison says, "the big thing is maturity. He needs to be able to
slow down a little and play within himself."

People who know JaRon root for him to soar again, the way he did
in high school. "I really miss those days," he says. He knows he
can't fault Kareem for turning incandescent. "That's my brother.
I want him to do well. I'm proud of him."

JaRon has plenty on his mind: a four-year-old son, Shea, who
lives with his mother in Kansas City; a craving for alcohol that
could follow him as long as he lives; and, not least, a career
full of heartbreak. His confidence, though, hasn't disappeared.
"I killed Kareem all the time in one-on-one when we were growing
up," JaRon says. "I could punk him, take his heart." And now?
"Come on, man," he says, sipping his sweet tea. "I could still
get him. It's the same old Kareem."

How does this story end? Will fame for the Rush brothers always
be a zero-sum game? You hope not. Kareem, taking a cue from his
coach, is building his relationships, fighting his tendency to
drift. He hosts his 16-year-old brother, Brandon, regularly in
Columbia, takes him to breakfast, encourages him. Brandon is
already 6'6" and, based on his summertime performance, is rated
among the top 15 sophomores in the nation. But he could go either
way. He has already attended three high schools. Poor grades and
transfer rules kept him from playing his first varsity game until
last week.

What's more, Kareem and JaRon have reconnected. Having gone
months at a time without speaking to each other over the last
three years--out of sight, out of mind--they now talk once a week.
"It's the high point for us communicationwise since we were
little," Kareem says.

So many things have changed. On Christmas Day the Roanoke Dazzle
made a rare national TV appearance. When JaRon entered the game,
his last before being released, ESPN2 commentator Quinn Buckner
identified him for viewers. "This," Buckner explained, "is Kareem
Rush's older brother."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL His time has come Unburdened by the can't-miss label that came to plague his brother (far right), Kareem has blossomed into a Wooden Award finalist.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Alpha Tiger Kareem is Mizzou's undisputed leader and most potent scoring threat, averaging 20.1 points per game this season.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Mother knew best Glenda Rush (left, with her mother, Jeanette Jacobs) warned JaRon that he was not ready for the NBA.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Reaching too high After limited playing time in two seasons at UCLA, JaRon declared for the NBA draft and found no takers.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Stand by me Kareem, behind his older brother, says he's sure that JaRon will someday play in the NBA now that he has stopped drinking.
Kareem has a sweatshop work ethic, a feathery left-handed jump
shot and balletic moves.
"Maybe I babied JaRon too much," says his grandmother. She's
about to cry. "He has to be the one to fix his own problems."
"JaRon was so good, he stopped working," says Kareem. "It was
never a question of talent. It was off-court stuff."
"I killed Kareem in one-on-one when we were growing up," JaRon
says. And now? "I could still get him."