Fathers, sons, enjoy KU's championship chase
MAR 04, 2013 9:49a ET
"He tried to talk me into (it)," Tyler says of his father, Bill, whose No. 6 Jayhawks (25-4) host Texas Tech tonight in their home finale and move one step closer to a ninth straight Big 12 title. "He always wanted me to play (here) and he made that clear. But he also wanted me to do what made me happy. So he wasn't going to force me to play for him, (but) he made it clear that he wanted me, too."
Because the fact of the matter was this: The coach's son felt perfectly happy, as any 18-year-old would, to get himself some space. Perfectly happy to try life at Oklahoma State, just as his dad had done, decades earlier. Perfectly happy to go his own way, to forge his own path, far from fishbowl of Lawrence, far from where he'll always be — well, Bill's kid.
"I was back and forth about playing at Kansas for a while," says Tyler, one of three sons of a current or former collegiate head coach — Evan Manning (Danny) and Niko Roberts (Norm) — on the Jayhawks' roster. "I didn't know if I wanted to come here and stay under my dad's shadow, or if I wanted to do my own thing. But when push came to shove, and I really sat down and thought about it, I don't think you can turn down the opportunity to play basketball at Kansas."
The 6-foot-2 freshman stuck around, walked on to the squad and has appeared in eight contests, usually in mop-up time; two minutes here, three minutes there. The younger Self's become an Allen Fieldhouse favorite, as much a harbinger of certain, decisive victory as the legendary "Rock Chalk" chant.
"They're very much alike, I think, in that they're both wise-crackers and sarcastic dudes and confident cats," offers KU assistant Norm Roberts, a longtime Self family friend and a former head coach himself at St. John's (2004-10). "And I think that they play off each other well. Because I think Coach can give Tyler a little jab and mess with him, and then Tyler will give a little zinger, and I think they probably have a really special relationship, those two."
The young fella doesn't just know the offense, back to front. He knows what buttons he can push with the old man. And, more importantly, which ones he can't.
"It's just funny, because you can see how Tyler is Coach Self's son, just because they have the same kind of dry humor," notes the younger Roberts, a 5-11 junior. "They have little jokes that only they think would be funny, and stuff like that. They're just both really sarcastic and you can really tell how they would both be related."
And they're not the only pair in the Kansas camp trying to get the last word. Whereas Bill and Tyler trade verbal jabs, the Roberts side of the Jayhawk family tree prefers straight-up trash talk.
"Anytime I get the ball, (Dad's) saying, ‘Look at him, look how little he is,' and stuff like that," Niko says. "And if I score, he goes, ‘He was lucky.' From time to time, I mess with him about being shorter than me. Any way that I can dish it out, you know?"
Oh, you kids.
"Danny Manning is just ‘Dad' to me," offeres Evan, a 6-3 guard whose famous father is in his first season as the head coach at Tulsa. "To see his face around town and on posters and stuff — that's just Dad. So I've grown up used to it.
"Being a coach's (son), me and Tyler, we've kind of had a foot in the door to this. But coming here (as a player), it's completely different. Once you step on the court, it's strictly business. I mean, I'm sure if my dad was still here, I'd get on the court and call my dad, ‘Coach.' On the court, he's ‘coach.' And off the court, he's ‘Dad.' And I'm sure that's how it is for Tyler."
For his part, the younger Self tries to keep the My-Dad-has-won-eight-league-titles-in-a-row on the down low, play it as normal as possible. He lives in Jayhawker Towers, same as any other undergrad. He calls his mom for emergency laundry service, same as any other undergrad.
"He's just one of us," Niko says. "He's no different than any one of us. Regardless of who his dad is, we all treat each other the same. Oh yeah, (Coach) will get on him sometimes. He coaches Tyler just as hard as he coaches everybody else."
But, day to day, it's a delicate balance. When Bill Self called Norm Roberts last spring to offer him a position on the KU staff, the latter was hesitant at first because was was worried about stepping on Niko's toes, fearful of crowding Niko's space in Lawrence.
"You know, I had no idea what it would be like," Norm says. "I was really enjoying myself working with coach (Billy) Donovan down in Florida and I talked to Niko before I said I was going to do it, (asked) how it was going to affect him. He had really built his own life here and I really didn't want to disturb him, what he was doing."
To his surprise — and relief — Niko responded by giving his blessing.
"I said, ‘If I come, I'm going to coach you just like everybody else. I'm probably going to be harder on you than I would anybody else,'" Norm recalls. "It's been great. I've enjoyed seeing every single minute of it … from an athletic standpoint, none of those guys are probably supreme athletes, but they're guys that give you everything they've got, every day. They bring mental focus and they bring everything they've got to the team and they want to be treated like everybody else. I think they really, really enjoy it."
The staff has fun with it, too. KU assistant Kurtis Townsend even has a nickname for the trio at the end of the bench: ‘The Union.'
"‘Can we get this much at shootaround? How many shots am I going to get today during the shell drills?' " Norm recalls, chuckling. "All kinds of funny things. ‘How much pizza do I get in comparison to the other guys?' KT said they've got constant demands. ‘Do I go over the ball screen or do I go under the ball screen?' Even during scouting prep. They're great."
While the moments on the floor are rare, they've also been precious. When Tyler scored his first career Big 12 bucket against Texas on February 16, The Phog roared, and Dad, sitting a few feet away on the home bench, couldn't help but grin.
Then there was the Richmond game, back on December 18, an 87-59 KU laugher. With the Jayhawks nursing a 31-point lead with two minutes left, the elder Self emptied the bench. Manning converted a layup with 1:06 to go, and with 44 ticks left on the clock, Niko sank a jumper for the hosts' final two points.
"Good job," Norm said as his son passed.
"Dad," Niko said quickly, "that's the first bucket that I scored this year."
"So he was pretty hyped about it," the elder Roberts says now. "For me, that was a great moment for him. And I realized how much it means for him to be out there."
And how much it means for Dad to be here to share it.
"In my eyes, it's the best place to play in the nation," Tyler says. "And if you get the chance to do it, and you don't, I just think that's something you'll always look back (on) and say, ‘What if?' I didn't want that to happen.
"Even though my dad's the coach, I don't look at that as a bad thing at all. I just look at it as, ‘My dad just happens to be my coach, and my coach just happens to be my dad.'"
Even if that means Coach had the scoop on all of Tyler's skeletons, right from the very beginning. Heck, he's got the baby pictures to prove it.
"True," Tyler says. Then he laughs. "But he knows I have those (on him), too."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org