LAWRENCE, Kan. — Bill Self tried his best to treat all his seniors the same.
One by one, the trio walked onto the floor of Allen Fieldhouse, arms linked with their mothers to the adoration of a sellout crowd. The Kansas coach greeted each with handshakes and hugs, whispered a couple of words in their ears and ushered them toward their framed jerseys propped up at midcourt.
Try as he might, Self couldn’t quite treat all of them the same Monday night.
One of them, he admitted, is “my favorite Jayhawk of all time.”
It was his son, Tyler.
“I’ve enjoyed coaching all my years here, without question,” Self said, “but I’ve really enjoyed the last five years more because I’ve got to be around him even more.”
Self has gone through this process at Kansas every year for 14 years. Guys who have endured the pressure of playing for championships, who survived his countless grueling practices, get one last chance on senior night to bask in the glow of one of college basketball’s hallowed venues.
Even the coach’s son, a walk-on guard who rarely plays.
So, Tyler Self walked into the Phog one last time, arm in arm with his mother, and joined fellow seniors Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas in the middle of the floor. Bill Self walked over and joined them, kissing his wife on the top of her head and giving his son an affectionate squeeze.
An era was coming to an end. And it was emotional.
“Every parent probably wishes they could spend more time with their kids growing up while you’re chasing the carrot, and I’ve chased it,” Bill Self said long afterward, once the No. 1 Jayhawks had beaten Oklahoma, “and you can’t get the time back. But it’s special when you can get more time. My time with him was later in life, when most parents have it earlier. It’s not an even trade, but I’ll take it.”
The great irony is that Tyler Self once wanted nothing to do with Kansas.
He was just a kid when his father was leading Illinois to Big Ten titles, and had grown fond of Illini stars Deron Williams and Dee Brown. As for Kansas? Well, what Tyler Self knew of Kansas was that it had beaten his dad’s team in the Sweet 16, and that was reason enough to loath the place.
But when Roy Williams departed for North Carolina in 2003, Bill Self made the hard decision to leave a team that eventually would play for a national title under Bruce Weber and take over the Jayhawks. And over time, Tyler Self came to love them in the same way that he loved the Illini, sitting in those simple stands every home game and getting a good-luck wink from his dad.
Tyler Self would never develop into a star, or even a role player, though he probably could have at a smaller school. But playing for his dad was his dream, and he decided to walk on at Kansas, where winning conference championships are the minimum of expectations.
He signed up for a career spent running the scout team, chasing around NBA prospects, cheering from the bench most of the game and hoping for a few minutes on the floor in mop-up time.
“It was something, coming into it, we said we should have it figured out that we would have a player-coach relationship on the court, father-son off it,” Tyler Self said. “Just so I made sure my teammates respected me and I was deserving to be there.”
Perhaps it was because he was the coach’s kid, or because he was such a fun-loving goofball, but over the years he became a cult hero. The student section would chant his name late in games, hoping he would check in. They roared when he touched the ball. When he made a shot, the cheers seemed to shake the old field house, rattling the windows near the rafters.
He has scored 14 points in his entire career.
Bill Self would sit on the bench and smile for every single one of them.
“Landen’s been here five years and Frank’s been here four, but Tyler’s been here 14,” dad explained. “They’re all good kids, but it’s great to see how he’s grown.”
Tyler Self’s career is not quite over. The Jayhawks visit Oklahoma State for their regular-season finale Saturday, then play in the Big 12 Tournament next week. After that comes the NCAA Tournament, where the Jayhawks hope to be playing in nearby Kansas City for a spot in the Final Four.
Even if he doesn’t get into another game, Tyler Self will leave Kansas with a legacy all his own. One that goes deeper than just being the coach’s kid.