"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 Jay-hawks 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 Light tournament in Chicago. He mixed together an inspired assortment of jump shots, put-backs and spectacular dunks for a career-high 32 points as the Jayhawks avenged last year's loss with a 90-87 victory.
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 re-bounder 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 advantage."