IT WAS LAST MAY 23, AND SCHOOL WAS out—for good, thought Brandon Rush. His sophomore season at Kansas completed, he had declared for the NBA draft and was projected to be a late first-round pick. The all-important predraft camp was starting in less than a week, so Rush was back home in Kansas City, Mo., to prepare.
While playing a pickup game, just as he and his older brothers—the family is K.C. basketball royalty—had done countless times before, Rush drove to the lane and threw down a dunk. There was no contact, but he landed awkwardly on his right leg. He heard a pop, but didn't think it was serious at first. "I thought it was just a sprained knee because I popped right back up," Rush recalls. "I ran back down the court, but it started feeling a little funny, so I went to get it checked out." After driving to KU for tests, he learned the diagnosis: a torn ACL, which would require surgery and six months' rehab before he could play basketball again.
Fortunately, Rush hadn't signed with an agent, so for the second time in his life he faxed a letter to the NBA to withdraw his name from the draft. He had originally declared his intent to go pro straight out of high school, where he boarded for two years at basketball power Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., the same school that produced the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady. Rush changed his mind after attending a predraft workout in Houston, faxing that withdrawal letter from the airport on his way home. Despite the near misses, Rush knows the NBA is still his next destination. "I'm going to get there sometime," he says. "I missed a couple times with the knee and coming to college. But I've made good decisions."
The knee might have forced his hand, but this decision may be his best yet. Beside the obvious reason, that his draft stock would have plummeted because of his uncertain health, another year at Kansas was a blessing in disguise, as his mother, Glenda, described it. In 2007-08 he led the team in scoring for the third time (13.3), received his third first-team All-Big 12 honor, regained confidence in his knee and won a national championship, making it easy for Rush to see his mother's wisdom. "You never get to experience things like going to a Final Four," says Rush. "Being back with my teammates, being back with my family, I think it was a blessing in disguise."
It's not the only insight Rush's mother has imparted to her youngest son, though the others tend to revolve around his on-court play. "She gives me pep talks about staying aggressive and taking it to the hole more," says Rush. "Most times it's about taking it to the hole. My mom doesn't think I drive enough." If there's been a consistent knock on Rush—by coaches, scouts and, yes, by his mother—it's that he lacks aggressiveness at times. In losses at Kansas State and Texas this season, he shot well (6 of 10 and 4 of 9) but didn't take the number of shots a go-to scorer should. He found his confidence in the postseason, however, averaging 13 shots and scoring 17.8 points per game in the Jayhawks' final eight wins, dating to a career-high 28-point outburst against Texas A&M in the Big 12 semifinals. Nearly half of Rush's field goal attempts this year were three-pointers, and he actually shot almost as well from beyond the arc (.419) as he did inside it (.448), but by infrequently driving to the hoop he was a distant sixth on the Jayhawks in free throw attempts, with 86. When asked for an assessment of Glenda's advice, KU assistant coach Danny Manning had to agree with her take. "His mom has seen some great players go through that household, so it's hard to argue with her."
Rush is the third basketball star to have grown up under Glenda's watchful eye. His older brothers, JaRon and Kareem, who are six and five years older than Brandon, respectively, led Pembroke Hill to three state titles from 1997 through '99. JaRon, who scored the second most points in Missouri history (3,387), was a McDonald's All-American and played at UCLA; Kareem, who was a state player of the year as a high school senior, starred at Missouri and now plays for the Indiana Pacers. The Pembroke Hill state titles, however, were forfeited after the brothers' AAU coach Myron Piggie pleaded guilty to fraud involving $35,000 paid to JaRon, Kareem and three other players. That incident, and the intense media scrutiny that came with it, soured the Kansas City high school experience for Brandon, who was in junior high at the time.
Rush had his own difficulties early in high school, struggling first with academics and then with ineligibility after the second of his three transfers. He finally found a home at Mount Zion, but by the time Rush arrived on campus at KU, he had acquired a reputation for not working hard and not caring about school. Some of that was drawn from Rush's having attended four high schools; the rest just comes from his naturally laid-back personality. "He's goofy and clumsy, that's how you describe Brandon," says junior guard Mario Chalmers, Rush's best friend on the team. "He's always smiling and talking." During a media session the day before KU's first-round game against Portland State, Chalmers looked across the Qwest Center locker room at his pal, only to see Rush grinning by himself between interviews. "Just look at him, he's smiling right now," Chalmers said. "That's all he does. That's just Brandon."
But Rush revealed a different side in recovering from the knee injury. He showed a maturity and diligence in working his way back onto the court. He missed the season's first two games before easing his way into a reserve role in the next two. But in the Jayhawks' first real test, he played 36 tough minutes against Arizona, scoring 17 points and guarding athletic freak-of-nature Chase Budinger in a 76-72 win. Kansas coach Bill Self credits the rehab for helping improve Rush's work ethic. "I think he had 130 rehab treatments in the summer months," Self said. "He was late—when I say late, [I mean] minutes late—three times. So that, to me, is making progress." Adds Rush, "[Rehab] taught me discipline. Just work hard." Similarly, he dedicated himself to working on his defense. Down the stretch of the Elite Eight game, it was Rush who drew most of the defensive matchups with Davidson's Stephen Curry, who missed eight consecutive three-pointers in the second half. "[Rush] was a great offensive player that wouldn't guard anybody," Self said. "Now he's our best defender."
Rush is also the best at the team-wide obsession Call of Duty, a shoot-'em-up military video game in which the Jayhawks go online simultaneously and compete in the free-for-all mode. It's good for bonding and, yes, it gets very competitive. "B-Rush knows the stages like the back of his hand, so he knows the hiding spots," says senior guard Jeremy Case. "He comes up behind you and kills you."
For better or worse Rush had always been one to carefully pick his spots, with his jumper or the next step in his basketball development. Now, after his postseason play one can be sure that an NBA team will be picking him a few spots sooner.