The ultimate KU fan favorites of the Bill Self era
The other night, when I was perusing yet another NBA Summer League box score, a thought occurred to me that inspired a little extra examination.
Why is it that a short story about an average game by new Sacramento Kings point guard Frank Mason III gets a ton of love on our site, while a similar note about former KU forward Cheick Diallo topping 20 points and impressing New Orleans’ coaches entering Year 2 of his pro career draws far less interest?
The answer was easy to find. And it has everything to do with how long the two players were in Lawrence and what they did while they were here.
With Mason, a four-year player and three-year leader who capped his KU career with the best individual season by a guard in Big 12 history, the opportunity for fans to watch him succeed and fail, to share the ride through college basketball’s ups and downs with him, took KU fans on a long journey and provided time for them to feel a true connection with the once-quiet Petersburg, Va., native.
With Diallo, and others like him, the time was short-lived and left many Kansas fans with a ‘We hardly knew ya,’ attitude toward the once-hyped, highly coveted former prep standout.
I’ve long been a believer that the Kansas basketball players who are remembered the longest — and the fondest — are the ones with whom the fans feel a true connection.
Sure, winning a title trumps everything. So, yeah, Danny Manning, Milt Newton, Kevin Pritchard, Chris Piper, Scooter Barry and that gang, along with Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Sasha Kaun and the 2008 crew will always be beloved for bringing home the hardware.
But there’s more to the college basketball experience than cutting down nets. Especially for the fans. And there have been more than a few KU players throughout the decades who have held a special place in the hearts of thousands of rabid KU fans for reasons beyond their basketball accomplishments.
Be them personality traits, hardships, memorable moments or unforgettable toughness and courage, those players have endeared themselves to Kansas fans everywhere for eternity and will not soon be forgotten.
For this exercise, and because KU coach Bill Self last season called Mason the greatest guard he’s ever coached, let’s take a quick look at the most memorable fan favorites of the Self era.
1. Frank Mason III
Heading into his senior season, I’m not sure I would’ve put Mason on this list, let alone this high on it. But then he became the unanimous national player of the year, turned in one of the best seasons in Big 12 history and did it all while being the face of the standard of toughness for all past and future Kansas players. Add to that his sudden rise in the NBA Draft, which came with Mason still maintaining his underdog persona, and you’re talking about a player who every KU fan felt like they knew on a personal level and rooted for like family.
2. Thomas Robinson
This is tied directly to the death of his mother, Lisa Robinson, who passed away unexpectedly during T-Rob’s sophomore season, just weeks after the powerful power forward lost two of his grandparents. At such a heartbreaking time in the young man’s life, the Kansas faithful opened their collective arms as wide as possible and wrapped them around the KU forward, who, beyond using the KU family to help him get through such a tough time, also turned in All-American numbers in leading the Jayhawks to the national title game one year later. The wins were great. But it was the bond created between player and fan — one that later even extended to Robinson’s younger sister, Jayla — that landed Robinson so high on this list.
3. Mario Chalmers
Yes, Chalmers is on this list — and dozens of others — because he hit arguably the biggest shot in the storied history of Kansas basketball. But his status as a fan favorite was cemented long before the 3-pointer to tie Memphis in the 2008 national title game. That, obviously, did not hurt his standing, but more than the shot, or any number of deadly 3-pointers and steals that Chalmers drained or swiped during his time at KU, was the smirk. The look on Chalmers’ face that surfaced when KU had an opponent beaten or when the outcome was still uncertain, but Mario wasn’t, was the stuff of legends and endeared him to KU fans everywhere. It was the kind of look that you loved if it was on your side and absolutely despised with every fiber of your being if you were on the other side.
4. Darnell Jackson
One of the true all-heart players to come through Kansas, Jackson enjoyed the perfect career trajectory, from seldom-used sub as a true freshman to national champion starter as a senior. Sometimes, simply paying your dues along that path is enough to inspire grand appreciation from the KU fan base, but, with Jackson, there was much more that went into it. For starters, his personality. A no-nonsense guy on the court, with a fun-loving and expressive personality off of it, Jackson carried with him that lovable teddy bear vibe, provided that teddy bear came in a 6-foot-8, 250-pound, rock solid frame. As was the case with Robinson, the personal tragedies Jackson endured during his life, both while at KU and after, (his grandmother died in a car wreck and mother later passed away after an overdose of pain pills) tugged at the heart strings of many KU fans and created that deeper connection between the player and the fans.
5. Sherron Collins
The perfect combination of Mario Chalmers’ swagger and Frank Mason’s toughness, with the bulk of his playing career sandwiched right between the two, Collins’ Chicago-style persona and constant willingness to sacrifice his body in any and every way for the KU basketball program in pursuit of the next bucket or victory made him one of the most beloved Jayhawks of the past couple of decades. His passion for the game, ability to play bigger than his size and raw emotion and fiery mentality provided Self’s post-title teams with the perfect leader for the next era. Add to that the huge role he played in delivering the 2008 title and it’s easy to see why Collins was so loved and still is.
Have an opinion about which one of these Jayhawks stands above the rest? Or maybe your guy didn't make this list? Vote here in our fan favorite poll and/or name your guy and why in the comment section below.