Annual summer camps benefit both KU players, young campers

by Matt Tait

With the start of summer school and team workouts and NBA Draft talk dominating the month, June tends to fly by in the world of Kansas basketball.

But each year and pretty much for each player on the team, June also is about working camps and interacting with young fans.

From back-to-back weeks of Bill Self camp early in the month to camps held by some of the smaller colleges in the area, the Jayhawks use part of the busy summer month to get out and promote the program by hanging out and having fun with some of their smallest and youngest fans.

Last week marked the end of Washburn basketball camp in Topeka, and, with Ichabods head coach Brett Ballard being a former KU player himself, it’s even easier for current Jayhawks to make the trek down I-70 to spend some time at camp. Getting those players around young athletes who might not otherwise be able to see them is one of Ballard’s favorite parts of the summer.

“A lot of these kids just don’t get to see these guys in person so just to interact with these guys, face to face, is really cool for them,” said Ballard, who last weekend, after his first season with the school, was named the KBCA Men's 4-year college coach of the year after leading Washburn to a 22-10 record and its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2012. “I appreciate those guys taking their time out of their busy schedules to come over and hang out with the campers. I think that part of it’s cool.”

Nearly every current Kansas player made his way over to the Washburn camp at some point during the past few weeks, often making the trip in pairs or small groups, which merely increased the amount of joy they brought to the gym.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ballard said the biggest draw for his hundreds of campers without question was KU big man Udoka Azubuike, who announced late last month that he would return to Kansas for his junior season.

Azubuike had a monster season as a sophomore, earning and all-Big 12 nod and leading the country in field goal percentage while dunking anything and everything he possibly could.

“The kids like Dok because they have seen him probably more than most of the other guys,” Ballard said. “And also because he’s a giant. They love being around Dok and seeing him. Some of these kids are huge KU fans and these guys are like their heroes. They absolutely adore these players.”

Having Azubuike in the gym was not just big for the young people, it also served as a bit of a reunion for Ballard, who spent a couple of years recruiting Azubuike out of high school when Ballard worked on Danny Manning’s staff at Wake Forest.

Ballard also recruited current KU freshman Devon Dotson, “pretty hard,” and enjoyed the chance to catch up with him, as well.

“That was pretty cool to get to be around those guys again,” said Ballard, who was a KU walk-on for two seasons from 2000-02 and also spent time on Bill Self’s coaching staff after graduation. “But just in general, I’ll always be a KU guy, I love getting to spend time around these guys and I appreciate them coming over to do it.”

There is, of course, incentive for the KU players to make the trip to any camp they work and Ballard said the ability to compensate them for their time, efforts and the smiles and memories they help create was another aspect of the camps that he enjoyed immensely.

“It’s a great way for me to give back to the program a little bit, too, because we can legally pay these guys to work camp,” Ballard said. “I like that part of it. It’s a legal summer job they can have and they deserve to have and it works out great from that standpoint.”