The ball leaves his right hand in a hurried motion. It is rudely slapped from the air by the hand of Ernest Brown, another NBA wannabe ("Knights School," December 21, 2000), who spent last season at someplace called Indian Hills Community College. Brown's block had all the ease of a dad's spike of a Nerf ball jumper in a game of one-on-one with his 10-year-old.
Getting a shot rejected with authority is the ultimate humiliation in basketball. Getting spiked by a guy from Indian Hills Community College is a message: JaRon Rush, the most touted high school player ever to call Kansas City home, will never play in the NBA. He just isn't good enough.
In town to take on the Kansas City Knights as a member of the ABA's Los Angeles Stars, Rush's appearance at Municipal Auditorium drew 5,107 fans on a Sunday afternoon in mid-January. Many came to see the Pembroke Hill star who ripped rims from backboards and dominated the local high school scene from 1995 to 1998. Unfortunately, that's exactly who they got. Rush hasn't improved his game since he spurned Roy Williams at KU and headed west to UCLA.
Rush was heralded by one prep magazine as the best 14-year-old basketball player in America seven years ago. He averaged 32 points per game as a senior in high school and rarely broke a sweat doing it.
Pembroke Hill collected back-to-back Missouri 2A state titles during Rush's junior and senior seasons, which were later ripped away by the state of Missouri when it was discovered Rush had accepted $17,000 from his Amateur Athletic Union coach, Myron Piggie, while still in high school. Pembroke's trips through district and state games were more exhibitions of Rush's magic than competitive contests.
JaRon Rush dominated high school basketball in Kansas City for four years like no one has ever done before or since. In 1998 he was selected by PrepStar magazine as the number one high school small forward in the nation.
Roy Williams thought enough of Rush's talent to pursue him for two years with a KU scholarship. After Rush said he didn't think he'd get enough playing time under Williams' multisubstitute system and was heading to UCLA, Williams publicly washed his hands of Rush.
Like a mascot, Rush leads the Stars onto his hometown court amid cheers from the scattered crowd. A smile crosses Rush's lips as he lopes toward the hoop and lazily lays the ball off the glass and through the twine. It's not until Rush casts his first pregame jumper that you notice his lack of timing. His legs show little spring, and his shot is more of a throw than a fluid stroke. He looks small out there among his teammates -- frail, even.
The first half ends with Rush sitting in the same seat he took after the national anthem. Not until 6:59 remains in the third quarter does Rush check in. He looks nervous and out of place. As Rush flits about the court in search of his man and some sort of rhythm, a member of the media sitting along press row is asked what he thinks of Rush's game. "Pity," is his unemotional answer.
Rush plays only seven minutes, scores two points, and picks up two rebounds and two fouls. Though with the Stars since the opening game this season, he's played only in this game. He did not leave the Stars' bench in the three games following his two-point performance against the Knights.
"It's very painful for me to see what JaRon is going through right now as a young man because he was such a talent here in Kansas City and such a crowd pleaser," says Rick Allison, Rush's high school coach at Pembroke Hill.
"It hurts me to see him over there sitting when he should be out there on the floor," Allison says. "I'd love to see him out there. It's just a time frame now that I think he's going to have to pay his dues. Hopefully, things will work out for him."
Merlin's time frame couldn't help JaRon Rush. The 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame that served him so well against St. Pius X and Pleasant Hill isn't sufficient against NBA has-beens and never-will-bes.
In 28 years as a professional or college coach, Paul Westhead has seen many 21-year-old phenoms come and go. The head coach of the Stars is polite when asked whether Rush can make the NBA. "We need to work on his game, his skills, give him time here and then have a discussion about that," says Westhead. He knows that future NBA players do not ride the bench in a first-year league like the ABA.
Rush remains confident about getting to the big league: "It's just going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. But in the end, hopefully, I'll get there."
Rush left UCLA after only two seasons to enter the NBA draft. "He's a great athlete," Scott Layden, the New York Knicks' general manager, said just prior to last year's draft. "He's a guy that will be able to come in and play guard and have a lot of success." Rush went undrafted.
Kevin Harlan, a veteran NBA play-by-play announcer and longtime Kansas Citian, has followed Rush's career for years. "This kid, when he was playing in high school, was destined to be an NBA star," says Harlan. "And look where he is."
On WHB 810 in November, Rush intimated that he had been blackballed by the NBA and never given a fair shot. "I don't know what he was talking about," Harlan says. "That wasn't the case at all. I just don't think he has the goods.
"Had he gone to Kansas and played for Roy Williams, I can almost guarantee you he would not be in this position right now," adds Harlan. "I think he really needed a mentor. I don't think he got a mentor. It's a very sad story."
A lone autograph seeker greets Rush as he exits the Stars' locker room. Rush silently signs the man's program and then dutifully shakes his extended hand. Rush then turns to walk with his mom and youngest brother down a dark hallway inside the bowels of Municipal Auditorium. Together they search for an exit -- and the light that once shined so brightly for them.