IMG Academy alum Jamari Traylor overcomes rough childhood to flourish at Kansas
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The window in the back that was always open wouldn't budge, and the key no longer worked in the front door. Jamari Traylor had been kicked out of his home before, but this time his mother was serious.
The anger and angst of a rebellious 15-year-old had become too much.
Traylor couldn't call his father, who was serving a life sentence in prison, and he couldn't stay with his best friend, whose parents had asked Traylor to leave after discovering him asleep on their son's bedroom floor.
With temperatures in the 20s and nowhere to go, Traylor began to walk. Hours passed as he snaked through his neighborhood near 27th and State Street in Chicago's South Side, wearing a baggy, polyester coat with no mittens or earmuffs. It was December of 2008, just before Christmas, and tears welled in Traylor's eyes.
"My fingers and toes were burning," Traylor said. "They felt like they were going to explode. I was literally crying because it hurt so bad. It was the worst feeling in the world.
"I was just so cold."
Traylor came upon a car wash that had been abandoned for months. A white, rusty, 80s-model Buick was parked in one of the cleaning stations, and a window was cracked. The 6-foot-7 Traylor forced it down, crawled through the opening and into the back seat.
Knees at his chest, the high school sophomore draped his coat over his legs, drew his arms up into the sleeves, and attempted to fall asleep.
"If I die tonight," Traylor thought to himself, "would anyone even know? Would anyone care? Nobody cares about me. Nobody cares about me at all."
As a redshirt freshman on the Kansas basketball team, Traylor rarely walks to class without strangers honking their horns and waving.
A few weeks ago he ordered a pizza from Pickleman's, and when he opened the box, a caricature of Traylor blocking a shot was etched on the cardboard. Apparently the restaurant's manager was an artist -- and a fan.
"Everywhere I go, people come up to me and tell me how glad they are that I'm here," Traylor said. "I'm like, 'Really? You're happy for me? I'm just Jamari.'
"The past year has been the best year of my life. It almost feels surreal, especially considering where I came from."
Even with his height and athleticism, no one could've predicted this future for Traylor. Homeless teenagers with drug-dealing fathers usually don't earn high school diplomas. Kids who split time between juvenile detention centers and classrooms rarely end up in college.
And guys who didn't begin playing basketball until they were 16 simply aren't recruited by the second-winningest program in history.
"That's what makes Jamari's story so remarkable," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "If there was ever a kid that had an excuse not to make it, he would be that kid."
More than five months after he was led away from Thornridge High School in handcuffs, 15-year-old Jamari Traylor and his mother stood side-by-side in a Chicago juvenile courtroom, answering questions from a judge.
This wasn't Traylor's first appearance in court. He'd been coming here regularly since that afternoon in December of 2008, when a security guard told Traylor he wasn't allowed to enter his school's gymnasium. Traylor said he thought the man was joking and tried to shove his way past him. Within seconds he'd been wrestled to the ground by four officers, each of them clutching an arm or a leg.
"It was very embarrassing," Traylor says now.
Traylor only a spent an hour or so in a detention facility that afternoon, but the judge wanted to keep close tabs on his behavior, so here he was, back in the courtroom with his mother, Tracey Golson. When the judge asked Golson if her son's attitude had improved, Golson replied that it had actually become worse and that Traylor recently kicked her front door off its hinges. Traylor was immediately sentenced to three weeks in a juvenile detention facility.
As the guards led him away, Golson made one request.
"I told them to keep him in there as long as they could," she said. "It was hard on me, but I saw him going down a bad path, on a downward spiral. I wanted to teach him a lesson.
"I was trying to save my son."
Traylor had hardly been a problem child during his younger years. Even though they weren't married, Traylor's parents lived together and provided for Traylor and his younger brother, Jamani.
"I always had plenty of clothes," Traylor said, "and there was always enough food to eat."
Traylor was particularly close with his father, Jessie Traylor, who was always the loudest parent at Jamari's youth league football games and would shoot hoops on a goal behind the local elementary school with his son.
They also spent countless evenings watching the Chicago White Sox three blocks away from their home at US Cellular Field, where Jessie worked as a popcorn and cotton candy vendor.
Jamari recalled one afternoon when he snuck around the side of an apartment building with some classmates who had a pack of cigarettes.
"My dad just showed up out of nowhere," he says. "I wasn't the one smoking, but he still wanted to get me out of there. It was like he had a tracking device on me, a sixth sense."
Golson says Jessie was more of a friend than a father figure to Jamari.
"I was the disciplinarian," she said. "He didn't have it in him to whup his kids."
I told them to keep him in there as long as they could. It was hard on me, but I saw him going down a bad path, on a downward spiral. I wanted to teach him a lesson. I was trying to save my son.
--Tracey Golson, mother of Kansas forward Jamari Traylor
According to Golson, Jessie had been arrested twice on drug-related charges, which made it difficult for him to find a well-paying job. No one wanted to hire someone with his criminal record, and hocking peanuts at baseball games wasn't paying the bills.
Feeling pressured to make money for his family, Jessie resorted to selling drugs in his neighborhood each time he got out of jail.
"He felt like that was the only option," Golson said. "It was usually only small, little bags. But each time it got him in trouble."
In June of 2008, Jessie disappeared. Jamari dialed his dad's phone number each day, but no on ever answered.
"I thought he might have been dead," Traylor said.
More than five months passed before the family received word that Jessie had been arrested on federal drug trafficking charges and was imprisoned nearly two hours away in a prison in Ford County in Illinois. Jamari and his mother immediately went for a visit.
Jamari had seen his father in prison a few times before. But as he picked up the phone and looked through the glass partition that separates inmates from visitors, Traylor sensed something was different.
"You doing OK, Dad?" said Traylor, then 15. "When are you getting out?"
Jessie's eyes were red, his voice soft. He'd yet to receive his sentence, but with two prior convictions, he knew what his future held.
"I'm not getting out this time," he said. "I'm gonna get life."
Jamari turned to his mother and asked if his dad was joking. She shook her head. Security guards rushed toward Jamari and attempted to restrain him as he screamed and wept uncontrollably while his father rose from his chair and headed back to his cell.
"I bawled the whole way home," Traylor says. "I was just so sad for him. And I was sad for myself, too, because I wasn't going to be able to see him anymore."
According to public court records, Jessie Traylor was charged with conspiracy to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and two counts of using a telephone in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime.
The documents indicate that Jessie acted as the middle man in a drug ring -- a "runner" -- by transporting the cocaine and cash between Chicago and Decatur, Illinois, on a Greyhound bus.
A grand jury found Traylor guilty of all four counts in September of 2009 and he was sentenced to life in prison in June of 2010. He is now incarcerated in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Traylor filed a Notice of Appeal arguing that the government presented insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction, but the appeal was denied.
Considering his close relationship with his father, perhaps it was no coincidence that Jamari's attitude and behavioral problems surfaced soon after his father went missing.
He cut classes, his grades began to slip and fights were commonplace. Things weren't any better at home, where Traylor treated his mother with the same disrespect and flippancy as his teachers and classmates.
When Tracey asked her son to do a chore around the house, he acted as if he didn't hear her and kept playing his video games. They got into screaming matches about his grade and attendance issues at school, and Traylor began taking joy in picking on his younger brother, Jamani.
On one occasion, Traylor was so relentless with his bullying that he provoked Jamani into taking a swing at him. The punch landed awkwardly and resulted in a broken wrist for Jamani, who was in elementary school at the time.
"Jamari just quit listening to me," his mother said. "He had gotten big and tall and strong, so he thought he could act however he wanted. I'd tell him to do something and he wouldn't do it. Finally, I called one of my nephews to come over. I said, 'When you come in, I don't want any talking. I just want [fists] flying. I'm tired of this.'
"He came over and handled business. It was hard to watch, but Jamari needed it."
Still, not much changed.
Golson said her son wasn't doing drugs, drinking or gang-banging. He was simply "acting out" during a period that would've been rough on almost any teenager.
To make matters worse, Golson had been laid off from her job as a licensed plumber. Money was so scarce that Traylor only had a few sets of clothes, which often led to teasing from classmates.
"You're wearing that shirt again?" they'd say.
"It seemed like he was losing it," Golson says. "He was just so angry."
The more difficult things got at school, the worse they became at home. Traylor said he felt like a "ghost" in his mother's house and that he resented her for the way she used to hound his father about not making enough money.
"I felt like she put a lot of pressure on him, which caused him to make some of the decisions that he made," Traylor says. "We didn't really talk, and if we did, we were arguing. One day she got so tired of me, she decided she didn't want me there anymore."
After Traylor refused to empty the trash one night, Golson had had enough. She'd kicked her son out of the house a time or two before, but this time, Traylor said she took things a step further by changing the locks on the doors. In the past he'd crawled through a window to take a quick shower and grab a change of clothes, but now it was locked, too.
Golson also called the parents of his best friends, pleading with them not to let Traylor stay at their home, even for one night.
"I didn't want him to think, 'Oh, I can just go stay at so-and-so's house,'" Golson says. "I wanted him to value his home."
The strategy worked. One evening Traylor became so frustrated and cold that he went to his mother's house and kicked the door off the hinges. Golson called the police.
"They came and got me and told me to leave," Traylor says. "I was like, 'Man, I'm 15. I'm supposed to be living with my mom, right?' I just walked away. I gave up on trying to piece things together."
It wasn't long before Traylor began spending his nights in the backseat of that Buick at the car wash. Other times he slept on the floors of abandoned buildings, where busted-out windows were covered by cardboard.
The incident with the security guard got Traylor kicked out of Thornridge, but by then he had basically stopped going to school anyway. If he showed up at all it was usually only for lunch period, when he could bum food from friends in the cafeteria. At night, when he was hungry, Traylor resorted to desperate measures.
"There were some gas stations nearby," Traylor says, "and sometimes I would just go in there and steal me some food, some potato chips or whatever. It was hard to take too much at one time [without being caught]. I was just doing what I had to do."
It wasn't long before someone stepped in to help.
He was enrolled for just one semester, but the time that Jamari Traylor spent at Fenger High School in Chicago may have changed his life.
It was there that Traylor met Loren Jackson, a well-respected basketball coach that had worked with such Windy City stars as Sean Dockery, who played at Duke, and Lance Williams (DePaul).
Traylor had never played organized basketball when Jackson asked him to come to the gym for a workout during the spring of his sophomore year.
"Looking back on it now, I was probably the worst basketball player in the world," Traylor says. "I had no idea what I was doing. But [Jackson] said he liked me and that I had potential."
The following season, Jackson was hired as the head basketball coach at Julian High School, and Traylor decided to transfer there to play for his new mentor. After just a few games, students began approaching Traylor in the hallways to show him pictures of himself that had appeared in that morning's paper. All of a sudden, a kid who was in a juvenile detention center a few months earlier was being asked for his autograph, and Traylor's name had become common on websites devoted to Chicago-area basketball.
"I looked at one site and saw that I was ranked in the 50s," Traylor says. "It may have been low on the list but, to me, it was something."
When Traylor checked back a few weeks later, he was in the 40s. Then it was the 30s, 20s and, eventually, the top five.
But Jackson wouldn't let Traylor become complacent.
He made sure he went to class each day and popped in on after-school study halls to see if Traylor was there. As the school year wore on, Traylor's grades began to soar, his attitude changed and he mended his relationship with his mother, who was back on her feet again with a new job replacing bumpers at Ford Motor Company. Before long, Tracey was showing up at games wearing her son's jersey.
Many of Traylor's evenings were spent at the home of Jackson, who Traylor said often provided him with clothes, a warm meal and, occasionally, a place to sleep.
In the summer, Traylor played for Jackson's AAU team, "Mean Streets." Also on the roster was 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis, who starred at Kentucky.
"Jamari just needed someone to show him that they cared, to show him how to be a man," Jackson says. "His mom allowed me to be a surrogate father for him. If we needed to stay up until 4 a.m. to finish a paper, we stayed up until 4 a.m.
"I kept trying to explain to him that this gift he had could change his life, his family's life."
The message was apparently received.
After just one season at Julian, Jackson was hired to coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. When he asked Traylor to join him, the blossoming 6-foot-7 forward didn't hesitate.
"I would've followed him anywhere," Traylor says of Jackson. "I looked up to him so much. For him to come out of nowhere and help me like that … I mean, I didn't owe him anything.
"At times I couldn't help but think, 'Why does he care so much? Why is he doing this for me?'"
As Traylor developed his skills at IMG, schools such as Indiana, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were quick to offer scholarships. Jackson, though, had been close with Self for years and convinced him and his assistants to take a look at Traylor when they were on campus to recruit DeAndre Daniels, who ended up signing with Connecticut.
Self loved Traylor because he was "bouncy" and athletic -- and because he played with a mean streak. KU flew Traylor to Lawrence for an official visit and, after a weekend spent with stars such as Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, Traylor knew where he wanted to go to college.
"Everyone was so close with one another," Traylor says. "It was like a family. That's what I wanted, what I needed."
For Traylor, the final step was receiving a qualifying mark on the ACT. He still remembers the afternoon at IMG when he received his score in the mail.
"I was aiming for a 17 and I got a 21," Traylor says. "I opened the letter right there at the mailbox, saw the score and ran three blocks to Coach Jackson's house. I was excited because we'd worked so hard.
"I'll never forget what Loren Jackson did for me. If it wasn't for him, who knows what I'd be doing right now."
Usually, after she attends one of her son's games, Tracey Golson hurries away from Allen Fieldhouse, walks across a parking lot to Jayhawker Towers and waits for her son in his apartment. Earlier this month, though, she stuck around and filmed Jamari signing autographs for the hundreds of fans who wait for KU players as they leave the locker room.
The next morning Golson put the video on Facebook, which features pictures of her and her son.
"This whole thing is just surreal to me," Tracey says. "I think back to where he's been and where he is now, … I mean, that's my baby. I couldn't be any more proud."
After sitting out last season while the NCAA examined his high school transcripts, Traylor is now averaging 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds for the No. 4 Jayhawks. As the first forward off the bench, Traylor is playing 12.3 minutes per game, an impressive figure for a guy who didn't pick up the sport until three years ago.
"I love his motor," Self says. "He makes our program better. He catches onto things really quickly. Jamari's upside is very, very high."
As good as things are going on the court, life for Traylor off of it is even better. He's surrounded by a group of players who consider him a brother, a fan base that adores him and a coaching staff that will look after him and not let him fail -- just like Jackson back at IMG.
Traylor and his mother are closer than ever, and whenever he gets a collect call from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Traylor always accepts. Traylor hasn't seen his father in nearly four years, but the two talk regularly. According to Traylor, Jessie and other inmates gather around the rec room television to watch each of Kansas' nationally-televised games. One day, Traylor says he hopes to have enough money to hire a lawyer to work on an appeal that would give his dad a chance to be free again.
"There's always hope for anyone who keeps grinding, and Jamari's a grinder," Self says. "He just needed someone to believe in him. Coach Jackson did at IMG, and we believe in him here. He's getting ready to have an unbelievable life."
In some ways, Traylor already does have one.
He realizes it every time he thinks back to those nights in the Buick, when the bite of Chicago winter stung the fingers and toes of a homeless teenager, or the times he stole food from gas stations or was made fun of for the ratty clothes he wore for days without changing.
"Sometimes," Traylor says, "I'll think I'm having a bad day, and Coach Self will say, 'Jamari, you can't ever have a bad day. Considering where you come from and where you're at now … it will never be as bad as how it was.'"
"Coach is right," he says. "Being here is completely different. I don't have to worry about having a roof over my head. I don't have to worry about food. I don't have to worry about anyone doing anything crazy to me. People here care about me.
"They really care."
Photo by: Kansan.com