Traylor goes from homeless in Chicago to earning KU degree

Jamari Traylor KU

FEBRUARY 2016 – Jamari Traylor is about survival, perseverance, hope and triumph of the human spirit.

Traylor, a 6-8 Kansas senior forward, grew up in the South Side of Chicago, where his father, Jesse, was ultimately taken from his home and imprisoned for life on federal drug trafficking charges. Traylor, who was very close to his dad, became an angry and defiant teenager, finding time in juvenile detention centers and even enduring the harsh realities of life in the bitter Windy City cold, homeless and living in cars and stealing food.

In his darkest moment painfully trying to sleep one night, Traylor wondered if he’d ever survive.

He clung to hope and finally found an escape with basketball and meeting a caring and supportive coach and mentor, Loren Jackson at Fenger High School. Traylor followed Jackson to Julian High and then IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he blossomed as a player and averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game in 2010-11.

Traylor credits Jackson for changing his life.

“My dad was in jail and I didn’t really have a father figure,” Traylor said. “He was my coach and was just around all the time. He kept me in the gym, kept me off the streets, kept me from staying in trouble. He made sure I did my homework — everything. There were times if I didn’t do my homework; he wouldn’t let me practice so stuff like that helped me out a lot because I wanted to play basketball so much.”

Traylor signed with Kansas, but had to sit out the 2011-12 season as an NCAA partial qualifier. He was able to practice after the fall semester, but did not suit up for games or travel with the team.

Four years later, this former homeless kid with the hardened past overcame the odds and was graduated with a liberal arts degree in December. For Traylor, it was arguably the greatest accomplishment of his life.

“(It’s) definitely (great),” he said with a smile. “I never had a graduation ceremony actually, so this will be my first one in the spring, so I’m excited about that.

“I ended up getting a degree because of (Jackson’s support in high school). I appreciate him. He’s always there for me.”

You can bet Jackson, the KU coaches, friends, family and teammates with be there that magical day in Lawrence to see Traylor — donning cap and gown — proudly walk down Campanile Hill with his fellow graduates.

KU coach Bill Self marvels at how far Traylor has come at Kansas.

“There’s a lot of success stories, but the ones that you probably hold truest to your heart are the ones that the deck is stacked against them a little bit, and his deck was stacked against him,” Self said. “The first time that we saw Jamari was by accident. We go down to IMG to look at somebody else, and Kurtis (Townsend, assistant coach) says, ‘Hey, check him out, he looks pretty athletic.’

“He wasn’t a highly-recruited kid by any means. Texas Tech messed with him for a bit and there were a few other schools, but he really didn’t have much of a résumé because he really didn’t play in high school. I think he played one semester maybe, or one year, because he was never really eligible because of his home situations with him being homeless for a while.

“Certainly, that put him behind the eight-ball. But he just kind of fought through it. He went down there (IMG) and did everything he was asked to do to get eligible, and come to find out what he was asked to do did not meet NCAA qualifications. It was not because he got bad information, I just think the person that helped him had no idea that everything he did wouldn’t count because they couldn’t give him those extra two semesters because he was homeless for a year, and I think everybody assumed that would probably be the case.”

KU “lost the appeal for him to be eligible” as a freshman.

“But he’s hung in there, and he’s been great since,” Self said. “To think that he came in a situation where the NCAA obviously didn’t let him play because of a rule, and basically to see him stay after it and finish up (his degree), I think speaks volumes of his character and his want-to. He’s a terrific young man.”

Traylor, who ranks tied for 16th in Kansas history with 107 blocks and was 11th in the Big 12 last season with 1.1 blocks per game, has grown into a “terrific young man” who’s worked hard in the classroom and on the court, where he’s made his name during his career as a valuable high-motor energy player primarily off the bench.

On Jan. 24, 2015 in Austin during KU’s 75-62 victory over Texas, Traylor was involved in a 31-second sequence of non-stop, inspiring hustle plays that had Self gushing, especially over the last one. With Kansas leading 23-21 in the first half, Traylor had his shot blocked before sprinting down court and blocking a Longhorn’s shot at the goal. He fell down and then raced the floor while crashing into a cameraman after trying for an offensive rebound. Traylor got up and then fearlessly dived at midcourt for a loose ball, which he tapped to teammate Frank Mason III, who picked it up and made a layup while getting fouled.

“I thought that was the best play I’ve seen since I’ve been at Kansas,” Self said about Taylor’s dive. “I don’t think there’s ever been a better hustle play than that one.”

Then in a meeting of the top two teams in the polls at the time on Jan. 4 in KU’s 109-106 triple overtime victory over Oklahoma in Allen Fieldhouse, Traylor made two game-changing blocks early in the second half which sparked KU’s rally and had the crowd roaring. First, he soared and grabbed Jordan Woodard’s missed layup with both hands before crashing hard on his back.

A few minutes later at the 16:12 mark and OU leading 54-44, Traylor sprinted down court and swatted Khadeem Lattin’s attempted dunk off the backboard from behind while falling down in what many basketball observers called the block of the year.

“I’m a kid from Chicago, and that’s how we play,” Taylor said. “We just play hard.”

This blue-collar work ethic and endless energy has endeared himself to his coaches, teammates, fans and the college basketball elite like ESPN’s Dick Vitale, who broadcasted that KU-OU game for the ages.

“He’s giving it everything he has,” Vitale said about Traylor’s blocks. “I love kids that give everything they have, play with passion, play with pride, play with feeling, play with intensity, play with emotion.”

Entering February, Traylor was averaging 2.7 points and 3.5 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game, while shooting 50.0 percent from the field and a career-high 79.2 percent at the free throw line. But his game transcends pure points in what he gives the team. Whether it’s blocking shots, setting mean screens, boxing his man out and crashing the glass, diving for loose balls, drawing charges, or stopping his man in the low post, Traylor makes winning plays.

“I just go out there and do what I need to help the team win,” said Traylor, who patterns his game after relentless Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried. “I know on this team, I’m probably not going to be the guy that scores a lot of baskets because we got some guys there, but when I get my chance, I do what I do and trying to do my best to limit my man scoring and rebound and just go hard.”

KU sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham certainly appreciates Traylor’s passion and love for the game.

“He makes plays that other guys couldn’t or wouldn’t think about making,” Graham said. “Like making the block on Lattin’s dunk, pinning the shot on the goal and falling straight on his back, those are things that win games. We need it and he’s our guy to do it.”

Senior teammate Perry Ellis calls Traylor’ motor “tremendous.”

“The plays he makes, we notice them and coach notices them,” Ellis said. “They’re just big-time plays and they really get us going. He brings energy and effort every possession and it makes us all better.”

With six big men on the roster, Traylor’s playing time has diminished this year after averaging 20.4 minutes per game last season. However, he’s never been happier in being a team player and leader while wanting to do everything he can to support the Jayhawks.

“I feel like I’ve been here a long time,” Traylor said. “I know what coach expects of me. I want to help the younger guys out. There’s a lot thrown at you when you first come in. I remember my first practice I didn’t know a thing. Thomas (Robinson, former KU All-American) helped me out and I want to do that for these guys.”

Self loved coaching the selfless Traylor the past five years.

“He’s not the most skilled player that we’ve ever had, and certainly not the biggest. He’s kind of at an in-between size, 6-7, and having to play against big guys,” Self said. “But he always gives us great effort; he’s very, very bright; he understands how to play; and other guys really enjoy playing with him, so he makes the game easier for others.”

From juvenile detention facilities stays and being homeless in Chicago, to bouncing back and earning a college scholarship, to sitting out his first season, to earning his degree and contributing for one of the top teams in college basketball, Traylor has persevered through extreme adversity and shown true triumph of the human spirit.

Graham is amazed over Traylor’s journey.

“His story is just unbelievable,” Graham said. “Coach explained it to everybody early in the season just the things he’s been through and how he’s just overcome so much and how hard he works and just how good of a spirit he is and how positive he always is. He’s just an unbelievable person and for him to overcome all of that to graduate from here and just the things he’s doing with his life, is just (wonderful).”

As Traylor chases national championship dreams, he knows the Allen Fieldhouse cheers will echo in his mind forever. Traylor remains grateful to be at Kansas and have so many people love and care about him during what’s been a life-changing experience.

“It’s definitely been great,” he said. “Growing up, I really didn’t know where I’d be and everything so to be here in a great university like this and being able to play (at KU) with great coaches and with great fans and everybody embracing me with open arms, I just feel this is a second home for me.”

Traylor paused and smiled.

“I’m happy,” he said. “This is going to be a great year for me.”

Article by David Garfield

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One Response to Traylor goes from homeless in Chicago to earning KU degree

  1. Shawnua Wilkerson says:

    Absolutely LOVE Jamari! Jayhawk Nation wants to watch you soar #31. God bless!

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