Lawrence, Kan. — Hundreds of people file through the doors of the 23rd Street Brewery for lunch and dinner every day, most bound together by their unrequited love of ales, IPAs and the Kansas Jayhawks.
A glance at the menu confirms they’re among friends: There’s the “Crimson Phog,” an Irish-style red ale, and “Rock Chalk Raspberry Wheat,” while food choices include the “Danny Manning Marsala Chicken” and “The Bill Self,” a mac-and-cheese dish topped with buffalo chicken tenders.
But as the Jayhawks prepare to play in nearby Kansas City on Thursday for a spot in the Elite Eight, not every conversation has to do with how the team has played.
Many have to do with the behavior of players around campus, particularly star freshman Josh Jackson, a Detroit native who likely is in his final games before making NBA millions. Not only is Jackson a crucial part of a team with national title aspirations, he has also been part of three off-court issues that haunt the Jayhawks — including one case where he threatened to beat a woman who tossed a drink a teammate, then caused more than $1,000 in damage to her car.
The legal woes have caused a divide among one of the most tightknit fan bases in college sports, one side choosing unequivocally to support Jayhawks coach Bill Self and his players, the other struggling reconcile the unsavory headlines with the success.
“I love KU basketball. I love the players and the team,” said Matt Llewellyn, who owns and operates 23rd Street Brewery. “I want to think positive things. I don’t want to think negatively about them.”
Yet even Llewellyn acknowledges his disappointment in some of the recent news.
The flood began in early December, when forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was charged with misdemeanor battery, only to be exonerated later by video evidence.
Things became much more serious about eight days later, when local police said they were investigating a reported rape at McCarthy Hall — the $12 million dormitory next to Allen Fieldhouse built primarily to house members of the men’s basketball team. No suspects have been identified and no charges filed, but five players have been listed as witnesses, including Jackson and star guard Frank Mason III.
During the investigation, drug paraphernalia was found belonging to Bragg, and the sophomore was briefly suspended. That case was settled last month when Bragg was granted diversion.
The case that’s been making the most headlines, though, involves an altercation outside a Lawrence bar in early December. Women’s basketball player McKenzie Calvert is accused of throwing a drink at sophomore guard Lagerald Vick, and their dispute continued into the parking lot, where Jackson allegedly kicked in her taillight and caused other damage.
An affidavit released last week states Jackson threatened to “beat” the woman, prompting many — particularly on social media — to cast judgment on both sides of the dispute.
“We live in a society where everything is done in 140 characters, and headlines, and there’s been a lot of misleading headlines,” said Bob Fescoe, who hosts a sports-talk radio program in Kansas City and spent part of his show discussing the case earlier this week.
“Especially here, there are a lot of divided fans — you have Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State fans, and they’re not budging,” Fescoe said. “If you believe something happened, you’re staying on that side of it, and if you don’t, then you’re staying on that side of it.”
Jackson was suspended for the Jayhawks’ Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal for what Self called “an accumulation” of incidents, and they promptly lost to TCU in a major upset.
Jackson returned to put up flashy numbers in lopsided NCAA Tournament wins over UC-Davis and Michigan State, helping his draft status. If he’s bothered by the legal issues, he’s not showing on the court.
“It’s not easy to have your name across the ticker each and every day,” Self said, pointing out that most of Jackson’s trouble happened months ago and that discipline has long been handed out.
“I don’t think it should be motivation,” the coach added, “but I also don’t think it should be an excuse or a distraction. It’s just sometimes families go through stuff and you got to put blinders on and go at the job at hand, and I think they’ve found their basketball court as their safe haven.”
The issues that have dogged the Jayhawks have created an us-against-the-world mentality.
“Josh is a great kid. We all love him,” said Mason, the team’s senior leader. “We just tell him to focus on the things that he can take care of, and that’s exactly what he does.”
Legacies matter at Kansas, a program founded by James Naismith, the game’s inventor, and where Phog Allen, Dean Smith and Larry Brown made their names. Five national championship banners hang in the rafters at one end of Allen Fieldhouse.
What will the legacy of this year’s team be?
Fans who proudly proclaim “In Bill we trust!” will no doubt remember it for Jackson, Mason and an NCAA Tournament run that could conclude at the Final Four.
Other fans and many outside the program will recall a season sullied by behavior that cast the program in disparaging light.
“I can separate the two. I can separate the two totally,” Llewellyn said, taking a break in his 23rd Street kitchen. “They’re expected to go to the Final Four. But getting there is hard. God knows, we should have a lot more Final Fours under our belt. So I think the fact that they’re in the Sweet 16, they accomplished what they need to accomplish for me to be satisfied with the season.”
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