A dream come true
Chalmers headed to Final Four for real
Almarie Chalmers stood and watched her son, Mario, snip his rightful piece of the net at Detroit’s Ford Field on Sunday, commemorating his trip to this weekend’s Final Four.
She knew as well as anyone how much this moment meant to the Kansas University junior guard, the Jayhawks’ most mysterious star. She was watching as the dream began.
“I know at 2 years old, 3, 4, 5, he played Final Fours in the living room,” she said of her youngest child. “He had imaginary playmates. Michael Jordan, Magic (Johnson). He was always Mario. He played against them. And I think he won most of them.”
Several years later, he returned to the Final Four, this time for real, as a spectator. Watching UConn’s 2004 run to the title in San Antonio, he turned to his dad, telling him that one day it would be he on the floor chasing a championship.
Now it’s his turn. Not using his imagination in the house. Not dreaming from the stands.
The timing couldn’t be better. It comes at the end of a season during which Chalmers has made a subtle yet big jump. While he still is the epitome of quiet and collected off the floor, his game has evolved.
“I think he’s playing a lot more freely,” said Mario’s father, Ronnie, who has coached his son from the start, now as a member of the KU staff. “I think this year that he understands the system a lot better. He understands that when his turn comes to shoot, if he’s open, coach wants him to take that shot.”
The freedom comes from not only getting back to playing the style of ball that originally put Chalmers on the map, but being able to blend in on a team full of former prep royalty.
“He’s probably better off not getting the attention, because that’s just who he is,” Ronnie said. “He doesn’t care who gets the accolades, as long as we win.”
No longer Trajan’s tundra
It’s not much of a surprise that Mario Chalmers, like most basketball fans growing up in the ’90s, idolized Michael Jordan, even though the NBA is a long way from Anchorage, Alaska.
Enter Trajan Langdon.
For the longest time in Anchorage, Langdon was the standard. Still is, to an extent. Ronnie Chalmers was an assistant coach at East Anchorage High when Langdon was coming through. The McDonald’s All-American led East Anchorage to a state title in 1994 before starring at Duke and eventually heading off to the NBA.
Ronnie would bring Mario, then 7, to practices. Once practice was over, Langdon and Mario would take over the floor. They took turns feeding each other the ball for shots.
“I think that attention that Trajan gave Mario really inspired him to think, ‘One day I want to be like Trajan,'” Ronnie said. “Michael Jordan was his idol, but being around Trajan day in and day out, he was right there where you physically touch someone, and I think it had a big impact on him.”
Confirmed Mario: “Being around him, working out with him, seeing the kind of work ethic he had, I just wanted to emulate him.”
Emulate him he did. Just as Langdon had done at East Anchorage, Chalmers became the cornerstone of a dynasty across town at Bartlett High. Chalmers won two state titles and became the second player in state history to earn the 4A Player of the Year honor three times, duplicating Langdon’s feat.
“(Trajan) is pretty much the first one that made it big in basketball from Anchorage,” said Doug Hardy, one of Chalmers’ best friends and teammates since the age of 7. “Now, I think Mario’s overshadowed his name. If you asked right now about basketball (in Anchorage), I think Mario’s got him beat.”
Hardy, who recently played in the Division II Final Four for University of Alaska-Anchorage, never had a doubt about his friend’s goals.
“They say (in roulette) you’re not supposed to gamble all your money on black, but if black was basketball, he put it all on black,” Hardy said.
Hardy recalled childhood slumber parties with his best bud, which usually included shooting hoops in the Chalmers’ back yard for much of the night, or playing any of the “5,000 basketball video games” in Mario’s bedroom.
Despite his rising stardom as a prep, Chalmers remained soft-spoken. He wears the words “quietness” and “confidence” in ink under his wrists. His pastor, Tobitha Lawrence, always preached the value of those qualities to him, Chalmers said.
“I think his strength comes from his quietness,” Mario’s mom said. “In high school, he had to be more vocal. But here, because he has so much support around him from other teammates, he can afford to be quiet, because there’s other people who understand his quietness. But quiet doesn’t mean he’s disappeared. It means focused.”
The real Mario Chalmers
Darrell Arthur’s turnaround jumper fell off the front of the rim, and three months later, he fully admits Mario Chalmers was the last person he expected to be there.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was Brandon (Rush) or somebody,” Arthur said.
It was in a Dec. 18 victory at Georgia Tech, when Chalmers followed an Arthur miss with a vicious one-hand slam that stunned teammates.
The 6-foot-1 guard rose over two Yellow Jackets, finished the slam, kicked his leg high in the air, flexed his arms and let out a primal scream that was picked up in all its fury by ESPN microphones.
“When he did the kick and the leg, that motion, that was quite emotional,” Almarie said. “My mouth stood open. I was like, ‘I know that’s my son, but wow!'”
From that point on, Chalmers began going for the kill at the iron more often. It’s not to prove a point.
“Coach (Bill) Self told me (before the season) I have to get back to playing my game,” Chalmers said. “I think that’s just my game, getting to the rack and trying to explode on people.”
It was his game at Bartlett, dating to when he first slammed on someone as a ninth-grader against Kenai High. But for whatever reason, Chalmers, by his own admission, only showed flashes of it as a freshman at KU. Then as a sophomore it practically disappeared.
“He’s been getting up this year. He got his bounce back this year,” Arthur said. “He had the bounce in high school when I saw him play a couple of times.”
Chalmers’ ‘game’ didn’t magically reappear, though. Part of it was him having to take initiative this past summer in the weight room with Andrea Hudy, KU’s strength and conditioning guru.
There were Olympic weight-lifting drills which mimicked jumping and running. The clean and snatch, plus the jerk helped add strength to the hips, knees and ankles. There was boxing for agility and footwork. There were hours of plyometrics.
“There’s a thousand ways to skin a cat,” Hudy said. “And we did them all.”
And on the stat sheet, Chalmers’ game took off across the board.
Entering Saturday’s game against North Carolina, he’s averaging career bests in points per game (12.7), field-goal percentage (52.2), three-point percentage (47.6), rebounds (3.1) and assists (4.4) in almost the same amount of minutes he played per game as a sophomore.
Most notably as a junior, Chalmers has emerged as the go-to-guy on a team that doesn’t necessarily need to have one – a byproduct of becoming a true leader.
His big-play knack surfaced in the final minute at Southern Cal on Dec. 2 with a deep three-pointer to clinch a 59-55 victory. He buried eight three-pointers (en route to a career-high 30 points) in a memorable 84-74 victory against Texas on March 16 in the Big 12 title game.
He also was given the reins in two of KU’s three losses this season on the final possession: at Texas on Feb. 11 and at Oklahoma State on Feb. 23.
“Mario’s probably the biggest clutch player I’ve played with throughout my career in basketball,” Arthur said. “When we need a big-time bucket, we go to Mario, and he makes things happen.”
Echoed Brandon Rush: “At the end of the game, we want the ball in his hands because he makes plays.”
The next step?
Chalmers’ plans for next season are not yet determined. His overall improvement in the Jayhawks’ second straight 30-plus-win season has brought the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go question into play. His play has pushed Chalmers to the forefront. His name pops onto various mock drafts as a potential late-first-round pick in this June’s NBA Draft.
Chalmers holds all the cards. College players are able to declare for the draft, test the waters without hiring an agent and still come back to school once.
“He’s ready (physically). I wouldn’t think there’s a question,” said Hudy, without hesitation, having already prepped the likes of Ray Allen, Caron Butler and Richard Hamilton for the pro ranks in her career. “He’s committed to being a basketball player.”
The same opinion is offered up by Rush, who would be in the NBA if not for last summer’s knee injury.
“I think he’s ready, because he’s got the perfect body, he can play either position – he can play the point, he can play the two-guard,” he said. “I think he’s pretty much ready.”
But first things first.
About 30 minutes after cutting the net in Detroit, Chalmers plopped down in the spacious KU locker room, ready to take questions.
The answers, as usual, are short, simple and to the point.
Like Langdon, he’s going to play in a Final Four. Like Michael Jordan, he could soon be a national champion. He’s going up against North Carolina, the school he grew up a fan of and where he wanted to play one day.
But you won’t hear that out in the open. It wouldn’t be Chalmers’ style.
“It feels great to finally get there,” Chalmers said. “I watched my first Final Four in San Antonio, and to actually be going back there to play my first Final Four is pretty amazing. I never thought it’d be in the same exact spot, but I had faith I’d be able to go back to the Final Four.”
The Jayhawks and the Final Four
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- The Big 12 & the Big Dance (04-02-08)
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- Self dismisses interest in OSU (04-02-08)
- Self ‘not a candidate’ for OSU job (04-02-08)