When Brett Ballard and his former Kansas University basketball teammates get together, they often discuss the highs and lows of the 2001-02 season — Ballard’s senior season at KU.
“We talk about it quite a bit,” Ballard, KU’s director of basketball operations, said of the campaign in which he, Jeff Boschee, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles, Keith Langford, Drew Gooden and Co. blazed to a 33-4 record, including a 16-0 mark in Big 12 games.
It’s also the season in which the Jayhawks built an early 13-2 lead before falling to eventual national champ Maryland, 97-88, in a Final Four semifinal in Atlanta.
“I’m biased but I feel we were the best team in the country that year,” Ballard said. “That is no disrespect to Maryland. They had a great team and ended up winning it all. I think if we play 10 times, we win seven of them or so.”
Like the Terrapins, who rolled past Indiana, 64-52, in the final, the Jayhawks would have been heavily favored to bury the Hoosiers had they reached the ’02 title game.
“To go undefeated in Big 12 play was unbelievable,” said Ballard, an invited walk-on guard out of Hutchinson High and Hutch Juco.
“We competed hard and played really well almost every time we rolled the ball out there. We scored a lot of points and were really unselfish. I think it was a fun season for us and the fans.”
This time, he won
Life not being fair ... players, fans and media tend to remember the final loss of a season rather than the pulsating victories.
Fast forward to April 7, 2008 when former KU player Ballard — now a 28-year-old member of Bill Self’s Jayhawk basketball staff — watched the final seconds tick off KU’s 75-68 overtime victory over Memphis in the ’08 title game in San Antonio.
“Behind my son being born it was the most surreal feeling in the world,” Ballard said of watching streamers fall from the Alamodome rafters as KU celebrated its first NCAA championship since 1988.
He thought of his teammates who’d come so close as well as guys who preceded him — players like Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn — who watched from the Alamodome stands as the ’08 Jayhawks completed the deal.
“I always felt for Jacque. He never made it to the Final Four. Certainly he was on numerous teams that should have made it,” Ballard said. “I went up to Jacque and said, ‘Hey, I hope this is special for you.’ He looked at me and said he was so excited.
“There were a lot of KU teams that maybe could have — and maybe a few should have — won a national championship and didn’t, but every past player was happy for that (’08) team. Nick and Kirk texted me and called me. Those guys were excited and I know a ton of other players were really thrilled.”
Michael Lee — he had a possible game-tying shot blocked from the corner on KU’s final possession in the 2003 NCAA title game loss to Syracuse — also was a member of KU’s staff last season and earned a long-coveted championship ring.
“I was overjoyed with excitement with a small bit of relief,” Ballard said of beating Memphis. “I’d been through so many of those teams that came so close to winning it.
“All I could think about the night before the Memphis game is, ‘Consistently we’ve been a great program and not won a national championship in 20 years.’ I know that sports is not always fair and certain teams can jump up and win it. I felt we were due. When we did win, I had every happy emotion you can feel.”
The title admittedly was a “dream come true” for lifelong KU fan Ballard. He’s the person, who at age 8, made the drive from Hutchinson with family members to watch KU’s ’88 NCAA title parade in downtown Lawrence.
He was part of another victory parade 20 years later.
“I’ve been a Kansas kid my whole life. My aunt played here for coach (Marian) Washington,” he said of Jan Ballard, who competed for KU’s women’s team in the late 1970s.
“My mom has a picture from my 12th birthday — a birthday cake with ‘Kansas basketball No. 3’ on there.”
Ballard — who played one year at Cowley County CC and another at Hutch Juco — as fate would have it wore No. 3 for the Jayhawks during the 2000-01 and ’01-02 seasons.
“I always wanted to play here. In high school I didn’t think I was good enough,” said Ballard, discovered by KU assistant Joe Holladay, who also landed Ballard’s Hutch Juco teammate, Chris Zerbe, as another preferred walk-on.
“Getting to play here, getting to work for coach Self ... winning a national championship, it doesn’t get any better that that.”
Perseverance pays off
Ballard talked his way onto Self’s staff shortly after his college coach, Roy Williams, left for the University of North Carolina following the 2002-03 season.
“I asked Jerod (Haase) and C.B. (McGrath) for some advice right after coach Williams left and coach Self was hired,” Ballard said of two ex-Jayhawks on Williams’ staff.
“They told me to go talk to coach Self. He was really busy. He had a million things going on. I got two minutes of his time. I told him what I was wanting to do.
“He was cordial,” added Ballard, who remained in Lawrence his year after his eligibility ran out, working as a guest host on the local Rock Chalk Sports Talk radio show.
“But he pretty much had set up his staff. Coach Self said, ‘If you want to come around a little bit, feel free.’ I came around every day.”
Being an unpaid office fixture paid off.
“One of the smartest things I ever did ... before the first home game the coaches were meeting trying to decide who would film the game. I said, ‘I’ll film,’ and so that is how I got my foot in. I’d film home games,” Ballard said.
“Then they started to take me to road games. I helped out that first year as a volunteer. After that, coach put me on the staff.”
Ballard went on to work four years as administrative assistant/video coordinator in which much of his time was spent running Self’s summer camps and clinics.
Last summer he was promoted to director of basketball operations after Ronnie Chalmers stepped down.
“It’s nice to get promoted and get to do so many things,” said Ballard, who is married to the former Kelly Temple, a former track and cross country runner at KU. They have a 21-month old son, Kaden. Brett still organizes KU camps, but also has a hand in academics and travel.
“I can’t do anything coaching-wise in practice, but I can watch and learn as much as I can.”
As much as Ballard loves the front office work, he wants to coach.
“I’ve not decided what level yet,” he said. “I’d love to do it here (but) I understand how the business works. It would be hard to bring a guy in who has no recruiting experience. It’s a very cut-throat business at this level. You have to get players. You have to get talent.
“In order to do that, you need to get your feet wet somewhere and learn how to recruit.”
Self sees Ballard as a future star in coaching.
“Brett has been great for us since he’s been here. He does far more work than what goes noticed,” Self said. “He loves KU, loves coaching, he’ll make a fabulous coach. He’ll be out on the road real soon (recruiting). We’ve been fortunate to keep him this long. He has a bright future.”