SAN ANTONIO — Nick Bradford didn’t know he was witnessing a turning point for this Kansas basketball team, nor was the former Jayhawk guard aware the speech he was listening to may be one that lives on in program lore depending on how the events of this weekend unfold.
He did, however, leave the team’s banquet celebrating the program's 120-year anniversary with a rush of adrenaline and more than his share of goose bumps.
“Just listening to it, it got me inspired,” Bradford said. “I was ready to play for him after that.”
The eligibility of Bradford, who played four seasons at KU from 1996-2000, has obviously been exhausted, but the Jayhawk alumnus likely wasn’t alone in feeling that way. One of approximately 200 former players attending the Feb. 3 private dinner, Bradford heard KU coach Bill Self close the evening with a scorching 30-minute takedown of his current squad, which had earlier in the day dropped an 84-79 decision to double-digit underdog Oklahoma State.
It was the Jayhawks’ third defeat at Allen Fieldhouse on the season — something that had previously never happened in Self’s 15-year tenure — and it threw the team’s hopes of extending its Big 12 regular-season conference streak to a national-record 14 straight into serious doubt.
It was also, as multiple players on the now Final Four-bound Jayhawks (31-7) reflect, a day that altered the course of this team for the better.
“Coach Self just pretty much ripped us the whole time during his speech, during the presentation, but honestly it was probably the turning point of the season,” said senior guard Clay Young. “We ended up going on a pretty good uptick after that and we’ve played pretty well ever since.”
Soon after the Jayhawks clinched a Final Four berth with last Sunday's 85-81 overtime victory over Duke, Bradford reflected on the banquet, tweeting he was "lucky enough to witness the speech/chewing out" Self gave his players and noting the team has "played at a different level ever since." In a Friday evening interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal, Bradford shed more light into the tense-yet-inspiring evening.
Here’s how it all went down.
Before the contest against the Cowboys, Self stressed to his players the history of the program, the magnitude of the weekend and the importance of at least showing good effort and progress in the contest they entered as heavy favorites. The Jayhawks’ sluggish start to the game — KU was down 13 at the break — ensured a proverbial wet towel was thrown on the halftime ceremony honoring the alumni from several decades, the same former players who packed the banquet later that evening.
The final scheduled speaker of the banquet, Self took the stage with few knowing what to expect. But the KU coach quickly brought clarity to the situation.
“He made it seem like he really wasn’t looking in (the players’) direction a lot, so he kind of made it seem like he was talking to the people, to all the ex-players and their families and all that,” Bradford said. “But after he started talking, the tone was awkward for most people. ... He didn’t say any curse words, but he did everything that you can say but curse words. He didn’t yell it, but he used a very strong tone.
“For me personally, I loved it, but I could see, and people said afterwards, that they felt kind of uncomfortable. But for me, I’ve been in a locker room so much that it was pretty awesome.”
Self called his players soft. He told them they had enough coaching, facilities and talent to reach their goals on the season but said they were blowing it because of a poor mentality. He lashed out at the team for being arrogant enough to think it could just flip a switch and play good basketball whenever it wanted.
For half an hour this went on, and while the speech concluded with a positive note — Self referenced a late-season stretch the 2007-08 national championship squad went through in which it dropped two out of three games — no one was quite sure how to digest what the KU coach had just said.
“Oh man,” senior guard Devonte’ Graham recalled, “that was one of the most awkward situations I’ve ever been in.”
“Being in front of all the alums and he callin’ us soft, saying that we wasn’t a team, it was definitely awkward,” redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman echoed. “For us to go out and play the way that we did and lose the way that we did, it wasn’t a good look on us or Coach Self, so he had every right to be mad at us.”
“I think Coach Self is unbelievable at doing little things like that,” assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said, “just making sure that those guys feel that they’re letting so many people down besides themselves, that it’s so much bigger than them, that it’s these other guys, that the only reason they’re where they are is because of the guys that played before them. So he says that to them and it didn’t mean as much until Coach was in front of those guys and all those people were there and he said it to ’em again.”
The event ended, and everyone went home. The next day, the players and coaches held what Graham described as a 90-minute “come-to-Jesus meeting” where, again, Self did most of the talking.
“It was man-to-man,” Newman said of that meeting. “(Self) said everything that he had to say, didn’t hold anything back, let us know how he felt, that he wasn’t pleased with us, our performance, our effort. It definitely helped us because, as a man, you don’t want to see the head man in charge upset, not pleased with everyone. It definitely opened our eyes and made us come more together, more as one.”
The light switch didn’t immediately flip on. Road defeats at Baylor and Oklahoma State followed. But the team did win six of its final eight regular-season games to again secure the Big 12, battled through and won the conference tournament without 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike, and rode the red-hot Newman into the 7:49 p.m. Saturday national semifinal against Villanova.
For Bradford, the landmark moment in the season is easy to spot.
“You definitely can see the difference, and the difference is just the consistency,” Bradford said. “There were games before that (Oklahoma State) game where they played hard and were tough and things like that, but they were just kind of lackadaisical in a couple games where they didn’t have that focus. There’s no question that focus and that drive and that passion, what he talked about that night, playing for the name in the front, not the back, you definitely could see that now.
“The way that they’ve finished, it was just like, you definitely knew it was a turning point and his message got delivered.”
Back to the banquet. When the evening came to an end, there was one former player Bradford wanted most to connect with: Greg Gurley, now a color commentator for the Jayhawk Radio Network. Bradford, who just finished his first season as girls basketball head coach at Olathe East, had a question and a request.
“I asked him, ‘Did they tape this and can I please have the tape?’ Because I wanted my son just to listen to the expectations to play there and what it meant to play for KU,” Bradford said. “That’s how juiced and energized I was just from being there. I’m sure the players had enough talking after the game and chewing out that they didn’t want to hear it, but for me it was just cool to see.
“Everybody felt awkward, but I was just energized.”