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The Life


ESPN The Magazine: Beyond Blood
ESPN The Magazine

Shortly after 4 a.m. on Dec. 18, 1998, a dark blue Toyota Land Cruiser entered the intersection of 18th and Brooklyn near downtown Kansas City. Against a red light, the SUV quickly swung an illegal U-turn and headed up 18th, only to be pulled over by a police car. Moments later, two officers approached the vehicle and its lone occupant, a pudgy black man in his late 30s. As one officer checked the man’s license, his partner trained a flashlight on the vehicle from the passenger side, eyeing the back seat, then the front. Suddenly, he ordered the driver out of the car.

The driver was Myron Piggie, a former crack cocaine dealer turned basketball hustler, a convicted felon who served time in 1988 before remodeling himself as a successful AAU coach with a fat Nike contract. In the mid-90’s, his CMH 76ers boasted some of the country’s best prep talent, including two brothers from the local hoops scene: JaRon and Kareem Rush.

As Piggie stood outside his car that early morning, berries flashing behind him, his story was about to take another strange twist. But the crossroads he encountered would have more than just personal repercussions. What the KCPD found in his Toyota eventually triggered a federal grand jury investigation into the seedy world of AAU basketball. Piggie’s bad turn would be his own undoing, but it also proved costly for several players and colleges. And it would change the lives of two brothers forever.

***

Born within 18 months and 18 days of each other, JaRon and Kareem Rush grew up in a single-parent household in gritty south Kansas City. They spent their middle school years as each other’s mirror, constantly fighting, hanging off each other, inseparable. Then came basketball. Kareem remembers the days at the Boys & Girls Club on 23rd Street, when he was 11 and trying to imitate his long-armed brother. For JaRon, basketball felt like destiny. By age 14, he was being hailed as the nation’s best in his class, a player of protean athleticism already known for his ferocious dunks. His skills would take him abroad, provide him an education and fuel his dream of playing in the NBA.

Kareem shared the dream too. But the more he played and the more he tried to emulate his brother, the more he felt apart from him. “They’re two totally different people,” says their mother, Glenda Rush. “Kareem’s more laid back. JaRon’s more of a go-getter.” Socially, Kareem kept a low profile; JaRon hit all the parties. In a sense, their games fit their personalities. While the charismatic JaRon thundered to the rack, the shy Kareem deferred to him, floating on the perimeter and knocking down threes. But while their styles differed, the game would become a bond beyond blood, sending the two brothers along distinct paths, then bringing them back together again.

It was through hoops that JaRon met Tom Grant and his two sons. Grant, CEO of the blood-testing company LabOne, became a surrogate dad for the elder Rush, as the brothers’ own father was rarely in the picture. The executive helped send both boys to Pembroke Hill, a small, predominantly white prep school near the Kansas state line. But while JaRon spent many a night at Grant’s Mission Hills home, Kareem preferred to go his own way, bouncing back and forth between his mom’s place and various friends, trying to assert his independence. “Sometimes,” he says, “the only time I saw JaRon was at school.”

By 1995, both boys were balling for the same AAU squad, the Children’s Mercy Hospital 76ers. As the team’s chief financial supporter, Grant hired Piggie, an old Rush family friend, as coach. He paid him $10,000 the first year, $37,260 the next. And with JaRon and Piggie’s cousin, Korleone Young, tearing it up, Nike chipped in for travel. It wasn’t until the summer of ’97, though, that the team really grabbed attention -- not all of it good. Billed as a collection of future pros (Young played a year for Detroit; Mike Miller and Corey Maggette were semi-regulars), the 76ers rarely lived up to the hype, winning just one tourney. But pleased with Piggie’s stable of talent, Nike gave him a five-year consulting contract worth $50,000 per, throwing in $100,000 in shoes and apparel. In just two years, the former crack dealer had hit it big. It wouldn’t last long.

As JaRon entered his senior year at Pembroke in the fall of ’97, he seemed like a lock for Kansas, Grant’s alma mater. The player was already chummy with Jayhawks coach Roy Williams. And Rush’s longtime girlfriend, Sarah Hofstra -- the mother of his infant son -- was a KU student. But after JaRon gave his verbal, Kansas withdrew its scholarship offer when he publicly questioned Williams’ coaching style. The following spring, he signed with UCLA.

Going to school in Los Angeles had obvious appeal. “I was a wild kid, in the public eye all the time,” JaRon says. “Going someplace big seemed to fit me.” As a member of the nation’s top-rated recruiting class, the 6'7" small forward made a quick impact. He started 22 games his freshman year, averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds. But there were drawbacks. For the first time ever, the offense didn’t revolve around him. And it wasn’t long before he felt homesick.

Back in Kansas City, Kareem was now Piggie’s new star, albeit for a different team. Grant had withdrawn his funding after reports surfaced that Piggie was selling Nikes for profit (a charge that contributed to the company canceling his contract in January ’99). So the coach had formed his own squad, the Kansas City Rebels. And by the time Kareem entered his senior season at Pembroke, he had a new designation too: The Man. Alongside his brother, Kareem had won back-to-back state titles. Without him, he won his own, losing just one game all season.

With JaRon nearly 1,400 miles away, Kareem began to enjoy being the center of attention. He also began to rethink the verbal he’d already given UCLA. “I was kind of nervous going into my senior year, because I’ve always been in the back seat,” he says. “But things turned out well. It led me to believe I could do things without my brother. I didn’t want to go to UCLA and be JaRon’s little brother, just like it’s always been.”

As the spring signing period rolled around, Kareem remained uncommitted. For the longest time, he had ruled out playing in-state, but that changed when Duke assistant Quin Snyder landed the top job at Missouri in April ’99. Snyder needed a player to build his program around, and the 6'6" Rush fit the bill. The two had an instant rapport. (They even share the same birthday: Oct. 30.) And by now the distance between Kareem and JaRon was more than geographic -- they rarely spoke that year. So the quiet brother chose sleepy Columbia, where the local airport’s entire baggage claim area is the size of a small garage. Meanwhile, big brother chased the bright lights of L.A., ready for what figured to be his breakout season.

***

KCPD officer David Reyburn stood next to Myron Piggie’s SUV, focusing his flashlight on the man inside. As he scanned the suspect, something caught his eye -- an object wedged between the seat and Piggie’s thigh. Reyburn ordered him out of the car. Then he reached in and found it: a loaded 9mm pistol.

It sounds familiar, really. A man makes an illegal U-turn, then is found with a firearm. But for Piggie, this was different. As a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, he faced a maximum prison sentence of 10 years without parole. And there were complications. After starting up the Rebels, Piggie had made three payments totaling $250 to one of his players, Andre Williams, a former CMH 76er now in his junior year with Oklahoma State. Feeling awkward about the situation, Williams told Grant, who then confronted Piggie. When the coach denied it, Grant went to federal investigators with a tape Williams had secretly recorded, on which the coach reportedly admitted to paying players. Initially, the feds sat on Grant’s evidence -- after all, making a case would be difficult. But the gun bust had changed all that. Now, prosecutors thought they had Piggie penned.

In November 1999, as JaRon was about to embark on his sophomore season, he received some unsettling news. Pulled from practice, he was issued a subpoena requiring him to appear in front of a federal grand jury investigating Piggie back in K.C. Taking a leave of absence from the Bruins, JaRon flew home, his future with the baby blue and gold in doubt.

On Dec. 10, UCLA suspended Rush after he told school officials that he had taken $200 from sports agent Jerome Stanley (though Stanley denied it). Four days later, Missouri suspended Kareem amid rumors he had accepted cash from Piggie. At first, both players acknowledged they had received a few hundred dollars from their coach. But while JaRon shuttled back and forth between home and L.A., Kareem remained in Columbia, expecting to play again soon. After sitting out one game, he traveled with the Tigers to St. Louis for a Dec. 21 contest with Illinois. Then, just as the team was leaving its hotel before the game, Snyder learned of the NCAA’s ruling. Sitting in the hotel lobby with the bus running outside, the coach told Kareem his suspension had been extended to 13 games (later reduced to nine). “He broke down,” Snyder says. “He had his head in his hands. It just all came out. He wasn’t allowed to get on the bus. He had to get his own ride to the game. To me that brought it all home. I’ll never forget that image of that kid.”

While the NCAA’s action got the brothers talking again, the lasting effects of their suspensions could not have been more disparate. Kareem resumed his freshman season in late January, looking a lot like JaRon. There was the same sort of waddling gait -- the arms flexed and ready to do damage. But he was clearly no longer just JaRon’s little bro. Having developed an all-around game, he quickly became a focal point of Snyder’s offense, averaging 15 points and sharing Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors.

In contrast, JaRon couldn’t help but feel his college career was over. The longer he waited to hear back from the NCAA, the less interested in school he became. Finally, on Feb. 1, the word came down: An additional 29 games were being tacked on to the 15 he had already missed. UCLA appealed; the suspension was reduced. Still, when Rush returned on March 4, he had missed a total of 24 games. That same day, he hit a last-second jumper to lift the Bruins over top-ranked Stanford -- the fourth of eight straight wins on UCLA’s way to the Sweet 16. But despite the turn of events, it was easy to see that Rush’s days in Westwood were numbered. “So many people from the outside were getting to me,” he says. “Telling me the NCAA was going to come back and do something else. I hadn’t been going to school, so my grades were down a little bit. I thought my best option was to forget about all that and move forward.”

On April 12, 2000, Myron Piggie was indicted for defrauding four universities -- UCLA, Missouri, Duke and Oklahoma State -- by paying a total of $35,550 to five players. Among the charges related to the Rush brothers, Piggie was said to have made payments, occasionally packaged in Nike shoe boxes, totaling $2,300 to Kareem and nearly $17,000 to JaRon.

The feds’ case centered on the players’ amateur status. By signing letters of intent, they had essentially made false statements -- in truth, they had been paid to play ball. But the feds weren’t interested in packing a couple of players off to jail. They wanted Piggie, a convicted felon facing significant jail time on a gun charge. In May 2000, Piggie pled guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud (the letters of intent were mailed) and wire fraud, as well as a misdemeanor for failing to file a tax return. As part of his plea, the gun charge was dropped. The following May, he was sentenced to 37 months in prison and ordered to pay $256,617 to the four schools.

***

Against the wishes of his family, JaRon declared for the NBA draft within a week of UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss to Iowa State. But things quickly began to unravel. Of the 12 workouts he scheduled with teams, some were disasters, others he missed completely. He was also a no-show at the Chicago pre-draft camp.

Rush thinks his involvement with Piggie hurt his stock, but even more damaging were the rumors about his drinking. When asked what he enjoyed most about college, JaRon smiles and says, “Partying.” Fact is, the kid loved to drink. And although he never really hit rock bottom, the high life took its toll.

On the morning of June 29, 2000, JaRon awoke at his girlfriend’s house in Kansas City, unsure of his next step. He had thrown a draft party the night before, but his name was never called. Over the next several months, he yo-yoed between K.C. and California. Then, on Aug. 15, he was drafted by the Kansas City Knights of the new ABA. He felt good about the prospect of playing at home. He could be close to Sarah and son Shea, and hopefully stay sober. But just one month later, his hometown bliss was broken when he was traded to, of all teams, the L.A. Stars.

Back in the City of Angels, JaRon yielded to his demons. He had trouble cracking the rotation; during one practice, coaches smelled alcohol on his breath and sent him home. Three weeks into his stay, Rush realized he needed help, and checked into Cornerstone, a rehab facility in nearby Tustin. “I felt very depressed,” he says. “I needed to do something.”

The reversal of fortune could not have been more dramatic for the two brothers. Two years ago, JaRon seemed destined for the NBA. Now it’s Kareem who appears headed for the lottery after a spectacular sophomore season in which he led the Big 12 in scoring (21.1 ppg) despite playing part of the year with an injured thumb. Though he’s been up-and-down as a junior, he’s still averaging almost 19 a game -- and it’s tough to forget what he did against Duke in a hard-fought second-round Tourney loss last year. Even with a splint on his shooting hand, he ripped the Blue Devils for 29 points and 8 boards. He was so clutch, Mike Krzyzewski joked about opening up a transfer spot, to which Snyder replied, “Coach K can’t have him. Not even for Jason Williams straight up.”

For all the distance in their lives, the past year has brought the Rush brothers closer than they’ve ever been. Sober since last February, JaRon is driven to prove he can still play, and he wants to provide for his 4-year-old son. “Going out and drinking all night was just tearing up my body,” he says. “I have to be responsible for my boy. I should have realized that a long time ago.” Part of that responsibility means staying close to those who’ve stuck by him. After finishing the Cornerstone program, he began reaching out more -- to his mom, to Grant (who paid for his treatment) and especially to his brother. “I talk to him like twice a week,” Kareem says. “It’s getting better because we’re older. He’s my brother, for godsakes.”

Maybe this newfound closeness helps soften the reality that little bro will most likely wear an NBA uniform before big bro gets the chance. “It will be a good thing,” JaRon says. “I won’t be mad because I know he deserves it.” Such sentiments can’t come easy as he struggles to restart his career. He went to camp with the Sonics last October, surviving until the final cut, but things have yet to turn around. Drafted in the seventh round by the NBDL’s Roanoke Dazzle, he failed to distinguish himself. On Dec. 18, he was suspended one game for punching a rival player in a locker room tunnel. On Dec. 27, he was released after averaging 1.8 points in 14 games. Now he’s back in Missouri, looking to catch on again with the K.C. Stars.

Maybe the latest move will pay off. Maybe not. It almost doesn’t matter for now. Not when you step back from basketball for a moment and see the story through the eyes of a brother. “I could never have imagined it,” Kareem says. “I always thought I would be second-tier to my brother. It’s weird how fate twists things. We’re at opposite ends of the spectrum now. I wish it had worked out for him. But he’s going to make it. I’m not really worried.”

This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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