LAWRENCE — Brett Ballard insists he owes much of his upward career trajectory in college basketball to four Hall of Famers — three inducted for hoops, and one for rock ‘n’ roll.
Ballard, the second-year Washburn men’s basketball coach and former two-year player (2000-02) and seven-year staff member (2003-10) at Kansas, will make his Allen Fieldhouse return when his Ichabods square off with the Jayhawks in a 7 p.m. Thursday exhibition. The Hutchinson native parlayed his playing career — he averaged 1.1 points and 5.1 minutes across 56 career contests at KU — into roles on Bill Self’s coaching staff, including director of basketball operations in his final two seasons in Lawrence.
A lifelong KU fan — he attended the 150-95 beatdown of Kentucky on Dec. 9, 1989, at Allen Fieldhouse, and was hooked from there — Ballard anticipates a smidgen of awkwardness Thursday.
“I would imagine this experience will probably be my least favorite of all of those. Just being on the other side is usually not as fun for opposing coaches,” Ballard told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “All joking aside, it’s a really cool experience for me, but more importantly I’m more excited for our team and for our guys and for our staff and for our fans to get to experience that. I think Allen Fieldhouse is clearly the best venue in college basketball.”
Ballard’s road to WU included a head coaching stop at Baker University in Baldwin City and assistant coaching positions at Tulsa and Wake Forest, both under former Jayhawk great and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer Danny Manning. Throw in his playing days under Roy Williams, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, and Ballard can legitimately identify himself as a disciple of three prolific basketball minds.
That alone has often served as “a foot in the door,” Ballard said, in his pursuit of his lifelong dream of becoming a college basketball head coach.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Ballard said. “I’m obviously proud of what I’ve been able to do, but I know I’m lucky and fortunate to be under their coaching trees.”
As mentioned earlier, though, there’s a fourth Hall of Famer that deserves a little credit here:
None other than iconic frontman Jon Bon Jovi.
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Flash back to April 22, 2008.
Ballard, Self and the Jayhawks were less than a month removed from their 75-68 overtime triumph over Memphis in the national championship game in San Antonio, and those around Allen Fieldhouse were still riding high. Ballard had been to the Final Four before — he played two minutes in the Jayhawks’ 97-88 defeat suffered versus Maryland in the 2002 national semifinals — but this was a different kind of thrill.
Fifteen days after the victory, Self approached his staff in the team’s office and asked if anyone wanted to accompany him, his wife, Cindy, and a couple other couples to that evening’s Bon Jovi concert.
At first, no one jumped at the offer. Ballard saw an opportunity — though, like his coworkers, he was somewhat reluctant.
“I was like, eh, I like Bon Jovi, but I was like, I don’t know, Bon Jovi?” Ballard recalled. “In my mind I wasn’t super amped to go. Nobody else on the staff was super excited to go either, so I could see (Self) kind of lift his head, so I was like, ‘Coach, I’ll go. We’ll go with you.’ ”
So Ballard and wife Kelly made the impromptu trip to Sprint Center in nearby Kansas City, Mo., and much to his surprise, the evening was a hoot.
The group had procured a suite for the concert. Ballard discovered he knew far more of the band’s hit singles than he realized. Bon Jovi himself delivered a shoutout to Self, who received a huge ovation from the concertgoers.
The key to this story, though, is what happened after the music stopped.
“After the concert we went over and got something to eat and had a few, uh, let’s just say Diet Cokes,” Ballard said. “When we’re sitting there Coach is like, ‘Hey, how much are you making right now?’ I tell him what I make and he’s like, ‘Really? We’ve gotta— I think we need to bump you up.’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m all for that.’ ”
A few weeks passed and the two never revisited that conversation. But Kelly Ballard remembered, and when she asked her husband if anything had come of the discussion, he answered no and added it wasn’t a subject he really wanted to bring up again.
It turned out he wouldn’t have to.
“Long story short, he remembered. I got a pay bump,” Ballard said. “We all got a pay bump because we won the national championship, but I like to think it’s because I went to the Bon Jovi concert with Coach that I ended up making a little bit more money the next year.
“So any time there was a concert around I was always suggesting, ‘Hey, maybe we should go attend that concert.’ But no, that was a funny memory and a great night.”
When reminded of that evening, Self mentioned a different lasting memory.
“It was a good time,” Self said. “We actually went backstage and, we really didn’t hang out with him, but we thought he was going to be a party animal and he ended up grabbing one little glass. I was like, ‘Well, this isn’t the Bon Jovi I’ve heard about all these years.’ ”
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Flash forward to Thursday, when Ballard is hopeful his Division II squad can show flashes and perhaps even test the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
“They’re good — really, really good, at every position,” Ballard said of KU.
Ballard came of age within these walls. He was a walk-on guard out of Hutchinson Community College who clawed his way to a scholarship and a spot in Williams’ heart. He was a first-year video assistant without an official title — “I don’t think Coach even knew I was working there,” Ballard joked — who rose to become a key cog in the machine that brought a national championship back to Lawrence.
From Self, Ballard learned more than he can recall in a single interview session, though he’s always envied the KU coach’s ability to know exactly which buttons to push and when.
“He has a great feel on how to psychologically coach guys. He coaches ’em really, really hard, challenges guys and gets ’em out of their comfort zone but has a great feel for when to build them up,” Ballard said. ”... He’ll wear them down, wear them down, but he has a great feel for when to build ’em back up, and it just gets guys to play with a ton of toughness and a ton of confidence.
“That’s a feel. I mean, that’s just an innate ability that he has. We all try to replicate that, but that’s not easy to do.”
Ballard returns to Allen Fieldhouse wearing yet another hat, but from his former boss and the 16,300 that will pack the arena, Ballard should expect the same kind of welcome.
“It’s great to see Brett move on,” Self said. “He wanted to be a head coach and he’s had the opportunity to and we’re all happy for him. He was very valuable. I mean, he was as valuable as any coach we had.
“It’ll be good to see Brett, and I hope the fans definitely welcome him like he deserves to be welcomed.”
WASHBURN AT NO. 1 KANSAS (EXHIBITION)
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Thursday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Records (2017-18): Washburn 22-10, Kansas 31-8
TV/radio: Cox Kansas 22, ESPN+ (online)/KWIC-FM (99.3)
Next: Washburn vs. Oklahoma Baptist, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 9, Bethany, Okla.; Kansas vs. No. 10 Michigan State, 6 p.m. Tuesday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis