A festive, feel-good shopping spree tradition that began 20 years ago with names like Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz continued Thursday night at Wal-Mart on South Iowa Street, where players, coaches, managers and family members of the current Kansas basketball team did their part to bring holiday joy to 15 area families.
“I’m a good Santa Claus,” said KU guard Malik Newman as he picked out various colors of Play-Doh for one person on his list.
Broken up into small groups, the Jayhawks took a break from finals, practice and preparation for Saturday’s game with Davidson at Sprint Center in Kansas City to fulfill the wish lists of young children and their parents in conjunction with the Salvation Army.
Using money raised by head coach Bill Self’s Assists Foundation and former KU basketball player Roger Morningstar and his wife, Linda, as a part of the KU Roundball Club, each player was allowed to spend $100 on gifts for each family member on their lists. Each family included an average of four people.
Those were the only rules put on the annual shopping adventure. The rest was up to the players, who pushed carts through the toy section and the clothing department and even checked out the electronics while constantly referring back to their lists to make sure they covered as many of the requested items as possible.
Several Jayhawks, including sophomore Carlton Bragg, who was, by far, the most enthusiastic about letting his followers tag along, shared the experience on Instagram and Facebook Live. Junior walk-on Clay Young was the only Jayhawk to go it alone, while the rest worked with managers or coaches’ wives to find the best gifts possible. Freshman Udoka Azubuike picked out everything from wallets for an 18-year-old — I need something more fancy,” Azubuike said — to an UNO game, while Josh Jackson, Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Landen Lucas kept criss-crossing the toy department, occasionally checking one another’s carts to either pass out praise or criticize the merchandise.
“This is a lot of fun for our guys and for our program,” said KU assistant coach Norm Roberts, speaking in place of head coach Bill Self, who was out recruiting. “Our guys really look forward to this every year, and they actually take it extremely serious. They all want to do a good job and make these families as happy as possible. This is what helps them develop as people and become better men, giving back to others, which is so important. Coach wanted to be here, but after practice he said to the guys, ‘Just have fun with it.’”
While the hour-long shopping excursion proved to be plenty of fun on its own, the Jayhawks made sure to remember the reason they were there and how their efforts would lead to real fun in two Sundays.
“It’s always great to see kids and families smile,” Mason said. “So if we can do that by shopping and getting them things for Christmas, we love to do that.”