NEW ORLEANS — Here was Bill Self’s wife, Cindy, hurrying to embrace him with a grandchild in one arm. Daughter Lauren was up next. And then came his ecstatic mother, Margaret, for the hug of all hugs.
“Oh, Mom,” he told her, “wouldn’t Dad love this?”
In every way, actually, so much so that there seemed to be something poetic or cosmic in the moment.
Not just because his son’s Kansas Jayhawks had won a national title with a 72-69 victory over North Carolina on Monday night at the Superdome, but because of how they did it: with the most prolific comeback (from a 16-point deficit) in championship game history in a game that paralleled the trajectory of their season.
So the son thought about how his late father had grown up in a family that lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and had been taught (and passed down), “Don’t worry about the mules; just load the wagons.”
And he thought about how his father, who died in January at age 82, had valued resilience and toughness ... which we might suppose is the reason the son has always had such contempt for anything considered “soft.”
“He always felt that nothing was ever given; everything had to be earned,” said Self, who became the first coach in KU’s storied history to claim a second national title. “And, so, I think he would be very proud of this team because he knows, without question, they earned what happened tonight.”
So much so that Self reckoned his late father was smiling as he spoke early Tuesday morning. Never mind if he would have been none too pleased about being talked about so much these last few weeks, in particular.
In fact, he would be “really upset with me,” Self said, because “he never wanted to be the center of anything.”
Even his own funeral, it turns out. Only immediate family, he had ordered.
“ ‘Nobody else, nobody else, nobody else,’ “ Self recalled him saying, smiling. “ ‘I don’t want anybody to talk.’ “
So they “actually respected that,” Self said, on “the first one.” But Bill Sr. isn’t going to have any say on the “big blowout party” they’ll have to celebrate him sometime next month.
And as much as he wouldn’t want to be part of the story, there’s no getting around that this is a family tale, too, including the undercurrent that’s been part of this season since his death on Jan. 20.
Two days later, Self’s Jayhawks came back from 17 points down to win at Kansas State. And while Self noted the obvious difference in circumstances, his words that day could easily have been applied Monday night.
That 78-75 victory over K-State, he said then, would have thrilled his father because it was “exactly the way he lived — grind-it-out, make the most of every situation even when it doesn’t look good. That means something to me.”
So did this, of course. For his current players and for his KU players past, including many he embraced after the game.
And for his family, including his sister, Shelly, with whom he has a special bond as siblings who always looked out for each other in their own way.
Like when 5-year-old Bill decided he should try to help Shelly look like Miss America after they’d watched the pageant. Presenting Margaret with some of her hair when she came home from school, he said, “Look, Mom, I made Shelly look like Miss America.” Alas, he used paper doll scissors and pretty well ruined the 3-year-old’s hair ... but he meant well!
And then there was the time in high school that Bill was in a bench-clearing scuffle. Margaret wanted Bill Sr. to go do something, and he just said, “No, he’s going to have to take care of it himself.” Which is when Shelly ran down on the court to take up for him.
“Bill Jr. always said she’s the star of the family,” Margaret said.
So this was about all of that and all of them ... and extra-special for his mother right now.
“She’s so happy,” Self said as KU celebrated on the court.
That reflected both the tenderness of the moment but also the ongoing meaning of basketball in a family whose lives have revolved around the game forever.
“It’s been our life ...” Margaret Self, whose own father was a coach, said at the team hotel on Sunday. “I was kind of brought up in that kind of world.”
Enough so that she evidently holds the family single-game scoring record with 36 points in a high school game back in Okmulgee, Oklahoma (though she’s quick to downplay that as the result of shooting a lot of free throws back when the coach could pick any player to shoot them).
Enough so that she married a man who would always be involved in coaching and who became the longtime executive director of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. Never mind that he struck her as having an “ornery look” when the 17-year-old met him 63 years ago.
You liked the bad boy, quipped her daughter, Shelly, alongside.
“I didn’t want to say that,” Margaret said, laughing, “but I guess I kind of did.”
He was many things, actually, complicated and demanding and fixated on detail but more compassionate and nurturing than some might know. Most of all, she added, “He was the love of my life” in such a way you could only choke up hearing her.
And all the more so to hear her say she thought the end would “just be another time.”
“I’m doing better than I thought I would, but when you have to, you have to; you don’t have a choice,” she said. “That’s the way it is. ... You just have to make a new normal for yourself.”
In this case, with the help of an old normal. As her husband’s condition worsened the last few years, the last time they’d attended games was the 2018 Final Four.
They’d learned to make an event of watching on television, enjoying the privacy of being able to express themselves more than they might in public. Forty-eight hours before Bill Sr. died, he held on for one last game against Oklahoma and was screaming and hollering at the television in his hospital room.
About a week after Bill Sr. died, granddaughter Lauren asked Margaret, “Why don’t you go up to the Kentucky game?”
By habit after the last few years, Margaret said, “Oh, I can’t go.” Then she realized she could. So she went with Shelly to Lawrence for what became an 80-62 clobbering by Kentucky.
But even as Margaret said it “wasn’t a real good one to go to,” Shelly smiled and interjected: “It was the turning point of the season; what are you talking about?”
In fact, that echoed what her brother recently had suggested.
“Some of the biggest wins we had this year were the hardest things we went through,” Self said, adding, “I’d say the Kentucky loss helped us. They came in our house and put it on us. We were humbled. Our record was better than what it deserved to be (17-2). ... We got embarrassed by what a real team looked like. Everybody in our locker room knew that we had a long ways to go because that was a very eye-opening and humbling day.
“And through that, I think that was a catalyst to kind of tell us, ‘Hey, we think we may be OK, but we’re not near as good as we think we are,’ and I do think it helped us.”
KU won six of its next seven, then lost two in a row ... and hasn’t lost since, winning 11 straight to seize the fourth NCAA Tournament title in school history.
And this journey in some ways has been more meaningful than ever to the Self family. After KU beat Miami last week to advance to the Final Four, Self told The Kansas City Star about how he has talked with his father often since his death.
“His absence has actually made it more special,” he said. “Even though I told him today, I said, ‘I certainly wish you were here.’”
So has the presence of his mother, who has found solace in being with the Jayhawks through the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA games in Fort Worth, Texas, Chicago and New Orleans.
“It’s been a godsend in a lot of ways to have people who do care and do want to say something to you,” Margaret said. “It helps whether people realize it or not.”
So did Monday night, when the family shared something bittersweet yet consoling and magical, too. Because Dad would have loved this, but the son could also feel him smiling.