by Peter Walsh

When Kansas’ star shooting guard Ben McLemore was growing up in St. Louis, he wasn’t envisioning himself winning the Big XII Championship and gearing up to play in the NCAA Tournament for the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks. The idea that he would be mentioned in the same breath as Jayhawk legends like Paul Pierce and Danny Manning would have made his head spin. The mere thought that he would be discussed as the possible number one pick in the 2013 Draft wasn’t even on the young man’s radar.

No, a teenage Ben McLemore was concerned with figuring out where his next meal was coming from.

McLemore, arguably the best player in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, grew up in a small 600-square-foot abode in one of the poorest sections of St. Louis. At any given time, up to 10 relatives would stay with Ben’s single mother and his five other siblings. McLemore’s mother worked low-paying jobs around St. Louis, but it wasn’t enough to provide for the family and they lived primarily on food stamps. On some occasions, the McLemore’s faced the daunting decision of whether they would eat or have to sell the stamps to keep the lights and hot water on. In the event the stamps were sold, the family would go days without eating.

It’s a time Ben remembers clearly: “You get those hunger pains,” McLemore told writer Eric Prisbell in his outstanding USA Today piece. “I am so hungry. We don’t have any food. What are we going to eat? Your stomach hurts. Then you get so upset and mad, like, no food. You start having tantrums and don’t want to do anything. You get mad at everybody because you don’t have any food. That’s what happens when you don’t eat. You are so sluggish. It’s just bad, man.”

In the spring of ’08, McLemore’s situation went from bad to worse when his oldest brother, Keith Scott—Ben’s idol, role model and mentor both on and off the court—was locked up for a 15-year bid. At the age of 15, Ben, still a soft-hearted child, took on a role suited for a grown man. His bother now gone and not coming back, Ben was the man of the house. With the unbelievable pressure of familial responsibility and an empty stomach interfering with his train of thought, McLemore didn’t give into the temptation of the streets and continued to hone his game, working on the drills taught to him by his brother during his formative years.

Prior to his junior year of high school, McLemore wasn’t on the radar of any major college programs. In a fateful turn of events, he attended a camp at Kansas University during the summer and unsurprisingly caught the attention of the Jayhawks coaches who were eager to learn more about the soft-spoken shooting guard with incredible athleticism. KU offered him a scholarship and after attending Oak Hill Academy (VA) and eventually graduating from Christian Life Center (TX), McLemore was declared a partial academic qualifier at Kansas, meaning he would redshirt and only be allowed to practice with the team during his freshman year.

While practicing against future pros Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor and getting his grades up, McLemore was an anonymous freshman to the rest of the Big XII who had no idea just how good Ben really was. Sure, head coach Bill Self and Co. knew they had a dynamic player, but there’s no way they could have predicted this kind of success. This past season, as a redshirt frosh, McLemore literally came out of nowhere to take college basketball by storm. “That year sitting out helped me a lot,” says McLemore. “Just watching my teammates go out there and give their all and watching the things they were doing and learning from them. It helped me mature and gave me a step ahead of everyone else this year.”

That learning experience translated into 16.4 points (the most ever for a Kansas freshman) on 50 percent shooting and 5.4 rebounds per game, a plethora of highlights, comparisons to future HOF player Ray Allen and chatter among scouts as a surefire NBA prospect and potential No. 1 pick. That much shine can certainly get to a 20-year-old’s head, but coming from humble beginnings, McLemore stays focused on getting better and working towards his ultimate goal of putting his family in a better situation. “I think I’m playing good, I can get better,” says McLemore. “I just have to keep playing my game and keep going out there and be aggressive like my coaches want me too.”

That aggressive play his coaches want to see more of speaks to McLemore’s warm personality. For someone who has seen the worst society has to offer, he has every reason to be mad at the world. Instead of holding a grudge, though, Ben is a soft spoken, positive by nature, selfless individual who truly enjoys being a member of the Jayhawk community. When strolling across campus toward Allen Fieldhouse, he is often stopped for pictures and autographs from his adoring classmates and he complies with a smile on his face. “It’s been a great experience coming from St. Louis to Kansas University,” says McLemore. “It’s been a big difference but I just came out here and have been myself. I wouldn’t try and change who I am, I just came out here and have just been Ben.”

At 6-5, 185 pounds, “Air McLemore” can beat you off the dribble with an explosive first step, hit the midrange jumper, knockdown the three or dunk in your face. He is the total package and is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. McLemore showed the full arsenal against West Virginia earlier this month with 36 points on 12-15 shooting that broke him out of a February slump and has been on fire ever since. It’s during moments like those against WVU—when McLemore is in all his glory—that the reality of his situation becomes that much harsher. Despite millions of KU fans cheering his name, NBA execs clamoring for his services and the NCAA making money off of his talent; his mother remains unemployed, his brother is still in jail and his family is counting on him to save them from intense poverty—an enormous amount of stress to put on a 20-year-old kid.

Still, McLemore takes it all in stride and he and the rest of the Jayhawks are ready for the Dance. With a talented and experienced roster boasting four senior starters plus McLemore, the No.1 seed Jayhawks have a great shot at advancing to the Final Four, a place Ben never thought he would be in as a child. “I never thought I would be in this position,” says McLemore. “Growing up and watching ball and saying to myself, I want to play for a university and play in the NCAA Tournament and make the Final Four and play for a Championship. I talked to myself a lot about that when I was little and to be on a team that makes the Tournament all the time…it’s just great to be here.”