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KJ Adams mastered more than new position during sophomore season

Coping with his mom's cancer diagnosis while also evolving as a player and person made the KU forward's breakthrough season with the Jayhawks one to remember

17 min read
Kansas forward KJ Adams (24) celebrates an and 1 dunk during the Big12 Tournament game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the West Virginia Mountaineers on Thursday March 9, 2023 at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, MO. [Associated Press photo]

By now, you probably know the story of Kansas forward KJ Adams’ rise with the Jayhawks. But you might not know what he’s been through along the way and how his path has transformed him from a promising prospect to a powerful player in every since of the word.

In an era when nobody, in almost any sport, wants to wait around for their time to come, the 6-foot-7 brickhouse of a basketball player from Austin, Texas, has done just that.

First, he became a reliable but seldom-used backup on a national championship team. Then a 30-minutes-a-game starter on a team that had eyes on going back-to-back.

Every step of the way, from his first boot camp to his final game as a sophomore, Adams put in the time required to get better, refusing to say he deserved anything without working for it.

His parents have a saying for that philosophy — no excuses, just work.

And Adams heard those words over and over from his father, Kevin Sr., and his mother, Yvonne, who starred at Texas A&M and coached basketball at Blinn Junior College and St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, where she’s still the director of equity and inclusion.

“I’m not sure where we got that ‘Nobody cares, work hard,’ saying,” Yvonne recently told R1S1 Sports. “But that’s always been how we’ve operated. It’s not that we don’t want our children to appreciate the accolades they get. We want them to enjoy the moment. But then it’s time to move on.”

Doing so has been both easy and hard for Adams at Kansas. And both sides of that coin have allowed, inspired and encouraged him to grow as a person while developing as a player at the same time.

Kansas forward KJ Adams checks out the action behind him during a summer scrimmage at Allen Fieldhouse. [Chance Parker photo] 

While Year 2 with the Jayhawks brought with it an increase in playing time and a bigger role, it also presented a challenge far greater than anything he had ever encountered on the basketball court.

In August of 2021, just before Adams’ freshman season, Yvonne was diagnosed with Stage 1 bladder cancer. Though the news shocked Adams to his core, his parents quickly convinced him and his siblings that they had a plan to attack the cancer and that everything would be OK.

Half of his mom’s bladder was removed. Chemotherapy followed. And, for a while, things were good and their game plan worked as well as anything Kansas coach Bill Self had ever drawn up.

The family resumed vacations, attended Adams’ games and other events and made it all work with a weekly regimen of medications to treat the cancer.

The following summer, after initially being given the all-clear signal during Adams’ freshman season, Yvonne’s cancer returned. This time, as Adams embarked upon his sophomore season at KU, his mom received a Stage 4 diagnosis. This, doctors tell her, is incurable. This, they say, is a battle she’ll fight until her last breath. The current fight plan is far more aggressive than what she endured during Round 1.

“When it comes to your mom, that hits different,” Kevin Sr. said of the diagnosis. “Especially when mom is the strength of our family.”

Said Adams: “When something scary like that happens, you want to know how that person’s doing every day. I know she’s a warrior, but it’s just hard to know that someone you love is hurting.”

That mom strength is not just Yvonne’s, Kevin Sr., says. It goes deeper than that and back to her own mom, Grandma Martha, and her grandfather, — Adams’ great grandpa — who many affectionately called Sugar Daddy.

Kevin Sr. said Sugar Daddy was the strongest man he’d ever known, and he believes his son, in a lot of ways, inherited that strength.

Regardless of what’s happening with anyone around her, this is Yvonne’s battle. The family has fought it together and helped Yvonne however they could, but Kevin Sr. and his wife have insisted that their three children — KJ, 26-year-old Brittany and 13-year-old Jaila — go about their business as they always would.

It’s fine to call home more or shower mom with more love, but they all have their own lives to live, and Yvonne and Kevin Sr. want their children to focus on that.

Brittany had a baby last year. Her son, Caysen — KJ’s nephew — just turned 1, and Yvonne said KJ is “smitten” with the newest addition to the family. Caysen’s smiles and laughs when he’s palling around his uncle illustrate that the feeling is mutual.

Jaila, who is involved in all kinds of activities, just made her school’s cheerleading squad for the first time. And KJ is on the brink of his most important basketball season yet.

Underneath all of that is the reality of what Yvonne is facing.

Her husband and children know she’s up for fighting this fight, but there are still bad days. She does chemotherapy for three weeks a month and then gets a week off. Every month. That’s the plan for as far as they can see into the future.

Her hair is gone. Her mobility has become more of a challenge, with words like walker and wheelchair now in the picture, and she admits that there are days when she just wants to say, “F--- this.”

That’s when her husband gives her space to be pissed off and then rallies with the positivity he is known for, carrying vibes that always bring her back to where she needs to be — in position to love and support her children in every aspect of their lives.

“That’s my purpose,” Yvonne says.

And that, Adams’ parents say, is the biggest reason why they’re glad KJ and Brittany are off living their own lives instead of being at home.

“I think that has been the best thing in the world for him, to be at Kansas during all this,” Kevin Sr. said. “There was no need for him to be here, seeing the day to day and the grind that mom had to go through.”

Even Jaila, who still lives at home, is kept out of most of that.

“I don’t need my 13-year-old worrying about if she should cook or go out and play with her friends,” Kevin Sr. added.

KJ Adams' family during a recent family photo shoot. Pictured from left to right are: front row - Kevin Adams Sr., Yvonne Adams and KJ; back row - sister Jaila, nephew Caysen, brother-in-law Myles and sister Brittany. [Contributed photo]

‘He knows the score now’

Being away from home has its advantages and disadvantages, and Adams dealt with both during his sophomore season.

Adams handled his position change amid his mom’s battle with cancer like a champ, enjoying a breakthrough season and winning the Big 12 Conference’s Most Improved Player award. Those closest to him say that Adams’ ability to focus on his basketball responsibilities helped him cope with everything else that was happening around him.

“He’s good at accepting change and knowing how to deal with it,” younger sister, Jaila, told R1S1. “He just realizes that change is going to happen in life and he embraces it. Our parents are really good with that. And I’m just so happy for him and proud of him because he’s getting to do what he loves. I’ve always seen him as my funny big brother, but now I’m starting to realize that he’s more than that.”

Added older sister Brittany, who watches Adams closely in warmups and says she can always tell when he’s off: “I’ve seen a difference in him, and I do think he’s using basketball as a kind of outlet, which is great because it aligns with his goals. I’ve never seen him so focused. It’s partly he wants to play at the next level and he knows this next year’s crucial. But it also has been a welcome distraction for him.”

As the 2022-23 season roared toward Big 12 play and Adams solidified his spot as the starting 5 for the undersized Jayhawks, the KU forward reached a critical point in his current journey.

Knowing he needed to focus on his new position and the demands that came with it, Adams also knew he needed to have a clearer picture of exactly what his mom was facing.

This wasn’t just go play ball and deal with your mom’s stuff while doing it. This was go be something you’re not — a new player entirely — while also dealing with something so serious and scary.

Up to that point, Adams said his parents had tried to shield him from the harsh realities of Yvonne’s fight. They always updated him on the important stuff, but they rarely got into the specifics and hard-to-hear details.

As things progressed, Yvonne, Kevin Sr. and Brittany all knew that questions like, ‘How sick is she?’ ‘Are they lying to me?’ ‘What’s really going on?’ had started to bounce around in Adams’ head, even if he rarely showed it and almost never spoke about it.

Even Jaila was aware of that. Although he made it a point to help his younger sister distance herself from the scary stuff happening at home whenever he could, Adams also turned to her for answers from time to time.

“He always asks me if I’m doing good or what’s going on at home or if he’s missing anything,” Jaila said.

During a stretch last December that seemed to coincide with Adams’ all-out acceptance of his new role with the Jayhawks, he started asking tougher questions and requesting the hard truths.

“At first, he didn’t want to talk about it at all and now he’s more willing,” Brittany said. “I think it’s still easier for him to not know some things, but he also wants to know some of it.”

Although they talk often, Brittany always wonders: “How up to date do you want to be?”

“It was like he almost apologized to me,” Yvonne recalled. “And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m good. As long as you know I’m fighting and as long as you know that what helps me to fight is you taking care of your business up here, then we’re good.’” — Yvonne Adams

One of the first times Adams saw his mom in a weakened state was when she made her first trip of the season to see him play when the Jayhawks drubbed Missouri in Columbia last December. Adams was so juiced by his mom’s presence that night that he abused the Tigers for a career-high 19 points.

A week later, Yvonne was in Lawrence to watch her son’s team defeat Indiana. The day after the game, he and his girlfriend stopped by his parents’ hotel room and he asked for a minute alone with his mom. He needed to know more than the surface-level stuff about how she was doing, feeling, coping, managing. And this time, he just asked, going as far as to take the scarf off of her head to see how she looked without her hair.

“When he pulled the scarf back from my head and started asking me real questions, he didn’t know the score,” Yvonne said. “But he knows the score now.”

Added Kevin Sr.: “That was important because KJ was accepting the reality of everything, but he also needed and wanted to see what he was working with. He was dealing with it.”

That moment was important not only for Adams but for his parents, too.

They had gotten used to seeing their son star and stand out on the court, even in a new position and at a higher level. That did not surprise them. His personal growth and willingness to take on his mom’s reality while simultaneously establishing a new one for himself as a basketball player and a son was significant, though.

“It was like he almost apologized to me,” Yvonne recalled. “And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m good. As long as you know I’m fighting and as long as you know that what helps me to fight is you taking care of your business up here, then we’re good.’”

The human side of KJ Adams

Yvonne is never far from Adams’ mind. He calls more than ever, hurries home to Texas to see her whenever he can and is as fully present as possible when they’re together.

“I’m really just always checking in because I kind of took for granted that she’s always going to be there,” Adams told R1S1. “In the past, I didn’t cherish my parents as much when they would come watch me play. But now, since it’s so hard and such a struggle for them to come, I cherish that and play even harder than I did.”

That last part is the best part in Yvonne’s eyes. The last thing she would ever want is for her own problems to become a burden for her children. So, she’s happy to hear that her fight has motivated her son instead of harming him.

“The unknown is still the hardest part for him — for all of us, really,” says Brittany. “But I think KJ really has buried his head in basketball, and I think him seeing the fruits of his labor has become his form of therapy.”

From the beginning, basketball has been a welcomed distraction for Adams, and the basketball court a place where he can forget about his mom’s fight for a few hours at a time, but Yvonne still worries about the toll all of this is taking.

“If there’s anything I’d want people to see, it’s the human side of not just KJ but all of these athletes,” Yvonne told R1S1. “They may not all have a mother with cancer, but they may have other battles they’re fighting. Perhaps KJ’s carrying more than most, but everybody’s got something. And it’s a lot.”

“Mom might be part of the inspiration and the drive and motivation to practice harder when you’re not feeling it,” Kevin Sr. said. “And that’s great. But I’ve always tried to tell my son that you’re doing this for KJ and for Kansas, and you just have to keep working.” — Kevin Adams Sr.

Yvonne is not the only one who has found a silver lining in the way others see someone close to her. She has come to realize that Adams has his own hopes and visions for how she navigates this journey.

For the first six or seven months of her fight, Yvonne spent a lot of time resting and laying on the couch or in bed. That wasn’t it, she said.

Her need for more became clear when she first returned to the St. Stephen’s campus and instantly felt the benefits of her interaction with people and the signs and scenes of life that surrounded her. The whole environment made her feel better, even if just a little, and inspired her to fight harder.

Those trips, and the epiphany that came with them, also nudged her to push harder to get out to see her son play or hop in the car and head up to Dallas for a weekend with her grandson.

“I’m still me,” Yvonne said. “And I think that’s part of what KJ wants people to see. It’s so important for these kids to be in the right space, mentally. But that’s also been a part of my healing process.”

Adams has always been good about keeping his emotions to himself. Brittany said her brother has never been one to open up to people easily and added that even his family has had a difficult time gauging Adams’ mood — good or bad — until he reached a certain point.

“You kind of get whatever he’s feeling when it is bubbling over and he can’t contain it,” Brittany said. “Because of that, I’m grateful that he’s away.”

So, too, is his father, who has always tried to make sure his children understand and believe that “mom and dad got this.”

Kevin Sr. knows it’s more difficult to be convincing of that when it comes to something as serious as Yvonne’s cancer diagnosis. But even that is not going to change the way they operate.

“Mom might be part of the inspiration and the drive and motivation to practice harder when you’re not feeling it,” Kevin Sr. said. “And that’s great. But I’ve always tried to tell my son that you’re doing this for KJ and for Kansas, and you just have to keep working.”

Making time for himself

While Adams has given more of his mind, heart, body and soul to his mom than ever before in recent months, he has made sure to reserve time for himself, too.

That has been a critical part of his effort to cope with everything in his world — fun, fear, fame, failure and more.

Time for self-reflection and relaxation is not always easy to come by, though. Once, while Adams and his family were eating brunch at The Big Biscuit in West Lawrence, he received a direct message from a fan that said, “I see you like Big Biscuit.”

Yvonne recalled another time when she checked her son’s DoorDash account to see how often he was using the food delivery service while in Lawrence. It was a lot.

“This is ridiculous,” she remembered thinking. “Boy, get your butt up and just go to McDonald’s.”

Easier said than done.

Like so many of his teammates and countless Jayhawks before him, Adams attracts attention everywhere he goes. He always smiles through it and leads with his naturally friendly demeanor, but the fact that the extra attention is always there is still a lot. When piled on top of his worries about his mom and the demands of being a starter for one of college basketball’s top programs, the impact of all of it together can be overwhelming.

“Last year was when I think he realized, ‘I can’t be surrounded by basketball 24/7, 365 days a year; I’ve got to get away and go be KJ. Not KJ the basketball player or KJ the 5 man, just KJ,’” Yvonne said. “Once I kind of understood how important that was for him, I had to back off.”

It’s not just in Lawrence where Adams is intentional about making time for himself. He routinely books small escapes to a hotel or Airbnb in Kansas City with his girlfriend. And even while he was back home in Austin in May — between three to four workouts per day every day of the week — he drove three hours out of town with a close friend for a campfire getaway.

“I think time away is the best for me,” Adams told R1S1. “I like to go out to the woods or something, just to relax. I think that helps even more than basketball because sometimes I just need to get away from all the stuff that’s kind of stressing me out.”

Adams is a process-oriented human being. Each step in his journey, be it in basketball, relationships, school or training, has come through well-thought-out, deep assessments that have considered all scenarios.

He gets that from Kevin Sr. and finds comfort in it because it helps him maintain some sense of control.

That part of his maturation, which his father insists is ongoing and ever-evolving, has really shined during the past two years.

“What I’ve seen more than anything is his ability to compartmentalize,” Yvonne said. “To be able to set mom’s illness in one box and our family in one, having a life at KU in one and then being on the basketball team in one. It’s been wonderful to see and I’m very proud of him.”

His Jayhawk family

Adams’ KU family has played a massive role in his life since he arrived in Lawrence.

In addition to the obvious stuff like teaching technique, demanding greatness and pushing him to improve and grow, his coaches and teammates have been there for him on a personal level, too.

KU coach Bill Self’s role has been simple. He asks Adams about his mom as often as needed — usually with bright eyes and a little pep — and loves to know when Yvonne is coming to games. Self also has made it clear that he’s willing to do more if Adams needs or wants him to.

“We’d talk about how’s your mom doing, is she coming to the game, how’s she feeling and things like that, but it was never a topic,” Self told R1S1 when asked how often he could sense that Yvonne’s illness was bothering Adams. “He didn’t want it that way.”

“Even when coach would speak about it, he’d say, ‘Do you mind if I say this, KJ,’” recalled KU assistant Norm Roberts.

Yvonne has heard all about how kind and compassionate her son’s coaches have been with him throughout her fight. She’s seen some of it firsthand, both in games and away from the gym. And she appreciates the fact that their focus is on keeping the main thing the main thing unless Adams says he needs something different.

“Heavy is for home,” Yvonne said. “It’s not for Kansas.”

“We’d talk about how’s your mom doing, is she coming to the game, how’s she feeling and things like that, but it was never a topic. He didn’t want it that way.” — Kansas coach Bill Self

Kevin Sr. also appreciates how his son’s coaches have helped him through all of this, giving him the space he needs to cope and the support he needs to stay focused on basketball. Their compassion, Kevin Sr. says, is one of many signs that have surfaced in the past two years that indicate that Adams is playing for the right coach and is a part of the right basketball family.

Self has provided Adams with a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen without losing sight of the fact that his two arms and lofty expectations are there to push him.

“That has allowed coach Self to coach my kid and love him through the hand he’s been dealt,” Kevin Sr. said. “I don’t need coach Self to feel sorry for my kid. I need coach Self to coach my kid the best way he knows how.”

Self’s favorite story about Yvonne happened in mid-February, during KU’s home win over Baylor. Self was busy during the game, of course, but he watched part of the broadcast afterwards because he wanted to see what happened when ESPN reporter Holly Rowe went into the crowd to talk with three KU moms who played basketball during their college days — Yvonne, Carmen Dick and Lisa Wilson.

“Holly interviewed Lisa first, and she was like, ‘Jalen’s got to make his free throws, but we’re OK,’” Self recalled. “And then Holly went to Carmen and she was like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m so nervous. This is a big game for Gradey.’ And then she went to Yvonne and asked how KJ was doing and she said, ‘Look around. He gets to be part of this. How could he not be doing unbelievable?’”

Few players project that persona better than Adams, who Self said quickly has become “as well liked as anyone we have.”

“KJ does a great job of not having bad days,” Roberts added. “He could have a bad moment or two, but he always gets it back. If there are some things on his mind, he doesn’t put that out there.”

While Adams comes by that honestly, from the way he was raised and the genes he inherited, Yvonne said his first two seasons at Kansas helped fine-tune it. She’s grateful for what he learned from teammates like Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, who he roomed with, and Jalen Wilson.

Yvonne didn’t notice it in the moment, but as she looks back today on her son’s time with that trio and others, she realizes that Adams’ ability to observe and digest his teammates’ strengths and grace in the spotlight was one of the strongest signs of his maturity yet.

“He watched and absorbed what it would take to be successful in that role,” Yvonne said. “He picked up the secrets. “I think that was very, very helpful.”

Even stronger than he seems

As Adams prepares for his junior season with another loaded Kansas team that has designs on contending for another national title, he’s more confident and more of a Renaissance Man today than he was when he first arrived on KU’s campus.

He knows more about life, more about his mom and her toughness and resolve, more about his family and the closeness that exists among them, more about the world and the importance of peace of mind and balance.

More important than any of it, though, he knows more about himself.

“Some people are just made to be at a school,” Kevin Sr. said. “KJ was made to be at Kansas. When you talk about a fit with coach Self and coach Norm, they love KJ. And KJ loves coach Self and coach Norm, too.”

At first glance, with the bulging biceps, leg muscles that his shorts can barely contain and his chiseled frame, Adams’ mammoth strength is easy to spot.

But the junior forward’s physical traits barely tell half of the story of how strong he really is.

Whether you’re talking about his entire first season, when he worked as hard as anyone without ever really knowing whether he would play or how long it would last if he did, or his breakthrough sophomore season and the half a dozen or so areas in which he has grown as a human being, Adams has always leaned on his family mantra to help him through whatever stood in his way.

No excuses, just work.

“I think that’s probably what’s allowed KJ to handle all of this because of the words he heard when he was being brought up – no excuses, get better,” Kevin Sr. said.

Adams has done that in more profound ways than ever before during the past 12 months. And his ability and willingness to do so has both moved and impressed some of the most important people in his life along the way.

“The most impressive part about my kid, which I didn’t even realize until he got to KU, is his mental strength,” Kevin Sr. said. “I knew how strong he was when it came to basketball. I didn’t realize how strong he was when it came to life.”

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