Granderson rooting for Jayhawks
Illinois native has been Kansas fan since early '90's
DETROIT -- Curtis Granderson has spent the last two offseasons traveling to Europe and South Africa as an ambassador for Major League Baseball. He went to the Caribbean on a Tigers-sponsored cruise after the 2006 season, and he's hoping to one day play on the MLB team in the Japan All-Star Series, held every other November.
With all these worldly travels, there's at least one trip next offseason that Granderson can't wait to plan. He wants to go to Lawrence, Kansas.
"From what I'm told, it's one of the three greatest places to watch a game," he said.
For most frequent fliers and Major League stars, Lawrence isn't exactly a destination. For college basketball fans, however, this is a mecca. And there are few big league baseball players who follow college hoops like Granderson.
Besides, he's invited. After hearing about how fervently the Tigers center fielder follows the Jayhawks, Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins met Granderson and invited him to pay a visit as their guest.
Besides the fact that Granderson grew up in Chicago, and has only been to Kansas on a road trip with his Illinois-Chicago baseball team years ago, it's an odd combination. Still, he considers college basketball his favorite sport to watch.
"Not basketball. It's college basketball," Granderson said. "There's a difference. Two totally different things."
Granderson follows the NCAA tournament with a passion each spring. He hosted a bracket contest on his blog last month, inviting readers to try to out-pick him, with an autographed bat awarded to the winner. In January, he raised money for his Grand Kids Foundation with a charity basketball game.
In many ways, he's a basketball player trapped in a baseball player's body, at least from the ankles up.
"When I was in eighth grade, I had a size 13 shoe, and I was hoping I'd do something like Scottie Pippen one summer," he said. "When's my big growth spurt going to come? It just never came. I was hoping it would get there."
Nonetheless, Granderson once harbored hopes of following in the footsteps of such two-sport athletes as Kenny Lofton, to play baseball and basketball at a Division I university. He was a ball-distributing point guard on his Thornwood Fractional South High School team on the south side of the Chicago area, and he had the chance to compete against such future stars as Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson and Sean Dockery. His team didn't reach the state tournament while he was there, but he made it to the finals of the three-point shootout contest.
When he chose to attend to UIC, he hoped to get on the basketball team as a walk-on. After Granderson played only baseball as a freshman, head coach Jimmy Collins set him up to play in a college summer league with an opportunity for him to join the basketball team as a sophomore. He was going through fall baseball practice while getting ready to begin basketball practice.
"That week when I was going to start practice, we ran a pickoff play to second," Granderson said. "I dove back into the base. The shortstop jumped over me and fell. And then when I went to get up, that was that."
That was a broken thumb, and it ended whatever hoop dreams he had. He turned his focus to baseball, and the rest is history. By his rough count, he has played basketball maybe three times since college, taking part in two pickup games and then firing away in a three-point shootout against Tigers teammate Nate Robertson at his charity event in January.
None of this, obviously, explains Granderson's love for Kansas basketball. That has a deeper history, going back to watching the Jayhawks face Duke the NCAA championship game in 1991. It was the game after Duke had upset then-unbeaten UNLV.
"That was probably the first time I was able to sit and watch a full game," he said. "I was 10 years old. I could understand everything that was going on. And I was like, 'Wow, I like this team.' There was something about them.
"That was the reason I ended up pulling for them. I don't know why, but that game ended up doing it."
From there, Granderson was hooked. To hear him describe it, he bought jerseys, the pullover jacket, wore Kansas gear to school to his fellow students' surprise. When Jacque Vaughn starred as the Kansas point guard in the mid-90s, Granderson tried to emulate his game.
"I had the Sports Illustrated [issue] with him on the cover," he said. "I still have that at home somewhere. I've yet to meet him, but he was definitely my favorite."
One can only imagine his happiness, then, when he found out that Kansas' draw in this year's NCAA Tournament aligned the Jayhawks to play in the Midwest regionals in Detroit at Ford Field, a short walk across Brush Street from Comerica Park.
It took some doing, but Granderson managed to secure tickets for Sunday's regional final, conveniently scheduled for late afternoon after the Tigers worked out earlier in the day. Moreover, he ended up close to the court near the baseline, behind the Kansas cheerleading section.
It was understandably a joy for him to watch KU advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2003. But it was almost as much fun for him to watch high-scoring Davidson guard Stephen Curry put on a display to nearly pull off an upset.
"The one thing I was impressed about is he never looks like he's going fast, but he is," Granderson said. "And he's never out of control. He's so poised. He wants the ball. It was amazing to watch some of the things he was able to do -- inside, outside, moving without the ball. I appreciate good basketball talent. It doesn't matter what color jersey you're wearing."
His tournament bracket is looking far less amazing. He picked Kansas to win it all, so he's still alive to gain some points. Considering he has about 13,000 contestants ahead of him in his group, though, his hopes for a Cinderella run have long since struck midnight.
Luck of the draw, he says.
"That's what makes it exciting," he said. "To go to [Sunday's] game and see the majority of the 57,000 fans there wanting Davidson to win [for a Cinderella story], is the reason why when people ask me what my favorite sport is, it's college basketball. You've just got to hope the team you like plays well, and that's it."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.