Saturday night, KU’s basketball seniors will take the court for their speeches to cap the festivities of their final home game in Allen Fieldhouse. While I have photographed every one of those senior ceremonies for 15 years, come Saturday, I will pay particular attention to the speech of my “adopted son,” Jordan Juenemann. Amongst people in the media relations department both past and present, that extra little quote always accompanies anything said about Juenemann since 2008. Here is the reason.
In October of that year, coach Bill Self conducted walk-on tryouts and Juenemann emerged as the lone addition to the team. Juenemann came to my old studio in Allen Fieldhouse for his head and shoulder portrait. Before me stood a young freshman filled with joy, wonder and surely doubt over what it meant to be a new KU Jayhawk player. We talked about his background in Hays, Kansas, and his future on the KU basketball team. Juenemann had been a good high school player in Hays and looked well prepared physically for his future.
There are moments in life when the stars seem to align and the result is something that even in one’s dreams could never work out as well as they do in real life. In some ways that is what happened to Juenemann in that walk-on tryout and to me when the young man showed up in the studio that day.
Juenemann was now part of the most adored real-life fraternity on the KU campus, the men’s basketball team. As a humble walk-on, his duty was to beat on and be beat on by more highly acclaimed KU players in practice. He would have to condition himself to take on the arduous practices as well as the sometime harsh criticism of the coaching staff. He would see only limited playing time, mostly in mop up duty at the end of KU blow out victories.
In return, Juenemann would enjoy the camaraderie of a team that has suffered defeat in only eight, three, three and five games to date in his four years on the team. There have been exotic trips to Hawaii, Las Vegas and New York City. Chartered flights and luxury buses whisk Juenemann and the team to the finest hotels. He dates a Rock Chalk Dancer and will graduate this spring with his final semester at KU being paid by an athletic scholarship. Thanks to the physical and mental challenges, Juenemann has grown into a man anyone would be proud to have as a son.
So, why do so many people call Juenemann my “adopted son.” It goes back to that day in the studio. The stars aligned for me when Beau White, from media relations, and then my wife, Laura, happened to come by the studio. After introductions, Juenemann noticed my bicycle used to ride from Topeka to Lawrence that day. We talked about cycling, and then Juenemann uttered the words that started this all.
“Man, I can tell you are in really good shape.”
The nervous young man was only being kind. The look of mocking disgust on White’s face and my wife’s eyes rolling back in her head as she uttered, “Oh my,” were too good to be true. The grief heaped on me began immediately after Juenemann left.
Laura moaned that my head was already swelling even larger with self-pride over the fitness comment. White proclaimed we would never see another KU walk-on as photographed as Juenemann surely would be in the coming years. White then went on to spread the “adopted son” words among the media relations staff. I laughed right along with them, telling them that even as a freshman, Juenemann was obviously a very observant and astute young man.
All jokes aside, it has been great to know Juenemann. We have talked often over the years, but never more so than this season. In the world of twitter, I do not believe in following student-athletes, but Juenemann is my one exception. In turn, he regularly reads this blog as do his parents.
We still talk about his role on the team, his education and his internship in the athletic department’s fund-raising arm, the Williams Fund. While I respect what a walk-on must do for the team’s good, he respects what my wife’s and my photography efforts mean to the team and the fans. Most of all, we discuss our shared Christian faith and how our faith impacts our lives. That is always the greatest pleasure.
Yes, flattery does count. I admit I have been mindful of Juenemann’s playing time. When the senior saw unexpected court time during the two exhibition games at the beginning of this season, our office manager, Erin Penning and I joked that there should be two photo galleries from those games, one of general action and one of Juenemann. The little things that go with a senior’s final season, even if that senior does not play much, I have tried to capture with my camera.
On Saturday night, Juenemann will walk onto the James Naismith Court with his parents and be showered with roses and the adoration of the Allen Fieldhouse crowd. Teammates Conner Teahan and Tyshawn Taylor will join him. My hope is that he will enjoy every second of that special night. If Juenemann can see the face behind my camera, he will see me broadly smiling. Forget all the “adopted son” jokes, I will just be honestly thankful to call Juenemann my friend and wish him well on a very special night.