They saw the movie a decade before their only son was born, but Ron and Ellen LaFrentz never let go of the name. Rafe Copley was the character George Peppard played in Home from the Hill, and Ron LaFrentz thought Rafe was a decent, hardworking, stand-up guy. the kind of man he hoped his son would be. Ron's story sounds sweet and charming until Ellen reveals a more plausible explanation: She and Ron just liked the sound of the name.
Rafe. It was different, original, impossible to get out of their minds. Rafe LaFrentz. "A nice rhythm to it, don't you think?" says Ellen. By the time their son arrived, on May 29, 1976, the LaFrentzes had decided that Rafe wasn't quite original enough, so they added their own twist and gave the world Raef Andrew LaFrentz. It didn't matter that he grew to be nearly seven feet tall; Raef always had a nice rhythm. "Even as tall as he got," says Ron, "he never had a clumsy stage."
"The first time I saw him," says Eric Dettbarn, Raef's high school coach in Monona, Iowa, "he was in the sixth grade, and he was about 5'11", very lanky. I was teaching, and I went to play football with the boys during recess. I told Raef to go long, and I threw him a pass. He sprinted out, dove, made an unbelievable catch and popped back up. I just thought, Wow, that kid is going to be good."
That kid eventually turned his talents to basketball, moved on to Kansas and proved to be better than good. He may, in fact, be the best college player in the country; through Sunday he was averaging 21.5 points and 11.6 rebounds for the second-ranked Jayhawks, who improved to 13-1 with last Saturday's 94-78 win over TCU. LaFrentz is quickly becoming a household name, which means Raef isn't so original anymore. According to Ellen and Ron, at least one baby boy in Kansas City has been christened Raef. and the name has been given to assorted dogs and cats and a prize bull in Monona.
Young LaFrentz, a 6'11" forward, earned first-team All-America honors as a junior and then turned his back on the NBA to stay with the Jayhawks for one more year. He could have been the third player taken in last year's draft, which would have meant a guaranteed three-year contract worth about $9 million, but folks close to LaFrentz say that wasn't good enough. He has goals, you see, and he doesn't easily abandon them. He wants to be No. 1—in the nation and in the NBA draft. He took out a $2.7 million insurance policy and returned to school. "I've had three great years at Kansas," LaFrentz says. "I've got one more, and I want to make it the best."
Last season the Jayhawks were widely favored to win the NCAA title but ended up a disappointing loser to Arizona in the third round, and LaFrentz was merely one of the top players in the country. He's back now to finish the job. LaFrentz says he stuck around because he wants to be "a kid for one more year," but the look in his eyes tells a different story. A kid? He's still in college, but he's already a grown man on the basketball court, teeming with intensity and determined to fulfill the great expectations that have followed him since grade school. He is working toward a history degree but says, "Let's face it, basketball is my major because hopefully that's what I'm going to do for a living."
LaFrentz isn't in the NBA, but already there's some NBA in him. He knows giggling and goofing around are no way to prepare for the likes of Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. The game face rarely comes off. "I won't say it's a mean streak because he's not a mean guy, but he's definitely got a competitive streak," says Jayhawks coach Roy Williams. "I'll give you an example. Last year everyone talked about our senior leadership because we had the best group of seniors you could imagine: Jerod Haase, Scot Pollard, Jacque Vaughn. But we're playing Nebraska at home, and we go into overtime, and Raef just takes over. The players leave my huddle and then huddle up themselves about 10 feet out on the floor, and Raef looks at the seniors and just says. 'Give me the damn ball.' Then he goes out and scores 11 points in overtime, and we win. Now that's a competitor."
"I like beating people," says LaFrentz. "I like matching my skills against yours and winning, in whatever we play: cards, board games, basketball. It doesn't matter. I just don't like to let someone beat me." When asked where his competitive drive comes from, LaFrentz doesn't hesitate. "My old man," he says. "He's got a mean streak like nobody else."
Ron LaFrentz, who played at Northern Iowa from 1957 to '60, stands 6'5" and weighs 240 but seems taller, even more imposing. Until retiring three years ago. he taught high school industrial technology, and he talks with a voice so deep and raspy it sounds as if he caught his vocal cords in a lathe. He says he has had many spirited games of one-on-one with his son and insists he can still take Raef in H-O-R-S-E "if I get hot." Hoop fanatics Ron, Ellen and Raef once drove from Iowa to North Carolina for one of Raef's AAU tournaments, stopping in Chelyan, W.Va. (hometown of Jerry West), on the way there and French Lick, Ind. (hometown of Larry Bird), on the way home. "We had to wake Raef up on the way," says Ron. "I wanted him to see where Jerry West came from. That was my hero."
It's no surprise that the LaFrentz family has an affinity for small-town basketball legends. Although Monona (pop. 1,500) shares a high school with four other communities, Raef's graduating class had just 88 kids. Raef excelled as a competitive swimmer before concentrating on basketball, and he worked as a lifeguard in the summer. When some fans hear his name, they assume he's a foreigner, but he's as small-town America as Opie Taylor.