LAWRENCE — Mitch Lightfoot’s sitting atop a car in the staging area, minutes before Kansas basketball’s national championship parade Sunday in Lawrence, sporting a smile just about as wide as Chris Teahan is sitting next to him.
This is the kind of day winning a national title delivers. The work is over, so Lightfoot and his teammates can just sit back and enjoy the adoration their fans — who’ve followed them since Late Night in the Phog in October and well beyond that — will shower them with on a beautiful afternoon. And Lightfoot, with the NCAA tournament trophy from the Jayhawks’ Midwest regional championship resting in his lap, certainly looks ready for it all with a look topped off by a backward hat, sunglasses and national title shirt.
No player on the championship roster has spent more time at Kansas working for this moment than Lightfoot. There were more Jayhawks super-seniors than him alone, of course, but Lightfoot’s six seasons with coach Bill Self in Lawrence out-paces even Teahan’s five.
“It’s super special,” said Lightfoot, asked what it meant to know thousands of fans were lining up to celebrate the team. “These fans, they mean so much to us. They care so much about this place, and we care about them.”
Lightfoot, who redshirted during the 2019-20 season, was a part of four Kansas squads that won Big 12 Conference regular-season championships and two that won Big 12 tournament titles. He and the Jayhawks reached an Elite Eight in 2017, and then the Final Four both in 2018 and 2022. Kansas’ ability to top Villanova and North Carolina earlier this month in New Orleans didn’t just ensure the Jayhawks their first national championship since 2008, but that Lightfoot could help provide that title to a fan base he’s been a part of for far longer than when he first stepped on campus.
Lightfoot said he’d never been in a parade before, ahead of Sunday. But in the lead-up to it, he seemed to understand the task to smile and wave. His ability to catch a beverage tossed toward him and Teahan from the crowd during the parade, and then down some of it, certainly had fans cheering, too.
The games are over. Lightfoot, Teahan and more will soon move on to the next stages of their lives, whether that’s connected to basketball somewhere or not. But just like when Lightfoot watched the One Shining Moment video with his teammates, and shared that special moment with them, he’s still creating memories with them and will forever remember how close he considers them all to be.
“I’m proud of him,” sophomore Joseph Yesufu said about Lightfoot. “He had a great career here. Everybody loves Mitch. Everybody loves (Teahan). Those guys did a lot for this program, and I’m just very happy that we sent them off the right way.”
Freshman Kyle Cuffe Jr. added: “He got, like, almost to this spot, what? Almost every year except COVID? That COVID year? Like, just, at least, he’s able to leave college with something under his belt like that. It’s, like, amazing. It says everything to what coach Self is, the whole coaching staff, and everything.”
Back on senior day, after Kansas’ overtime win against Texas, Self talked about how long he’d known Lightfoot. The relationship creeps even closer to a decade, when their conversations on the recruiting trail are brought into the equation. Self said then he didn’t know if there’s ever been a player the program’s had, who could cut their heart open and have more Jayhawks fly out than Lightfoot.
Maybe winning a national championship adds to that total. Maybe it doesn’t. But it certainly shouldn’t hurt.
“Every day with Mitch is pretty good,” said Self, speaking to how special it is to share a day like Sunday with Lightfoot. “I’m not going to spend it with him, so to speak. He’ll be doing his own deal with his boys. But Mitch and I, we’ve got a special bond, a special relationship, and I’m sure that before too long we’ll certainly reminisce and talk about it.”
Self said he’s spoken with Lightfoot about what’s next for the big man from Gilbert, Arizona, but isn’t sure what Lightfoot to do just yet. Self could see Lightfoot trying to go overseas and play professionally. Self could also see Lightfoot getting into coaching someday, explaining that as much as he’s gotten on Lightfoot in six years he’s sure Lightfoot would like to flip the script and get on someone else for a while.
Lightfoot said he has thought some about the future, but not a ton. Whatever he decides to do, he surely has some time to choose. And until then, and even after, there’s a national championship he can celebrate.
“I’m still trying to just cherish this moment,” Lightfoot said. “And I’ll worry about that in the coming weeks, but cherishing this right now.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: KU super-senior Mitch Lightfoot celebrates championship at parade