INDIANAPOLIS -- At this point in the college basketball season, symbols and irony are supposed to take a back seat to hard work and determination.
Kansas center Mark Randall is as hard a worker as you're likely to find. How else does a guy like Randall -- who doesn't possess either great speed or leaping skills -- join Jayhawks greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Clyde Lovellette and Danny Manning on a list of Kansas players who have scored 1,300 points and pulled down 600 rebounds?
But right now, as Randall prepares to play for a national championship tonight against Duke, the symbols and ironies of his life are omnipresent.
The giant irony is that Randall, a 6-foot-9 senior from Englewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, very nearly became a Blue Devil. He ultimately chose Kansas over Duke because he couldn't leave the ties of family too far behind.
"It came down to family," Randall said yesterday. "It was a lot easier on my family to hop in a car and drive 10 hours to Lawrence, than to get on a plane to Durham round-trip.
"They both were tradition-rich; their styles are similar," he said. "Duke and Kansas were neck and neck. Duke's got the prestige and the reputation, but I think I've gotten a good education at Kansas."
For more irony, some of Randall's education, or at least the basketball end of it, has been augmented by his stint last summer on the United States team in the Goodwill Games and World Championships. The team was coached by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and included Duke players Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley.
"Randall's one of those guys who doesn't like to leave home," Krzyzewski joked yesterday. "That's why I hesitated about asking to take him to Argentina. I asked him if he was ready to leave home.
"Mark's a really good guy," Krzyzewski said. "He's top notch and a good friend. We knew he'd really be a good player and that in our system, he could be excellent."
While in Seattle and Argentina, Randall, Laettner and Hurley developed friendships that will last past tonight's title game, Randall said.
"They're really good guys," he said of Hurley and Laettner. "We played a lot of Boggle [a word game] because there wasn't a whole lot to do in Argentina. Those two guys are addicted to it."
The three friends stayed in touch during the season. "We talked on the phone every two weeks or so," Laettner said. "We spent a lot of time goofing around on the phone. He's a big reason that Kansas is doing so well, because he's so easy to play with."
And not so easy to play against. He scored 16 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in Saturday's semifinal win over North Carolina and helped Kansas to a 51-42 rebounding edge over the vaunted Tar Heels' front line.
Randall's game has made great strides, particularly since Roy Williams replaced Larry Brown as Kansas coach following the 1988 season, when the Jayhawks won the national championship.
Though Randall doesn't want to criticize Brown, it is clear Williams has given him more chances to shine.
"I've always been confident that I can play my game," said Randall. "The reason I lost my confidence in those first two years RTC is because I wasn't playing nearly as much as I wanted.
"It's good playing for Coach Williams because I'm not always looking over my shoulder."
Which brings us to the symbol, namely the 1988 championship ring. Randall earned it as a member of that squad, though he redshirted following an exhibition game and never saw action in any regular-season or postseason game.
Randall didn't expect much playing time behind Manning, the consensus preseason national Player of the Year, at the power forward slot. At the center position, there were five players ahead of Randall, waiting for their chance.
So Randall sat and watched, wearing a blue blazer, shaking former President Reagan's hand at the White House ceremony, and sitting in a car at the back of a team victory parade, listening to the whispers.
"One of the guys on the street said, 'There's Randall. He'll get another shot next year,' " said Randall.
"That was tough. They did what they had to do to win and I supported that. But I never felt like I was a central part of it. I was more on the outside looking in."
That's why he gave his NCAA ring and his school ring to his mother, who is keeping them in a safety deposit box in Denver, never to be worn.
"They'll never touch my hand, because I didn't participate in it."
This year is different, said Randall, for he is certainly a part of it all, the central part of it all, in fact. And now that he's here, there is but one ending to this story.
"We're not going to say we're happy to be here; we want to win it," said Randall. "We have had a lot of small opportunities to work up to a great opportunity and that's what we're looking at this as. You can call it a pyramid concept if you want, but that's how we see it."