How this Lenexa teen became an honorary member of the KU basketball team

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As the University of Kansas Jayhawks’ Men’s basketball team’s regular season is coming to a close, one Lenexa teen is giving them motivation to win.

A member of the team through the nonprofit organization Team IMPACT, a program that matches children facing serious illnesses with college sports teams, Jonathon Phog “JP” Bemberger, has been helping inspire the team for the past four years while battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of pediatric cancer.

“I think his presence has brought a lot of joy to our team,” said Dillon Wilhite, a forward for the team and Team Impact ambassador.

Bemberger signed with the team in 2020

With a focus on helping children with illnesses avoid social and mental isolation, Team Impact linked the two up in 2020 after his parents, Tom and Michelle, both KU alums, and social worker reached out.

Shortly after meeting, he became a Team IMPACT signee member of the team, cheering them on from the sidelines.

“This was a kid who was so high achieving. He is in all honors classes, like really high-achieving, nothing is going to stop him, not even cancer,” said Lynn LaRocca, high profile program manager for Team Impact. “(He) definitely was struggling a little bit with some optimism and ‘How do I bounce back?’ And he really flourished in the sense of being motivated by his teammates both on and off the court.”

Both sides motivate each other

Motivation for Bemberger has come from the team in many forms, from video chats and calls from Fred “Coach Q” Quartlebaum, KU men’s basketball’s director of basketball operations, to players sporting Team IMPACT bracelets.

Watching Bemberger’s journey since he was a freshman on the team, Wilhite said there have been glorious highs, like the team winning the 2022 National Championship with Bemberger family and him in the stands, and tough times, like when Bemberger struggles from the effects of his chemotherapy. Through it all, he said they motivate each other.

“He inspires us with his story,” he said. “All the treatments he’s going through — he’s such a fighter. And it kind of motivates us out there on the court and in life in general to never give up.”

During times when JP is feeling low or drained from cancer treatments, Tom Bemberger said the team has been there for him.

“I remember a time out six, nine months ago, JP was just having a rough time,” he said. “I reached out to Coach Q. Next thing you know, his phone just starts buzzing as the players are individually texting him, ‘We gotcha.'”

JP Bemberger
JP Bemberger with the KU Men’s Basketball team. Photo courtesy of Team IMPACT.

He’s experienced huge moments with the team

Looking back on his four years with KU, Bemberger and his family recall highlights that have defined his life, like when he got of his wheelchair and walked down the court at KU’s Allen Fieldhouse.

“(It was inspiring) when he walked down the court and had the whole team behind him cheering him on,” said Michelle Bemberger. “You can see when he goes to practices or talks to the players, he’s just more motivated.”

JP agrees with that sentiment.

“It’s just really great,” he said. “It’s awesome to have them supporting me.”

The future is bright for JP

Bemberger’s next goal is to become a student at KU.

“That’s his place,” LaRocca said. “That’s his family.”

In the meantime, the family is looking forward to the Jayhawks’ Senior Night game on Tuesday against the Kansas State Wildcats at Allen Fieldhouse.

“Hopefully he’ll get to go to that one too,” said Michelle Bemberger. “Senior Night’s always a fun night.”

LaRocca said watching JP’s relationship continue with KU, with him in the stands and in the locker room, is what the organization is all about.

“I think just the full circle of kids who come into our program, see what relationships can endure and how they can build and then, to see them turn to young adults themselves and have to make decisions for their lives, it’s very rewarding,” she said.

About the author

Andrew Gaug
Andrew Gaug

👋 Hi! I’m Andrew Gaug, and I cover Shawnee and Lenexa for the Johnson County Post.

I received my bachelor’s degree in journalism from Kent State University and started my career as a business reporter for The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio.

I spent 14 years as a multimedia reporter for the St. Joseph News-Press before joining the Post in 2023.