- Associated Press - Friday, November 27, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The brief encounter happened some 20 years ago, but it remains fresh in Larry Farmer’s mind today.

The fact that it involved future NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant probably has something to do with that.

Farmer and lifelong friend Tony Barksdale were basketball standouts at Highland Park High School when a summertime AAU tournament in North Carolina led to their introduction to Bryant, who would soon jump directly from high school to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Where are you guys from?,” Bryant asked the new arrivals.

“The capital of Kansas,” Farmer remembers answering.

“Oh, sure - Kansas City,” Bryant is said to have responded, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1NSsn97).

Farmer recounts that story today not to demean Bryant’s sense of geography, but rather to illustrate the lack of familiarity many people have for his hometown.

It explains in part why Farmer, now 37, is employing the marketing skills he acquired while on a basketball scholarship at the University of Central Oklahoma to help promote his hometown - not just to people who can’t locate Topeka on a map, but also to younger residents here who are reluctant to embrace it.

Farmer is spinning up projects involving music and basketball to promote Topeka in ways conventional marketing campaigns might resist.

On the arts side, Farmer hopes to expand on the efforts of Topekan and Washburn University graduate Phillip “Brail” Watson, a classically trained musician and poet whose soulful video “Topeka Proud” encourages Topeka pride through local TV commercials and multiple social media platforms.

On the sports side, Farmer has begun a project chronicling the transition of freshman Jahmal McMurray - one of the most prolific high school basketball players in Topeka history - into the ranks of NCAA Division I athletics at the University of South Florida. He also is involved in fundraising efforts for the 11 youth-group teams in Barksdale’s AAU basketball program.

Watching McMurray play against top-ranked Kentucky on Friday should inspire more people than just the young basketball players in Barksdale’s program, Farmer said.

“It could be inspirational for all Topeka people to see a Topeka kid making good, advancing through the world of big-time college basketball,” Farmer said.

“We have the means now through social media to let young people see him working hard, then seeing how that hard work can lead to success. Technology gives us even more opportunity to affect lives positively.”

His proposed collaborations with Watson - a concert cellist now doing post-graduate work at the Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain - put Farmer on a parallel track with a more traditional group promoting Topeka.

It was, after all, the Heartland Visioning group that first asked Watson to film a local commercial encouraging Topeka pride.

Doing so in a hip-hop video was anything but a traditional Chamber of Commerce approach to marketing. Yet Heartland Visioning saw in Watson’s poetry a passion for his hometown that might appeal to a younger, but important, nontraditional audience.

“Brail brought a fresh, ‘be proud of Topeka’ approach that was geared more to the millennial generation,” noted Kristen Brunkow, a self-described 23-year-old millennial who is Heartland Visioning’s director of communications and community engagement. “If you’re trying to reach millennials, we probably needed to look at things through their eyes and use an artist they could identify with.”

Brunkow and others knew the rap presentation wouldn’t be universally accepted in conservative Topeka, even though the commercial that later became a full-length music video also had sponsorship from Downtown Topeka, Inc., and Bartlett & West, a principal contractor in the downtown renovations.

“We knew it might not be a big hit with our older citizens,” she acknowledged. “Even though it’s not exactly what I’d call a rap video - its chorus is more rhythm and blues than rap - there have been people who say we shouldn’t promote Topeka with a hip-hop video.”

Brunkow said she understands that sentiment. She also understands that for any community to be sustainable, “you have to have young people keep coming into your community.

“I moved here (from Oklahoma via K-State) and found a lot of cool aspects to Topeka,” she said. “But you don’t always hear that said enough, especially from those who’ve lived here all their lives. I think it’s neat to encourage a dialogue that promotes those positives instead of just talking about the negatives.

“You can’t please everybody, but overall, we’re very happy with it. Through Brail, we’re showing millennials that they have a role in being part of the change, and to shape that change.”

Farmer, though not associated with Heartland Visioning, likes the concept of using new ways to connect with a different audience.

He knew from his first conversation with Watson - who called him from Spain at 3 a.m. Topeka time - that he was dealing with someone who could help expand Topeka’s brand.

“We talked for a couple hours about the things we had in common - one of which was a passion to help put Topeka on the map,” Farmer said. “He and Jahmal, to me, represent what’s possible for people in Topeka, even as they operate in two different spheres of art and sports.

“I see it as a springboard. It’s like, ‘Wake up, look at what’s possible; we can reach more people.’ You’ve got to appeal to all demographics. If you don’t adapt, you become extinct. That’s why I’m interested in trying different things, like having a classically trained musician working on promotional videos.

“There is a lot of positive energy out there, and creativity in a lot of different skill sets. The sky is the limit on how we promote Topeka in different ways.”

Barksdale, who helped mentor McMurray in his Kansas All-Stars AAU program, shares Farmer’s belief that any project to inspire young Topekans - be it through music or basketball - is worth trying.

“It’s all about trying to make things better,” Barksdale said. “I believe we can reach younger people and help them develop a different frame of mind from what people usually think of Topeka.

“To me, it’s a chance to develop skills in kids who might have a chance to get their education paid for. I had that opportunity; I couldn’t have gone to college if I hadn’t gotten scholarships, and that will be the case for most of the kids I deal with. But sometimes you have to work to keep kids focused on that goal, because it’s easy for them to get sidetracked.

“I don’t know if what I’m doing is promoting Topeka, because I’m just trying to help give kids a better life,” Barksdale added. “But, if we can promote Topeka through kids recognized for their basketball skills, that’s OK, too.”


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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