As the cheers of 10,000 Florida men’s basketball fans crescendo into a deafening roar, the quiet insight from their team manager rings loudest through the players’ heads.
From the locker room bathrooms, Ju-Ray Kuo, an applied physiology and kinesiology masters student at UF, has become the unofficial barber of the Florida Gators men's basketball team — every returning player on the 15-player team has received a haircut from Kuo at least once.
The Stephen C. O’Connell Center and the Florida Basketball Practice Complex double as Kuo’s makeshift barbershop. The 24-year-old not only prepares the players physically with stretches and drills for game days, but stylistically too.
“Sometimes I just bring my clippers to the facility and then on my free time there, I’ll just cut the guys up and make sure the guys have a good time,” Kuo said.
As a team manager, he works in the weight room with the players, running drills and helping coaches with the flow of practice.
For Kuo, it’s about connecting with the person sitting in his chair, tuning in to their mindset and learning their story. That is why every cut is free of charge.
How’d you get to where you are today?
Kuo listens to his clients answer this staple conversation starter whenever they sit in his chair. It’s how he forms deeper connections during the 30 minutes to an hour cut, he said.
“The haircuts will fade but the conversation is what will last forever,” he said.
Kuo’s haircuts are more like an experience than just a cut, making his services unique from a regular barber, said Anthony Duruji, a 23-year-old men’s basketball forward.
Duruji got his first cut after seeing how successful his teammate’s hair turned out.
“One of my former teammates, he had got a cut from him at first, and then I just hopped on,” Duruji said.
Kuo has been cutting Durujii’s hair for more than a year and a half, and said Kuo is lively and carries out rich conversations.
In the locker room, the two friends discuss their faiths and how religion is an integral part of both their lives.
“Being a basketball player is only one part of [Duruji’s] life,” Kuo said. “A lot of people only define him as a basketball player, but to me he’s a servant of God. He’s a leader in every aspect.”
Because he sees the players day in and day out, the relationship he shares with each of them makes the hair cut memorable, said Kowacie Reeves, an 18-year-old men’s basketball guard.
“You usually don’t know your barber, like on a personal level,” Reeves said. “You see [Kuo] everyday, you know him, and you just have more in common.”
Kuo has been associated with the UF’s basketball program since 2017 when he started as a practice player for the women’s basketball team. In following years, he took on a manager role helping set up the court for every game, participating in various practice and warm-up drills and helping the players during prehab, a preparation which reduces chances of injury.
Ever since he started working in the weight room with the men’s team in 2019, the basketball manager and strength and conditioning graduate intern said the heart-to-hearts are what made him fall in love with being a barber. However, the initial fascination with being able to snip and style hair began with a friend’s referral.
“One of my closest friends came into class one day with the freshest haircut, and I started asking him ‘Where’d you get your cut from?’” Kuo said.
After Kuo learned the barber had cut hair for some of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kuo decided to let him style his hair.
“I went to go see [the barber], got the cut, and I was like man this is the freshest cut I’ve ever gotten from anybody,” he said.
With the blade of a straight razor, Kuo tried trimming and maintaining his hair himself, hoping to prolong the cut.
After his friends started letting him cut their hair, one person led to another, building his clientele by word-of-mouth.
Consistency and lots of failures shaped Kuo’s skills into what they are today.
He remembers a time when he butchered one of his friend’s hairdos before an event, and his friend had to wear a hat and hoodie to hide it.
Although undesirable, there is value in the failures, Kuo said. If you are not failing then you are not trying to push yourself outside your comfort zone.
His athletic clients and friends account for the majority of his reach, but Kuo also makes a point once or twice a month to set up in various locations around Gainesville, such as UF’s Plaza of Americas, to give free trims to strangers.
A part of his personal mission is to help those less fortunate than him. As a way to work toward this goal he also volunteers his time at GRACE Marketplace, a local homeless shelter.
Kuo has dedicated time to the people staying at the shelter for more than three years, said Abigail Perret-Gentil, the shelter’s 36-year-old assistant director of community engagement.
It means a lot to the people at the shelter to get a fresh cut and feel good about themselves, Perret-Gentil said. They are often shunned from public spaces, so having contact with Kuo is also important, she said.
“Whenever Ju-Ray comes out, he’s just so kind and trauma informed,” Perret-Gentil said. “It brings people some normalcy aside from the need to have good hygiene.”
He does stylish cuts, not just simple buzz cuts, she said. He knows how to trim hair in ways that are relevant to different cultures, which she doesn’t see often.
If they want specific designs he happily obliges. If they are trying to get a job and have an interview, he does a clean-cut, professional look.
When his homeless clients take a final look in the mirror, he receives an outpouring of thanks and jaws drop to the floor. They are so grateful for his service, he said, for some it was their first haircut in five years.
“I just want to make sure that I can make people’s day,” Kuo said. “I really feel like if God gives you a gift it’s up to you to know how to use that gift to glorify Him.”
His friend who kickstarted his passion and led him to his strong-rooted faith all those years ago has since passed away. Every haircut done is in honor of what he did for Kuo as a way to keep paying the blessings forward, Kuo said.
“Life is about giving without limitations,” Kuo said.
The young barber plans to continue his mission of giving back to his community through thoughtful conversations, one free haircut at a time.
Contact Elena Barrera at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elenabarreraaa.
Elena is a second-year journalism major with a minor in health sciences. She is currently the University Administration reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing, Elena loves to work out, go to the beach and spend time with her friends and family.