Sahvir Wheeler and Lance Ware were Kentucky players at a name, image and likeness event in Danville last month. But who was the third person sitting with them behind a baseline before this Players First Satellite Pro Camp began?
I approached this person and asked. His name was Jarvis Byrd, He said he had been on the Asbury University team the last two seasons and was transferring to play for Stillman College next season.
When he said his father was former UK player Leroy ByrdI said I covered Kentucky basketball when his father played.
Jarvis’ eyes widened in disbelief.
Actually, my first season covering Kentucky basketball was 1981-82 (or two years before Jarvis’ father, aka “Baby Magic,” was a freshman). From the beginning and through 41 seasons, I’ve felt fortunate to be reporting and writing about such a prestigious program.
Retirement — Friday was my last day as a Herald-Leader sports reporter — brings reflection. I’ve always worked in a bubble, almost always thinking only of the last one or two stories (darn it, I see how that could have been better) and the next one or two (how can I make them better?).
To ponder 41 years of reporting and writing about Kentucky basketball makes my eyes widen in disbelief.
“Work,” which always seemed a misnomer, was watching ultra-talented players play and highly regarded teams compete. As a bonus, the setting could be a consequential game that further galvanized already zealous readers. And every so often, it felt like witnessing history.
There are many people to thank. Mike Connellmy last sports editor at the newspaper in Huntington, W.Va., the Herald-Dispatch, recommended me to his counterpart in Lexington. Mike Johnsonthen the sports editor of The Herald, took a chance by hiring me. Gene Abell and Mat Graf followed as guiding lights.
John Carrollwhose résumé included several Pulitzer Prizes, and later Tim Kelly set the tone for wanting objective journalism.
In a city and UK campus where everyone initially was a stranger, then-columnist DG FitzMaurice was a willing guide. He provided a much-appreciated friendly welcome that included his infectious sense of humor and an introduction to Long Island tea.
Fellow staffers like Mike Fields, John Clay, Mark Story, Franklin Renfro, Mark Sonka and so many others gave me moral support and valued friendships. They were all also part of a newsroom camaraderie I will miss. Fellow media members who covered UK or other college basketball programs expanded this bond.
Since the announcement of my retirement, I’ve been asked to name my favorite players and games to cover. So, here goes.
A list of favorite players could fill up this entire space. Every UK season had players who were fun to watch play and/or bounce questions off of. I recall DeMarcus Cousins wearing glasses in a postgame interview. When he was about opponents being too physical, I suggested he wear glasses while playing. No one would hit someone wearing glasses. He laughed.
Here are three players that stand out:
Jamal Mashburn, I’ve heard many coaches say what separates a good player from a great player is that the great player makes his teammates better. That described Mashburn. At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he had a power forward’s body yet exhibited guard skills.
And the moment made the man even more distinctive. He led Kentucky’s improbably rapid recovery from NCAA probation (aka “Kentucky’s Shame” as the Sports Illustrated cover dubbed it) to the Elite Eight in 1992 (first year off probation) and the 1993 Final Four. Kentucky was Kentucky again.
Tyler Ulis, His David-and-Goliath presence on the court was irresistible. John Calipari and the five other UK coaches I’ve covered had many standout point guards, but Ulis’ numbers testify to his supremacy. This was apparent immediately. When UK played exhibition games in the Bahamas in the summer of 2014, Ulis was obviously the smartest player on the court. He repeatedly threw touch passes down the court after receiving an outlet pass. This from a freshman who had yet to play a college game. And in the muscle and bustle of the lane he experienced in two UK seasons, he conceded nothing to bigger opponents.
Eric Daniels, In the 1970s, a friend and I used to laugh about arm fakes. For us, they were more a comedic device than a serious basketball tactic. Then Daniels came along in the early 2000s and showed how an arm fake could still work if employed by a wily, cerebral player. At 6-foot-8 and 214 pounds, he was an undersized “five-man,” yet he became a 1,000-point scorer (1,053) thanks to brain-can-beat-bran alternatives.
When it comes to the stuff of history, national championships in 1996, 1998 and 2012 must come first.
Three other games remain vivid memories:
Kentucky-Louisville in the 1983 Mideast Region finals played in of all places Knoxville. It was dubbed “the Dream Game” because … duh. Louisville had been lobbying for a series. Kentucky resisted. The in-state non-rivals had not played since the 1959 NCAA Tournament and not in a regular season since 1922. Seeing Kentucky and Louisville players warming up on the same floor was stunning. The overtime thriller (OK, U of L won 80-68) was so compelling it led to reports of the state legislature considering a law mandating a UK-U of L series. UK yielded and the series began the next season and continues to the present.
The Christian Latter game. Does anything else need to be said? I was overwhelmed by the magnificence of this game. My instinct not to overreact led to a failure to immediately appreciate the game’s historic significance.
The “Mardi Gras Miracle.” Kentucky rallied from 31 points behind with less than 17 minutes left to win 99-95 at LSU on Feb. 15, 1994. Reporters covering Kentucky that season signaled to each other during games that the winner was decided by putting a palm down on the table. Close the book on this game. With UK down 31 points in the second half, all others put their palms down. I resisted because of the power of the three-point shot, the signature weapon of Rick pitino‘s UK teams. Making 15 of 37 three-point shots in the game helped Kentucky rally to victory.
These are only a few of the many memories that came with covering Kentucky basketball for so long.
You could say this is the end of an era. Or if so inclined, the end of an error.
After Kentucky’s first-round loss to Saint Peter’s in this year’s NCAA Tournament, I expected unhappiness to be directed my way. A reader angered by me asking Kellan Grady about his poor shooting in the game (I forget that postgame news conferences can be seen on the internet), sent a blistering email. It included six F-bombs. More than one F-bomb was directed at me.
Believe it or not, I’ve welcomed reader reaction be it praise (blush) or damnation (I’ll think about your complaint).
It’s all part of being thankful for what became almost literally a chance of a lifetime to report and write about Kentucky basketball. Unfortunately, I can’t see into the future (that would have been helpful), but surely in the basketball sense Kentucky will continue to be Kentucky. Thinking of the joy this gives UK fans will make me smile.
Since this past season, more than 1,700 players have entered the NCAA transfer portal. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said this increases anxiety in college basketball.
“Players have always understood that talent is coming in behind them,” he said. “But … players have a more difficult time wrapping their heads around an established player that is older than you could be coming in to compete with you.”
How does such a scenario work on a player’s mind?
“Everyone has feelings of insecurity,” Bilas said. “Fans years ago used to know what you have coming back. And the only variable was what good young players do we have coming in?
“Now you might get the best player off an NCAA Tournament team from last year. … It’s a different dynamic.”
Grevey the recruiter
Here’s a follow-up to last week’s note about UK fan Jack Taylor‘s plan to give former UK All-American Kevin Grevey the game ball used in Kentucky’s historic 92-90 victory over undefeated Indiana in the 1975 NCAA Tournament.
Former UK coach Joe. B. Hall gave the ball to Taylor, who was a second cousin, as a gift for helping with a move to a new home.
Taylor recalled attending a high school all-star game — The Capitol Classic — with his father, Hall and Grevey. This game between the US All-Stars and the DC All-Stars came at the end of Grevey’s rookie NBA season of 1975–76 with the Washington Bullets.
One of the potential recruits in the game was 6-foot-10 Glen Grunwald, As Taylor recalled, Hall asked Grevey to meet with Grunwald and “try to persuade him toward Kentucky.”
After the meeting, Hall asked Grevey what he said to Grunwald.
Grevey playfully replied, “I told him the same (BS) you told me.”
Grunwald, a native of the Chicago area, signed with Indiana.
To former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, He turned 71 on Thursday. … To Davion Mintz, He turned 24 on Thursday. … To Tom Parker, He turned 72 on Friday. … To Nancy Lieberman, She turned 64 on Friday. … To UK Athletics Hall of Fame broadcaster Ralph Hacker, He turned 78 on Saturday. … To CBS commentator Clark Kellogg, He turned 61 on Saturday. … To former Notre Dame coach Richard “Digger” Phelps, He turns 81 on Monday. … To Todd May, He turns 58 on Tuesday.
This story was originally published July 3, 2022 6:00 AM.