Today is the 64th annual NBA All-Star Game, and we here at UPK are so excited to cheer on some of our former UK Wildcats! This year, the Western Conference team is featuring John Wall of the Washington Wizards (UK 2009-2010), and represented on the Eastern Conference team are Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans (UK 2011-2012) and DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings (UK 2009-2010).
To prepare ourselves for the game, we have been looking back over the careers of UK’s greatest players. John Wall receives a special highlight in the UPK book, Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats. He is described author, Doug Brunk, as “a key member of Coach John Calipari’s first recruiting UK class” who “led the 2009–2010 Wildcats in steals (an average of 1.8 per game), assists (an average of 6.5 per game), and scoring (an average of 16.6 per game).” Read his story in the excerpt below:
My mom, Frances Pulley, has always played an important role in my life. After my dad passed away when I was nine years old, she worked three or four jobs to make ends meet and to make sure that my sisters and I had a good life. She provided us with opportunities to reach our goals. There were times when Mom didn’t pay an electric bill so that I could compete in an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament. She’s been one of the biggest influential figures in my life.
Kentucky is a special place to be and a special place to play basketball. The Wildcat fans are amazing, twenty-four thousand strong at all the home games. What sets the state apart from others is that the people there love basketball so much. There are no NBA teams, NFL teams, or Major League Baseball teams in the state, so there’s nothing bigger than UK basketball from a sports standpoint.
I had always liked UK, and I made a couple of recruiting visits to the campus when I was in high school. I was impressed by the fans and how they treated me as a recruit, but the biggest reason I signed with UK had to do with Coach John Calipari being hired as the head basketball coach. My goal was to be in a program where I felt comfortable and was able to have fun. When I first met Coach Cal he seemed more interested in me as a person than as a player. We spent most of our time talking about life, not basketball. That impressed me, because when you’re being recruited you don’t want to hear a coach beg you to death and talk to you only about basketball, because there’s more to life. Choosing the college program you want to play for is a big decision, and once you sign the letter of intent, you’ve given your commitment. Coach Cal made the deci- sion to sign with UK easy for me. My mom trusted him right away, and he became a father figure to me.
Even though playing in the NBA was a lifelong dream of mine, I did not sign with UK knowing I’d stay just stay one year and then head to the NBA, but that’s how it was perceived by so many people. After our team lost to West Virginia University in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, a lot of us wanted to return the next season. I signed with UK to play basketball and try to help the program win a national championship. That was my goal. But after our 2009–2010 season I had a rare opportunity to be the number-one NBA draft pick that year, so that’s what I decided to do. I wanted to reach my dream of being an NBA player, but at the same time I did sit back and think, “I wish I could play at UK again.” But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I do plan to return to UK to get my degree.
The people who were most influential to me during my year at UK were the basketball coaching staff, my teammates, and Randall Cobb, who played on the UK football team. I looked up to Randall as a star on the football field and for how he played multiple positions. He was real competitive and a class-act guy. I watched every game I could to see how he performed. Every time he touched the ball he was trying to make a fundamental play, not a heroic play. That impressed me.
My coaches at UK taught me ways to become a better leader not only to lead the team but to go out on the basketball court, have fun, and enjoy myself. I could talk to them about anything. If I was having a bad day or if I was down about something, they’d pick me up. They didn’t babysit me and my teammates, but they wanted to make sure we were doing the right things on and off the court. I related to Rod Strickland in particular because he was a point guard during his college and NBA career. He taught me some moves and ways I could improve my game. In my book he was one of the best NBA point guards of his era, so it wasn’t hard for me to learn from a guy like that.
Another person influential to me was Reese Kemp, a boy from Nicholasville, Kentucky, who has cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I had the opportunity to meet Reese at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in 2009, and he’s been in my life ever since. He’s attended some Washington Wizards home games, and today I’m kind of like a big brother to him.
Playing my first few games as a Wildcat was special to me, especially having the game-winning shot against Miami University during a home game on November 16, 2009. That was my first game as a Wildcat. Other highlights for me were hitting a big-time layup during our win against the UConn Huskies in the SEC/Big East Challenge at Madison Square Garden and traveling to Cancun, Mexico, where we won the Cancun Challenge against Stanford University. Beating the University of North Carolina at Rupp Arena was also memorable, since I’m from that state. And being part of the team that won UK its two thousandth game against Drexel University on December 21, 2009, was big-time special. We also had fun during our run in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
As for the Big Blue Nation fans, they believed in me and what I could do on the basketball court. As a person and as a player I tried to be a class act. I think they understood that. They welcomed me with open arms, and I’m always welcomed back in Lexington. It’s like a second home to me. It’s amazing how supportive the fans were, wanting to talk to me after classes and sitting out- side Wildcat Lodge most every day waiting to get an autograph or to meet me. It was exciting. Some days I’d want a break from it, but I’d also keep in mind that I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at UK.
When I was given an opportunity to become the starting point guard for the Washington Wizards, I knew what would be expected of me thanks to the leadership lessons I learned at UK. That certainly helped me in my current role. I’m grateful that fans of the Big Blue Nation support me because I sure support them. Whenever I have the opportunity to see a game in Rupp Arena I travel back for that. I no longer wear a Kentucky uniform, but in September 2013 I returned to Rupp Arena with the Washington Wizards to compete against former Wildcats Anthony Davis and Darius Miller and the rest of the New Orleans Pelicans in an NBA preseason game. To be able to play on that court again was big-time special.
Here is all the info you need for the game tonight:
What: 64th NBA All-Star Game
When: Feb. 15, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden
TV: TNT, coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET