Tag Archives: Men’s Basketball

Farewell to a Sports Legend

NewtonC.M. Newton, a giant in the history of the University of Kentucky, the Southeastern Conference, and in the sport of basketball, died Monday, June 4. Newton launched a basketball coaching career that spanned three decades at three different institutions. He began in 1956 at Transylvania College (where he recruited that program’s first African-American player), followed by coaching stints at the University of Alabama (where he recruited that program’s first African-American player and led the Crimson Tide to three straight SEC titles) and at Vanderbilt University, before returning to his alma mater in 1989 to become UK’s athletic director, a post he held for 11 years.

Newton is widely credited for navigating the resurrection of UK’s basketball program after the NCAA imposed three years probation and other sanctions following the 1988–89 season. He also hired Bernadette Mattox as UK’s first African-American women’s basketball coach (in 1995) and Orlando (“Tubby”) Smith as the university’s first African-American men’s basketball coach (in 1997).

He served as president of USA basketball from 1992–1996 and helped select the United States Olympic “Dream Team” of 1992. In 2000 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

brunkCover.inddNewton reflected on his career in Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats by Doug Brunk. In honor of this sports legend, here is an excerpt from the book:


Having grown up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida I had never seen snow before I went to Kentucky. Being in such a different environment was quite a culture shock to me. In fact, there were times I was so homesick that I thought of leaving the program and returning to Florida. My teammate Ralph Beard and our team manager Humsey Yessin talked me out of that. They’d say things like, “you don’t want to leave Kentucky” and “we’re here for you.” So I stayed.

As a player I never had a significant impact because I was a substitute. But I always felt a part of something really big. The fact that I played on the 1951 national championship team, the fact that I made the travel squad, and that I was one of the first substitutes off the bench made it palatable for me.

Coach Rupp was very important to me because he motivated in a different way than what I was accustomed to. He motivated by fear, mostly, but he was an outstanding basketball coach. I never did break through that fear of Coach Rupp. For example, I’m the only player that ever played for Coach Rupp who went on to coach against him and won. This was in 1972, during my third year as coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Alabama. We beat the Wildcats 73-70 on our home court. Coach Rupp always considered former players as “one of his boys.” You never were a peer, but I wanted to be a coaching peer of his. When our Alabama team beat him that day I thought that might be a breakthrough on the way to that goal but it wasn’t. After our win he congratulated me and said we deserved to win. Then he said, “but…” — and with that I was transported right back to the player-coach relationship. “You’re trying to do too much offensively,” he told me. “You need to simplify your offense.” He wasn’t being critical; that was just his nature.

My freshman year as a player for UK was Coach Harry Lancaster’s first as a full-time assistant coach. Coach Lancaster actually did more teaching than Coach Rupp did. He was very good to me over the years, and very demanding. He became UK’s baseball coach my junior year and I was a member of that team. He was a task master but he was great to be around. I enjoyed him a great deal.

My teammates and I were student-athletes in the truest sense of the word. We were expected to come in and perform well in basketball as athletes, and we were expected to earn a degree in four years. Today’s players are much more coddled and recruited and different in that respect. I never will forget our transition from the 2,800-seat Alumni Gym, where I played until my junior year, to the 11,500-seat Memorial Coliseum. At the time many people thought Memorial Coliseum was just too big. “They’ll never fill it up,” critics said. But they did. There were similar sentiments expressed by critics and even by some coaches when Rupp Arena was built. Yet today, it’s difficult to find an open seat at any UK game played there. 

I was the head men’s basketball coach at Vanderbilt University in 1989 when I got a phone call from UK’s then-president Dr. David P. Roselle asking if I would consider becoming UK’s athletic director in the wake of an NCAA probation. I had no thought of leaving Vanderbilt for UK or anyplace else. But Dr. Roselle convinced me that I was not only wanted as the athletic director but that I was needed. It was the “needed” part that really got to me because UK had been so good to me over the years. They’d provided me an opportunity to receive an education and to play basketball. I had become a successful basketball coach because of my experience there. So off I went to UK.

[. . .]

The Big Blue Nation is fanatical about UK basketball. The way I see it, their level of devotion is on par with that of fans who follow Alabama Crimson Tide football. They are great fans in every respect of the word. Sometimes I felt like they took it too seriously and took it over the line, and yet you’d rather have that then have them be indifferent. People really care about Kentucky basketball. The Big Blue Nation includes people from all walks of life: alumni, bankers, coal miners, and even some who have never set foot on campus in Lexington. It doesn’t matter; they’re Kentucky fans.

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Kentucky Basketball Legends: Still Making Their Mark

Members of the 1998 Kentucky Men’s Basketball Championship team will sign Maker’s Mark annual commemorative bottles at the Keeneland Entertainment Center this Friday, April 13, at 7 a.m. Among those signing at the event will be forward guard Allen Edwards, guard Jeff Sheppard, and former UK head coach Tubby Smith, all of whom are featured in Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats. In this book, author Doug Brunk details the cherished bond between Kentucky basketball and the citizens of the Commonwealth through first-hand accounts from some of the Wildcats’ most renowned legends.

Tickets for the Maker’s Mark signing are already sold out, but you still have a chance to get up close and personal with these champions by way of this engrossing book. Below is an excerpt of Coach Tubby Smith’s chapter from Wildcat Memories:


As a coach, you love the fans, and you want their support. Having an affinity for the fan base is essential. You are providing a service coaching their team. You are trying to win, and you are trying to do the right things for your players, your coaches, the university, and the fans. Fans may boo you or cheer you. They call and they write with praise and criticism. But you can’t let that affect you, or you’re not going to last long in coaching or be successful in coaching. I became a college coach for the student-athletes, to get them educated and to teach them the game of basketball.

26Smith

During his ten-year tenure, Tubby Smith guided UK to one national championship, five SEC Tournament titles, and six Sweet Sixteen finishes. (Courtesy of Victoria Graff.)

During my tenure at UK there was an element of the fan base that didn’t think our teams had won enough games, but in five of my ten years as coach we probably played the toughest schedule in the history of UK basketball. I wish we could have won more games while I was head coach. But we were competitive, we graduated our players, and we kept the program clean. If there was pressure, it was pressure to make sure we did things in a first-class manner. 

One thing I appreciate about UK fans is that they know how to be grateful, because the program has been so successful , and the fans are proud of that success. They show their pride, and they should. They show their commitment by calling in to talk shows, writing letters, and flocking to Rupp Arena or wherever the team plays. You’re not going to find more loyal, passionate fans for their team than followers of the Wildcats. That’s the one common thing. Just about everybody in Kentucky is pulling for you to be successful. It’s a way of life in the Commonwealth. 

Who Inspired John Wall, UK Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee?

Wildcat memoriesWhen the news broke that John Wall would be inducted into the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame this year—the first of Coach Cal’s Cats to earn that honor—we were reminded of his poignant contribution to Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats. For this book, author Doug Brunk interviewed some of the program’s greatest coaches and players and asked them reflect on the people who served as their mentors during their tenure as Wildcats.

The following is excerpted from Wall’s chapter in the book:


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.

WallI 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 decision to sign with UK easy for me. My mom trusted him right away, and he became a father figure to me.

The people who were most influential to me during my year at UK were the basketball coaching staff, my teammates, and Randall Cobb,¹ 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 Strickland² 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,³ 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.

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.

Notes:
1. Randall Cobb was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. He will also be inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.
2. Rod Strickland was a member of John Calipari’s coaching staff from 2009 through the 2013–2014 campaign.
3. Reese Kemp is the founder of Reese’s Resources, Inc., a foundation aimed at raising awareness of cystic fibrosis.


Read more personal essays from Kentucky basketball legends including Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Dan Issel, Joe B. Hall, Kyle Macy, Darius Miller, and Tubby Smith in Wildcat Memories.