By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word unique as “being the only one, without a like or equal; unusual”. My fourth most favorite player of all-time at Kentucky aptly matches that description. But it took him a while to figure that out.
Willie Cauley-Stein, as a personality and athlete, was “without a like or equal” while he played basketball at UK. As a four star player coming out of Olathe Northwest High School in Kansas Cauley-Stein was considered an add-on for a four player recruiting class that was headlined by the No. 1 player in the nation, Nerlens Noel. That class also included the 7th ranked player in Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin ranked No. 15 in the same class.
Cauley-Stein, as a freshman and sophomore at Kentucky, averaged 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds as a part-time player off the bench. In his freshman season unfortunately for Cauley-Stein and Kentucky fans top ranked player Nerlens Noel went down with a season ending knee injury in the middle of the season and Cauley-Stein was expected to step in and pick up the slack. It didn’t happen.
Willie struggled, the team struggled and eventually they ended the season by losing in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament to Robert Morris. It was the low point of the John Calipari era.
But it also served as a launching point for the Wildcats banner season in 2014. That team went on to play in the National Championship game against the Connecticut Huskies. Unfortunately for Cat fans and for Cauley-Stein he didn’t get to play in that game. An ankle injury ended his season early and he had to watch from the bench as his Wildcat team lost to the Huskies 60-54.
After the devastating defeat in the championship game Willie went home to Kansas, hung out with friends and spent the summer finding out who he really was.
Heading into that next year Willie, who had blocked 106 shots as sophomore, decided to forego an almost sure fire pick in the NBA lottery to return to Kentucky for his junior season.
Now this is where the unique part comes in. Willie Cauley-Stein was a unique athlete but also a unique individual. He thought differently, he interacted differently with fans and he liked to have his own personal style that was different from almost any other college player. Cauley-Stein said about that summer of change, “I really found myself over the summer,” he said. “I’m just unique. I do my own thing. I live by my own rules.”
And he does. He didn’t mind dying his hair different colors during the season, didn’t mind cutting it into various shapes or patterns and he didn’t mind not cutting it at all. All of those various stages of dress and hairstyle just allowed his personality to show through even more. His uniqueness became a sort of calling card for him. His college roommate Alex Poythress said this about Willie’s unique personality, “Willie is different … but it’s interesting talking with him. You learn a different insight of life talking to him. He’s comfortable. He’s Willie. He’s not going to change for nobody. He’s cool being in La-La Land, which he is.”
Just keep in mind that this player from La-La Land was a consensus First Team All-American as a junior, was the National Defensive Player of the Year per the NABC that same season and ended his career as the second leading all-time shot blocker at UK. He also averaged almost 10 points per game and more than six rebounds per game.
But the thing that I loved about Cauley-Stein’s career at UK was the enthusiasm he brought to life. He approached life with a flair, whether it was through his outrageous dunks, his different hairstyles, his love of art or his sometimes different outfits and demeanor. Willie was always Willie. He didn’t try to be someone else. He knew exactly who he was and was comfortable with it. This is what he said about being himself, “You know, now it’s like: That’s who I am, the way I dress, the way I talk, the way I do things, what I say on Twitter, it’s just like that’s who you are, so don’t try to mask who you are just because of what other people think of you. It’s like a thousand pounds off your shoulder. You don’t have to worry about that aspect of your life, and you can just do what you were really trying to accomplish.”
Those are wise words for anyone to follow in any aspect of life. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure that out and in Cauley-Stein’s case it took him a couple of years in the spotlight at UK before he realized who he truly was. He said, “I used to be super self-conscious about my height, I mean, going everywhere and someone just looking at you. You’re never not in the spotlight. I don’t like to be in the spotlight. I like to just chill and observe other people. And it’s kind of weird, because I’d be walking around and people are looking at me and I’m just staring back at them, like, ‘I’m trying to figure out what you’re trying to do.’ ”
As I said in my first article, my favorite players aren’t always the guys that score the most points or have the best dunks – although Willie had some great ones – but are the players that bring something special to the game. Cauley-Stein is one of those players.
He brought passion and flair when he played for UK and he brought passion and flair to life. And you can’t ask for more than that in a player. Especially one that is 7’ tall and can run the length of a basketball floor in about 3 seconds.