By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
“These kids are resilient. They deserve all the credit,” Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne said. “When you come to a school like Kentucky, it’s not talked about a lot, but you have to overcome adversity. … Things aren’t gonna go your way in a game, just like life. How are you gonna handle it? Who are you? What are you about? You may get a bad whistle, you may not.”
This quote from Kentucky’s Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne made me stop and think. If you think about it he is exactly right. So many players have come through this Kentucky program and have had to face adversity. And not just the type of adversity Coach Payne is taking about.
Sure, there is the adversity they all see from what seems like a biased whistle by referees when it comes to foul calls on the floor or maybe it’s the crowd noise and chants they get at almost every sold out venue where they play on the road. It’s cliche to say but John Calipari is right, the Kentucky game is circled on every opponent’s schedule as their Super Bowl. Every time they play on the road these guys have to face a “white out”, “black out”, “free pizza night”, or some other marketing gimmick to get the fans as psyched up as possible to try to help their hometown team beat Kentucky.
That’s a lot of adversity. Especially if you are a player known for 3-point shooting and you hit two out of 10 shots for the game. Or even worse shoot an air ball during the game. You’ll hear about it for the rest of the game. Everytime you touch the ball chants of “Airball, Airball” ring out throughout the gym.
Or maybe you are a former high school player from Georgia or Arkansas and you have to make the return trip to your home state each year to play against the in-state university that you spurned. It’s tough when, as you play for the Wildcats in a tight game, the fans heartily boo you every time you touch the ball.
As an 18 or 19 year old freshman that can be a tough thing to go through, knowing the people in the state you grew up in now dislike you enough that they would boo throughout the game just to show you how much they don’t appreciate your decision to leave and play for some other school.
You see it in every game, guys struggling to make shots, hanging their head when they get beat on defense or miss a block out assignment and their opponent dunks on them. And it’s all documented right there on national television for everyone to see. If you happen to miss it, that’s ok, because if it was a really bad play in a bad loss you can catch the highlights of your poor play on ESPN’s Sports Center or through various websites on the internet and throughout social media.
Ah, social media. That’s one I forgot to mention. Adults sending kids ugly messages, cursing them, disparaging them and their family, because the kid couldn’t hit a free throw at the end of the game to beat their hated rival. Or maybe the clothes they choose to wear or the hairstyle they have doesn’t match up with that person’s particular taste.
At Kentucky it’s been said that every player is constantly under a microscope, constantly watched by fans and the media. Any misstep they make is publicized, scrutinized, agonized, demonized and ultimately the pressure becomes giganticized in the lives of each player. They have to be tough to survive.
And frankly, figuratively speaking, some don’t. They decide to transfer to a location that doesn’t have quite the visibility that Kentucky Basketball has or some just pull back into a shell. A shell that doesn’t allow them to do anything outstanding because the pressure is too much. It’s easier to go into the game, play a few minutes, try not to make any glaring errors and then sit back down again with a big sigh of relief.
In fact, this quote from former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton, about his thinking as he was preparing to play in the World Series maybe sums up how some of the players feel as they get ready to take the floor as a player at UK.
Bouton said, “When I pitched in the World Series in ’63 and ’64 I won two out of three games and the only thought that went through my mind was, ‘Please don’t let me embarrass myself out there.’ No thought of winning or losing. If you told me beforehand that I would lose the game but it would be close and I wouldn’t be embarrassed, I might well have settled for that. I was terrified of being humiliated on national television and in front of all my friends.”
You can see, coming from a former professional baseball player, what the pressure and adversity of playing big-time sports can do to an individual.
So I think Kenny Payne is exactly right when he said, “These kids are resilient, they deserve all the credit.”
They deserve all the credit and usually also deserve a lot more slack than some fans are willing to give them. Unfortunately in this ultra-competitive age I don’t look for that to change anytime soon. And that’s a shame because after all, each one of these players are someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s next door neighbor and with a slight twist of fate, they could have been yours.