UK hoops notebook: Shooting focused coach

In hospital, UK assistant Antigua found passion for game

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJune 14, 2009 

Survivor of a bullet wound to the head. Accomplice in arguably Kentucky's most painful loss in Rupp Arena. Shaker of Nelson Mandela's hand.

No one can say Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua's life hasn't had compelling moments.

That life nearly came to an end when Antigua was a high school sophomore. On Halloween night, he and a friend were walking along a New York City street when they came upon a group of people arguing.

Someone threw an egg. After dodging the egg, the man made eye contact with Antigua, pulled a revolver and shot him near the left eye.

Antigua staggered, then fell on the hood of a parked car. As he held the side of his face, he shouted, "He shot me! He shot me!"

A police officer quickly arrived at the scene. Antigua approached him, but in the confusion, the officer shoved the wounded man to the street hard enough to break a collarbone.

Then the story takes an even wilder turn.

"I hear an ambulance," Antigua said. "I get up and start chasing it."

The ambulance is taking someone else to a hospital. But seeing a man bleeding profusely, it slows to a stop, and then takes on a second emergency patient.

"I thumbed it," Antigua said of the trip to the hospital.

As he lay in a crowded hospital awaiting medical attention, Antigua's life did not flash in front of his eyes as much as its future possibilities came into focus.

"It helped me appreciate my family and the opportunity to live," he said. "I also recognized how much basketball meant to me. To recognize that passion that early helped me put in the work I needed to try to be successful."

Twice doctors scheduled a surgery to remove the bullet. Twice they concluded the operation was too risky. The bullet could be removed, but Antigua could lose his hearing and/or eyesight.

"They felt the body would naturally push it in time to a place where it could easily be extracted," Antigua said of the bullet. "That time came my junior year at Pitt."

While playing in Puerto Rico in the summer, Antigua noticed blood and puss coming out of his left ear. By sticking a finger in the ear, he could feel the bullet.

Once back at Pittsburgh, he underwent a two-hour procedure in which a doctor extracted the bullet through the ear canal.

No anesthesia. "Pretty painful," Antigua said before quipping, "I had to bite the bullet."

Thinking back, Antigua expressed thanks for basketball, which gave him a reason to persevere and put him in contact with top medical personnel.

When asked how the story would have turned out without basketball, he said, "I'd be like any other kid in New York. Who knows? Depressed. Sad. You have a built-in excuse why not to succeed."

Antigua twice crossed paths with UK before accompanying new head coach John Calipari from Memphis. As a high school player at St. Raymond's, he drew the recruiting attention of then-UK coach Rick Pitino. He had played with two other future Cats on New York's famed Gauchos: Jamal Mashburn and Andre Riddick.

But a week before he was to make a recruiting visit, Antigua learned that the last available scholarship had gone to Aminu Timberlake.

Antigua went to Pittsburgh, where he contributed to the 85-67 victory at Kentucky in November 1991. That was the game that denied Pitino a triumphant return to New York in the Pre-Season NIT. Darren Morningstar and Sean Miller starred for Pitt in that game, while Antigua contributed nine points and eight rebounds.

Antigua recalled Pitt coming into the game with a chip on its shoulder.

"We had a bunch of guys on the team from New York," he said. "We understood that everybody (on UK's team) was already purchasing tickets to go back to New York for the NIT.

"That kind of fueled us a little bit."

After college, Antigua pondered his basketball future. He grabbed the chance to be the first Latino player for the Harlem Globetrotters.

"It was a great experience," said Antigua, who was born in the Dominican Republic. "I met a lot of people."

Surely no one made a deeper impression than Mandela, who inspired a movement that ended apartheid in South Africa. He later became that country's president, the office he held when he welcomed the Globetrotters for a charity performance on his birthday.

Antigua recalled shaking Mandela's hand afterward.

"You could sense an aura about him," the UK assistant said. "You don't get that from everybody."

Don't ask, don't tell

You have your memories of the Billy Gillispie error, uh, era. I have mine.

At Mississippi State two years ago, I watched Gillispie, then in his first season as UK coach, call A.J. Stewart off the bench and into the game. Because Stewart seldom played, especially in a hotly contested conference game, I watched only Stewart as he moved immediately to Jarvis Varnado's side and began fouling the State big man in an exaggerated (but harmless) fashion. Stewart kept his eyes on a referee as if to say, "Call the foul!"

UK obviously wanted to send Varnado, a poor foul shooter, to the line in hopes he'd miss and the Cats could have a chance to erase a late-game deficit. A few minutes later, Patrick Patterson put his hands all over Varnado. Again, the UK player looked at a referee as if to implore a foul call.

When asked in the post-game news conference how often he'd resorted to such a strategy, Gillispie feinted puzzlement. He did no such thing, he said. Believe me, not your lying eyes, he seemed to say in a slightly indignant tone. Then last fall, Stewart admitted he followed orders by fouling Varnado on purpose.

When asked how it felt to be asked to perform such a duty, Stewart said, "Just to foul?"

Yes.

"It sucks," he said "Man, I don't even know what to tell you."

Never before had he been asked to go in a game and foul, Stewart said. Gillispie could not admit the strategy because it's supposed to warrant a technical foul.

"We actually practiced that before the game," said Stewart, who then recalled the specific instruction. " 'A.J., if I put you in to foul, this is how you're going to do it.' "

Gillispie instructed Stewart to foul without risking a flagrant foul, the player said. Foul, but don't hurt or anger.

"So I was at one end of the floor practicing fouling for a while," Stewart said. "That was kind of different."

Faith-based initiative

New UK coach John Calipari asked that a chapel service before each game be made available for any interested players. But Calipari will not attend.

Before rushing to any conclusions, fans should know that Calipari will not attend the services so the players will know it's completely voluntary.

"I don't want players to think that they have to go," he told Cross Roads, a biweekly publication of The Catholic Diocese of Lexington.

In its June 7 edition, Cross Roads published a story on the value Calipari places on faith. Correspondent Margaret Gabriel noted how the new UK coach credits God and a master plan for the twists and turns that come with life.

Calipari offered Gabriel a rhetorical question. "Why wasn't I offered the job at UK two years ago?" he said.

Then Calipari answered. "I wouldn't have been able to coach my last two teams or play in the national final game."

As Calipari noted in his introductory news conference, his is an ecumenical family. He is a Catholic. His wife, Ellen, belongs to the Methodist church. Their children, daughters Erin and Megan, plus son Bradley, were raised as Methodists.

Calipari said he does not try to proselytize to players.

"I try to let my life speak for the way that I live my faith, and I try to let the way that I live my faith motivate them," he told Cross Roads. "It's not my job to preach to them."

Ex files

Former UK player A.J. Stewart appears to be headed for a transfer to Central Florida. He recently forwarded his transcript to the school.

But Stewart's high school coach, Rex Morgan, wants the player to visit at least one other school before deciding. Morgan noted that Stewart signed with UK in 2006 without visiting the other schools on his final list: Illinois, Kansas State and Clemson.

Another former UK player, Donald Williams, said at mid-week that he continued to weigh his options. Attending a junior college was among the options, he said.

Vitale defends Cal

The ebullient one, Dick Vitale, left a phone message last week to say critics have been "totally unfair" to new Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Critics who rehash the Marcus Camby scandal (paid by agent while playing for Calipari at UMass) are driven by a "personal agenda," Vitale said.

The NCAA did not cite Calipari by name in the UMass case (the Minutemen had to vacate their appearance in the 1996 Final Four). And in the pending case involving Memphis, Calipari received a letter from the NCAA that said he was not "at risk."

Eyebrows also raised when three starters from Memphis' 2008 Final Four team had attended Laurinburg Institute, a North Carolina-based prep school that subsequently learned its academic records would not be accepted by the NCAA.

Vitale, who turned 70 last week, said he was "fed up" with the criticism these cases fueled.

"Living in America, you're innocent until proven guilty," said Vitale, who added that Calipari had become a "victim."

An unabashed Calipari fan, Vitale made the same points early in the week on his ESPN.com blog.

"I feel there are some envious people, jealous of his success," Vitale wrote. "Remember, he did not come up in a pedigree situation."

'Holy Rams'

Inquiring minds wanted to know about the nickname Holy Rams. That's the nickname for UK recruit John Wall's school, Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C.

When asked about the nickname's origins, the school's athletic director, Kevin Washington, noted Word of God's Christian affiliation.

"It's a spiritual organization," he said.

By the way, nearby Mount Zion, formerly a Christian school that once produced top-level basketball talent, was the Holy Warriors. So the "holy" is easy to understand.

But Rams? Perhaps the more biblical "Lambs" would be too passive a nickname. And "Fighting Lambs" would be too much of an oxymoron.

Weren't rams sacrificed to God in Old Testament scripture? Let's go with that.

Madness, UK style

Perhaps Rich Brooks thinks Big Blue Madness would be aptly named if held in Commonwealth Stadium, an idea promoted by basketball coach John Calipari earlier this spring. A court placed in Commonwealth Stadium might do damage to the turf.

Then there's the possibility of the football coach feeling territorial about another sport, especially high and mighty Kentucky basketball, usurping the facility.

If Brooks had such notions, he kept them to himself. The UK football coach took the high road when asked about a Madness on his team's playing surface.

"I'll let the people in charge of making those decisions make those decisions," Brooks told Chip Cosby, who covers UK football for the Herald-Leader.

Happy birthday

To Eddie Fogler. He turned 61 on Friday.

In his coaching career, Fogler guided Vanderbilt and then South Carolina to Southeastern Conference championships.

He also gained a reputation as a straight shooter, a person not afraid to give voice to unpopular truths.

Now retired from coaching and living in the Columbia, S.C., area, Fogler keeps a hand in basketball as a commentator. He also helps organize the Las Vegas-based tournament that included Kentucky among its participants last season.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com.

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