Nerves were just another hurdle for Polson to overcome

'little guy' has earned more than victory-cigar status through perseverance

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 27, 2011 

Kentucky's Jarrod Polson got his first meaningful minutes at South Carolina Saturday.

PABLO ALCALA | STAFF

Of course, freshman Jarrod Polson was nervous when Kentucky Coach John Calipari ordered him into the game at South Carolina last weekend. It was the first significant minutes for a player perceived to be a human victory cigar. Nothing more.

"Yeah, a little bit," he said Wednesday. "I'm not going to lie. I was a little bit nervous.

"But at the same time, I tried to keep my composure."

This yin and yang of nervousness and composure fits the dual approach Polson takes to being on the Kentucky team. He's thrilled about living his basketball dream. But he's not content with being the fan favorite who enters the game when little of consequence remains undecided.

These twin feelings merged earlier this season in a blog produced by The Kentucky Kernel, UK's student newspaper. Though glad all over, Polson acknowledged that the role of lovable fan favorite was growing old. This offended UK fans who saw being a Wildcat under any circumstances as beyond reflection.

Recalling the tempest, Polson said, "Make it clear, I love the fans, no matter what."

He understands what it's like to cheer for that last player off the bench. He did it himself. Long before being a UK player, he was a UK fan.

"At the same time, you want to be looked at as a player who can contribute," he said with his trademark boyish grin in place and illuminated. "Not just a half-court shooter. Or whatever they want."

Shoot! Shoot!

Fans in Rupp Arena barely wait for Polson to take possession of the ball before urging him to shoot. They implore. He tries to ignore.

"I really just try to get it out of my mind," he said. "I don't think Cal wants me to just shoot from half-court when I get in the game. I just try to do whatever the play call is. Run it, and go from there."

From half-court? At a recent home game, Polson was barely beyond the top of the key on the other end of the court when the first shouts of "Shoot!" could be heard.

When he passes, a groan can be heard. When competition becomes entertainment, a pass sounds like a turnover.

"What everybody is saying is, 'You need to pull one from behind half-court,' " he said. "I'm like, 'No. No way.' "

When asked whether he thinks fans are kidding when they suggest he shoot from half-court and beyond, Polson said, "Yeah, I hope they're kidding. But I don't know. Maybe some of them are serious."

Polson, who exudes a willingness to please, respectfully refuses the requests to shoot.

"I'm not just here to shoot and jack up shots," he said. "I'm here to do whatever (Calipari) wants me to do."

Doing what the coach wants got Polson on the court at South Carolina. This became apparent as early as last August when Kentucky played its exhibition games in Canada. The relatively little kid (6-foot-2) did not shy from competition. He thrust himself into the action while not venturing into foolhardiness.

Calipari noticed. "How about that?" Polson recalled the UK coach noting in a post-game locker-room talk. "He's not scared to go in there with the big boys."

To explain his fearlessness, Polson's parents recall the many times he played against two older brothers and their friends on the backyard court. Wes, who is seven years older, and Eric, four years older, were athletes. Wes played basketball in middle school and football in high school. Eric played in high school.

Jarrod, whom his mother, Chrisi, named after the Jarrod Barkley character in the 1960s television series The Big Valley, competed against older, bigger players long before he came to UK.

"So he's never been afraid at all," said his father, George Polson.

His 30 free throws made in 37 attempts in a game as a junior for West Jessamine remains a Kentucky high school record and serves as evidence of Polson's willingness to take on defenders.

An eternal question hung over Polson's college choice. Sit for UK or play for a smaller school, in his case Liberty.

"At the end, I just kind of felt a peace with God saying I needed to be at Kentucky," Polson said, "and at least try it out. If I hadn't come here, I'd always have wondered what-if? What if you went to Kentucky? That's what a lot of people were telling me who were close to me."

Although he came as a walk-on (later getting a scholarship), Polson quietly aspired to be a contributor. He listened to how Calipari said a player could get playing time.

"He's always like, you shouldn't be asking for playing time till you prove it," Polson said.

Polson worked hard. He stuck his nose in there. A few days before Kentucky played at South Carolina, Calipari told Polson he might play.

"He kept saying I was playing hard," Polson said, "and that's what he looks for from bench players. That made me play even harder in practice."

With 9:44 left in the first half at Columbia and UK leading 22-13, Calipari went down the bench, stopped at Polson and said, go in.

"I was really happy that he went by his word and actually put me in," Polson said. "I tried to play hard."

Like a pack of wolves spotting an unprotected lamb, South Carolina attacked Polson. He hung in there, which gave Brandon Knight a breather. For a Kentucky team with a six-player rotation, this helped.

Late in the half, Polson found himself with the ball and the clock inside the final 10 seconds. He attacked. Although he missed, Calipari appreciated how Polson took the initiative.

The moment took Polson back to those backyard games against his older brothers.

"I was always the little guy," he said. "I'm still kind of the little guy. I'm still having to find ways to score or do anything."

Playing against Eric, Polson perfected a way to quick-shoot before his older brother could time a rejection. He missed at South Carolina. But no doubt Eric, a Naval officer stationed in the Charleston, S.C., area and sitting in Colonial Life Arena, recognized the attempt.

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