Watching Dirk Nowitzki shoot the Dallas Mavericks into this year's NBA Finals, it's easy to forget he once flirted with the idea of leading one or more of Kentucky's annual quests for college basketball glory.
UK Coach John Calipari posted on Twitter last week a reminder that Wayne Turner served as a guide when Nowitzki made a recruiting visit in 1998.
When asked last week about his brush with basketball celebrity, Turner said, "It was a weird visit because he came after the season was done."
The visit came after UK won the 1998 national championship. With most of the players gone, then-Coach Tubby Smith asked his son, Saul Smith, and Turner to act as hosts for Nowitzki and his family.
"We took them on a tour of the great blue and white university," Turner said with a chuckle. " ... We took him to the (Wildcat) Lodge. We took him to Memorial (Coliseum). We took him around the city, off campus a little bit, just to show him what was around."
As Turner recalled, the Lodge made a big impression. One place exclusively for basketball players (now the NCAA insists students — as opposed to student-athletes — live in every housing facility). One place conveniently located across the street from the basketball offices and practice facility.
"He liked it," Turner said of the visit. "I think he would have eventually come to Kentucky if he wasn't projected to go top 10 in the draft that year."
And Turner took a liking to Nowitzki.
"He was, like, really, really mature," Turner said of the Nowitzki of 13 years ago. "He could speak good English. You could tell he was serious about playing basketball. It seemed he already knew what he wanted. Without saying he was not coming to Kentucky, you could kind of tell what he was going to do."
Tubby Smith had no illusion of persuading Nowitzki, then considered Europe's version of Larry Bird, to play for Kentucky. The UK coach told his son and Turner that Nowitzki was not likely going to play for UK. But it wouldn't hurt to show him a good time and hope.
"Coach said he could shoot," Turner said. "He could handle the ball and shoot it really well at seven feet (tall). So I was, like, wow. I wanted to see this guy play. Looking at him, you couldn't imagine he was so versatile. Coach Smith said, 'He's the real deal.'"
According to news clippings circa 1998, Nowitzki considered California, which had wooed him for two years, and Kentucky.
Ultimately, of course, Nowitzki entered the 1998 NBA Draft. He's been a perennial all-star. Turner hasn't spoken to Nowitzki since the visit.
"It would have been nice to have said I played with Dirk Nowitzki," Turner said. "But I can say I met him, though."
Q&A with Todd
After the Athletics Board of Directors meeting last week, retiring president Lee T. Todd Jr. answered a few questions about whether Rupp Arena should be renovated or a new facility constructed.
Question: Will you acknowledge that UK prefers a new arena rather than a renovation of Rupp?
Answer: "UK prefers it be downtown. That is our first preference. And we would hope it'd be downtown and accommodate the needs of our program."
Q: John Calipari and Mitch Barnhart talk about how UK basketball needs to be the gold standard. Why doesn't Rupp Arena represent the gold standard?
A: "If you go out and compare it to amenities in other forums that are out there, (Rupp Arena) has got a lot of things missing. The suites. The club (seating), which is very attractive to fans. Video boards. So it is lacking some things. We want to keep it an up-to-date arena."
Q: Why is keeping current important?
A: "It gives fans a better experience. And it gives you the opportunity (to boost) K Fund donations. We're in the lower third (of the SEC). The more money we can generate, the more things we can do with that funding. We're missing an opportunity, I think, to maximize the potential we can get from the fan base willing to pay it if we provide something different."
Q: Given the sluggish economy, how realistic is the option of constructing a new arena?
A: "It's really tough to figure out when it could happen. Our lease is coming up (in 2018). So there is time we have to discuss it. Doing anything to football or any major arena or anything on (building new) classrooms (is difficult). So I'm not sure what the time line can realistically be."
Although he's moved on to Minnesota, former UK Coach Tubby Smith continues to have an influence in Lexington. His Tubby's Klubhouse endeavor recognized its latest "graduates" on Thursday.
Tubby's Klubhouse (the "K" is in tribute to long-time equipment manager Bill Keightley) works through its sponsors to provide children with computer know-how.
Upon completion of a 40-hour program, the children are given computers and printers. In its seven years, Tubby's Klubhouse has given computers to more than 1,200 children.
As part of Thursday's program, Smith spoke via speaker phone to this year's graduates.
SEC in Destin
The SEC will hold its annual Spring Meeting in Destin, Fla., this week. The activity begins Tuesday and ends Friday.
The agenda includes what's become known as "full cost of attendance," an innocuous term that essentially means paying athletes.
Under the current system, an athletic scholarship includes tuition, housing, classroom materials and other expenses. But Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany got the athletic world's attention by endorsing a proposal to include transportation and a stipend for personal expenses as covered by scholarship money.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive followed up by saying he wanted his league to discuss the idea in Destin.
The paying of players cuts to the heart of how college athletics should be viewed. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on seeking a "level playing field" in which there is at least the appearance of an equal chance of success. Limits are put on the richer programs.
Obviously, the paying of players would favor schools that can afford the added expense. Rather than endorse a caste system of haves and have-nots, supporters of the paying of players couch their argument as an attempt at improving "student-athlete welfare." After all, only a stony-hearted person could oppose giving an athlete enough spending money to take his honey to the malt shop.
The idea of haves and have-nots has led to speculation that the more powerful schools will split from the socialistic NCAA arrangement.
Another issue on the Destin agenda is the practice of "over-signing." Although the SEC limits classes of football signees to 28 each year, schools get around that limitation by having players enter school in January, when they count toward the next year's limit.
In the interim, schools can weed out existing players to meet the NCAA overall limit of 85 on scholarships.
The basketball coaches are expected to discuss a proposal to do away with the two divisions. UK Coach John Calipari will chair the meetings. By the way, he wasn't elected. The position is assigned on a rotating basis.
Leftovers from the UKAA Board of Directors meeting:
■ UK sold only about 4,000 of its 10,000-ticket allotment for the 2010 bowl game. Since the bowl required schools to sell their 10,000 tickets or compensate the bowl for unsold tickets, UK had an added expense of $300,000.
■ When it was noted that UKAA paid UK for its athletic scholarships, board member Frank Shoop asked, "Is there no discount for volume?" Told there was no discount for having to pay for 340 scholarships, Shoop said, "I think that's quite a statement."
■ Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart noted that UKAA pays for scholarships for managers, trainers and other support personnel, as well as players.
Finance professor Joe Peek, the faculty representative on the Board of Trustees, was unimpressed. "These people are working for you," he said. "You hire them. You're paying them. That's for services rendered."
■ Peek suggested that UKAA reluctantly donates $1.7 million annually to the school. He said that UKAA must be shamed into donating.
The annual donation began in 1988 with a transfer of $1.5 million. At that time, the athletics budget was $13.7 million.
UKAA increased the donation to $1.7 million in 2009 when the budget had exceeded $50 million.
When asked if he expected the donation to increase again, Peek said, "I have a feeling it never changes unless pressure is brought to bear. I don't see this as a voluntary thing. I wish it were."
■ Barnhart sounded exasperated with reporters who compare UKAA's donation with what other athletics departments say they give their schools. He suggested that UK's donation compares more favorably than the numbers might indicate.
"The first thing you do is run to other schools to say, 'What do you do?' " Barnhart told reporters. "It's not apples to apples. You're going to have to figure that out at some point in time. (Figure out) that the budget numbers and figures you get are not apples to apples. Till you can figure that out, you'll never accurately depict what goes on in that deal."
UK basketball's grade-point average of 3.14 in the spring semester of 2011 was eighth best among the school's teams.
The five best GPAs belonged to women's teams: Cross country (3.65), tennis (3.57), softball (3.39), track (3.37) and soccer (3.34).
Five of the six worst belonged to men's teams: football (2.34), tennis (2.47), baseball (2.74), swimming and diving (2.90) and track (2.93).
UK announced the hiring of Chris Woolard as associate athletics director of basketball operations. He will act as Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's liaison to John Calipari's program.
But surely Calipari hired Woolard.
Woolard had been working for Conference USA office since July 2004. Since 2008, he had been associate commissioner for sports services, a job in which he administered the men's basketball program and acted as director for the annual men's basketball tournament.
Woolard was known as a close confidant of Calipari, so close that Calipari consulted with Woolard about possible job opportunities.
"We have had a strong working relationship in the past and look forward to our future at UK," Calipari tweeted.
Woolard, once an assistant coach at Murray State, will work as a liaison not only to Barnhart, but also to the UK campus and the state, Calipari tweeted.
In his column for ESPN.com, college basketball analyst Jay Bilas listed the coaches he saw as most under-appreciated.
The list included:
■ Mark Fox, Georgia. "Fox is one of the best young coaches in college basketball, and he gets it. Tough, strong-willed and technically sound, Fox has the complete package. He has taken Georgia from the bottom of the SEC to the NCAA Tournament in just two seasons, and he has recruited well and sold the program. Fox is an outstanding coach."
■ Bob Marlin, Louisiana-Lafayette. "A Mississippi native, Marlin is a quiet, no-nonsense man and coach, and he is one of the best-kept secrets in the college game. I watched Marlin prepare his Sam Houston State team for the NCAA Tournament in 2010, and he coached a great game against a superior Baylor team and gave his players a chance to win. Marlin is technically sound but also strong-minded. He can coach with anyone in the game."
To former UK president David Roselle. He turns 72 on Monday.
Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.