Notebook

Jerry Tipton: Wiltjer's hook part of dad's playbook

'Old-school' persistence pays

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJune 19, 2011 

On the recruiting trail, Kentucky freshman-to-be Kyle Wiltjer called his father "my big mentor." He was not referring to imposing height. He meant sizable impact, which, of course, cuts to the heart of Father's Day.

Greg Wiltjer, 6-foot-11 and a former basketball player himself, worked with his son since Kyle was in elementary school. Father preached hard work and a versatile game.

The father's influence seems most telling when Kyle shoots — if you'll pardon the expression — a hook shot. The son came reluctantly to this largely forgotten region of versatility.

"When it's coming from dad, 'Oh, it's old school,' " Greg said of the now largely extinct scoring maneuver.

An assist from Texas Coach Rick Barnes changed Kyle's outlook. When watching Kyle play in a summer game, Barnes noted, "I haven't seen a kid shoot a hook shot in 20 years."

Voila! Basketball's version of the dodo bird intrigued a big-time coach. So its appeal grew on Kyle.

"All of a sudden," Greg said, "it's cool."

Father put son through what they called the George Mikan drill, which was named for the NBA's first dominant big man. Being ambidextrous with the hook shot, Mikan made the Minneapolis Lakers the NBA's first dynasty.

As he became proficient with either the left or the right hand, Kyle grew to appreciate the hook shot. "No one's ready for it," he said. "No one can really block it."

The drills also help develop Kyle's work ethic. This was of utmost importance to Greg.

"I've seen some very talented players with poor work ethic," the elder Wiltjer said. "My biggest thing was, keep working hard."

Greg also emphasized that he didn't want his son to become a one-dimensional player. Shoot with either hand. Shoot from the low post and the perimeter. Dribble with either hand.

"I wanted to push him out of his comfort zone," the elder Wiltjer said. "I describe him as a chameleon. He'll adapt to any situation."

Although he pushed, Greg also applied the brake. Burnout was "always a concern," Greg said. "It can be too much. At times, we had to pull the throttle back."

Kyle said his father knew when to back off.

"He'd say, if you want to work for it, go for it," he said. "He didn't push. It's pretty much all me. I want to get better."

Getting better factored into Kyle's decision to sign with Kentucky last November. Greg noted three reasons why his son signed with UK: 1. Playing with standout players; 2. John Calipari's track record for preparing players for the NBA; 3. Getting a big dose of NCAA Tournament experiences.

Kyle's work with his father in carving out a path to a big-time basketball program contrasts sharply with Greg's experience as an up-and-coming prospect. Greg described his parents as "old school and old country." His father and mother attended his games. But the possibilities of basketball were a mystery.

"They didn't go to college," Greg said. "I was a kid trying to figure it out. It was really me fumbling through it. It's a big advantage Kyle has."

A player could hardly be born in a more unlikely place than Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. From that beginning, Greg lived five years in Germany on the way to high school on Vancouver Island, Canada.

"I didn't start playing organized basketball till the 11th grade," the elder Wiltjer said. "I always wanted to be a Toronto Maple Leaf."

A growth spurt changed his athletic ambition. Between his sophomore and junior years, Greg grew from 6-foot-2 and stocky to almost 6-9 and lean. He tried out for rugby but found the sport too brutal. He found soccer too frustrating. He played volleyball.

"Basketball, I fell in love with," he said.

After spending the summer between his junior and senior years in Australia, Greg finished high school and chose to attend Northern Idaho Junior College.

"It opened my eyes," he said. "If I worked at this sport, I may have opportunities."

Greg transferred to Oregon State after one junior college season. With the Beavers, he played with A.C. Green and Lester Conner. In the 1982 NCAA Tournament, Oregon State lost to Georgetown 69-45 in the West Regional finals. "All I remember is, John Thompson told Patrick (Ewing) to swat everything," Greg said. "It really affected our psyche."

Drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, Greg never played in the NBA despite attending training camps with the Bulls, Pacers, Clippers and Cavaliers. Instead, he played 12 seasons in Europe and for the Canadian National Team.

Now, the basketball father looks at the basketball son and sees his superior.

"I'd never admit this to Kyle," he said. "But he's so much more advanced. ... He understands what he wants."

And what does Kyle want?

"Ultimately, he'd like to play in the NBA," Greg said. "And I feel he has the physical tools and work ethic."

Casey wins again

Last week, Dwane Casey, the former UK player and assistant coach, added a professional title to the national championship run he enjoyed as a Cat in 1978.

When asked to compare the sense of accomplishment that comes with a pro title (as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks) and a college title (as a UK player), Casey said both were richly rewarding.

"The NBA is harder," he said Wednesday as he prepared for the Mavericks' victory parade Thursday. "Just because it's 57 days of games and practices and travel back and forth. It's more of a grind.

"In college, it's exciting. A feeling of one-and-done always is a threat. Something you're afraid of. But the NBA is a grind."

Casey noted the sense of relief and accomplishment that came when the Mavs finished off the Miami Heat earlier this week.

"If they told me I had to quit coaching tomorrow, I'd be a happy camper," he said.

Casey does not plan to quit coaching. He said he has talked to the Toronto Raptors about their vacant head coaching position, and the Detroit Pistons have asked permission to speak with him about being their head coach.

As the Mavericks' de facto defensive coordinator, Casey devised the plan that contained Heat stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

"Basically, our same rules we had all year," Casey said of the plan. "Make sure to contain the ball. Have quick help. Make sure the elbows and boxes are covered. Mix in some zone and double teams. Keep them off balance."

When asked about James' unproductive fourth quarters, Casey said, "Our guys tightened up in the fourth quarter. Because we're a veteran team, we saved a lot of juice for the fourth quarter. That had something to do with it. That was our M.O. all year."

Casey noted that many observers picked the Mavs to lose to Portland in the first round, then to the Lakers in the second round, to the Thunder in the conference finals and to the Heat in the finals.

"I had confidence in our guys. I knew we had a special group, and we had one of the best players in the world in Dirk (Nowitzki).

"But I'm not going to say I thought we'd win the championship."

Casey said the NBA Finals served as a "great example" for collective effort overcoming superior talent.

"It was meant to be," he said.

Wise counselor

From 9:30 to 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, players at the NBA Players Association-sponsored Top 100 Camp attended what was called "Group Discussion No. 2." A familiar voice blared from the discussion, which was a level above where reporters sat waiting for the basketball to start.

Walking up a flight of stairs confirmed the guess that the instructor was none other than former UK point guard Dirk Minniefield. For 20 years now, he has spoken to prospects about drugs, alcohol and other "pitfalls" that can derail a NBA dream coming true.

"I love it," Minniefield said of his counseling. "It keeps me close to the game. And I get to talk about things that had an impact on my life."

After noting that he had been drug-free for 20 years, Minniefield said, "For me, that's a monumental (bleeping) thing."

Apparently, there's no off switch on earthiness. In speaking to the high school players, Minniefield and fellow counselor Cliff Robinson spoke plainly and profanely. The atmosphere was scared straight meets Richard Pryor in his prime.

"We want to talk to them on the level they talk to each other," Minniefield said.

Thursday's topic: Women. Or, more precisely, femmes fatales.

Amid references to hiked skirts and euphemisms for condoms, Minniefield and Robinson advised wise choices and the pursuit of meaningful relationships.

"We aren't going to change it," Minniefield said of the NBA lifestyle reflected in an 80-percent divorce rate. "Hopefully, we can save a few from getting caught in some situations."

Without mentioning disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner by name, Minniefield and Robinson noted the importance of not using the Internet inappropriately.

"Every school has Facebook and YouTube persons who don't do anything but surf sites," Minniefield said.

Reflecting on being 50, Minniefield said he never expected to live beyond 30 or so. The turning point was imprisonment for violating probation in a case of writing a series of bad checks.

"It took me going to jail to look at my life," he said. "I learned it's better to help than to hurt. I hurt a lot of people, including myself."

UK fan/Tubby fan

Dwane Casey vouched for the perception that NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki is a UK fan.

"He loves Kentucky," said Casey, the former UK player who now is an assistant for the champion Dallas Mavs. "He's a fan of Tubby (Smith, the former UK coach). Every time we go to Minnesota, he talks to Tubby. Tubby comes to the locker room."

Nowitzki, a native of Germany, visited UK as a prospect before deciding to enter the NBA Draft rather than play college basketball. Smith was the coach who tried to recruit Nowitzki to UK.

"If he had gone to college, he told me, he'd have gone to Kentucky," Casey said. "He was a Tubby fan."

Defending LeBron

Former UK assistant coach Doug Barnes, who now owns and operates the Lexington-based Pop-a-Lock company, served as radio station WLXG's analyst for the NBA Finals. Before the Dallas Mavericks closed out Miami, he said Heat star LeBron James was getting unfair criticism for not scoring much in the fourth quarters.

"I'm not a big LeBron fan," Barnes said. "His game is a little too flashy for me. But the criticism is crazy."

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had been scoring for the Heat. "You can't have everybody shooting it," Barnes said. "James is making great passes. So I don't think it's fair. I think he's doing what's best for the team. That speaks highly of him."

Final Four flashback

Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story offered this note on UK's appearance in the Final Four in Houston:

Even many Kentucky fans are surprised the Cats made it through a loaded East Regional to the Final Four.

Owensboro's Gwinna Freeman promised her mom, Ashland's Darlene Cahal, that if UK made it to Houston, the two would come to Texas. Freeman and Cahal had a non-basketball reason for wanting to make the trip. Renee Keys, Gwinna's sister and Darlene's daughter, lives in the Houston area.

"I told Mom if the Cats made it, we'd go and see Renee," Freeman said. "But, no, I didn't think we'd be making this trip."

Kentucky beat No. 1 seed Ohio State and then North Carolina to reach the Final Four. When the Cats held their Final Four public workout Friday, Freeman, Cahal and Keys were in the Reliant Stadium stands to see it.

"This is girls' time out," Freeman said. "We're visiting, having fun and seeing the Cats in the Final Four. What can be better than that?"

Happy birthday

To former UK guard Joe Crawford. He turned 25 on Friday.

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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