John Clay: NBA stars take a liking to Kentucky hospitality

UK plays sanctuary to NBA stars

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 5, 2011 

Louisville might want an NBA franchise, but Lexington is the NBA city.

After all, wasn't that Kevin Durant and his buddies working on the barbells in the University of Kentucky weight room Monday?

"It was pretty cool," said Andre Woodson, the former UK quarterback and current student football assistant who found himself standing side-by-side with the best young player in all of basketball. "It was pretty cool that they thought about coming here to come together and work."

Wasn't that Nazr Mohammed and the Oklahoma City Thunder eating at Outback Steakhouse on Monday night?

"Just want to send a thank you to Terry and the guys at #OutbackSteakhouse in Hamburg for taking care of me and my guys last night," Mohammed posted on Twitter Tuesday morning.

Lo and behold, one of "the guys" was none other than Rajon Rondo, who coaxed some of his Boston Celtics teammates to the Joe Craft Center to work out with various members of the Thunder.

Word had it that NBA MVP Derrick Rose was scheduled to fly into Lexington on Tuesday, just in time for his birthday.

With the NBA lockout dragging on, and with UK basketball coach John Calipari extending an open invitation to the pros to use the university's basketball facilities, our fair college town has been transformed this week into an actual professional hoops haven.

(That green glow of envy you see from over the horizon is coming from that town up I-64. You know, the one with the cracked bridge.)

Of course, we should be getting a little used to this, what with LeBron James popping in from time to time, as he did recently for a pick-up-basketball fix.

The past two summers, Calipari has coaxed former UK players such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Brandon Knight, just to name a few, and even Tayshaun Prince back to Memorial Coliseum for a week's worth of Pro Camps.

Then there was that Kentucky Pros vs. Dominican Republic National Team exhibition series that turned into a sellout in Rupp Arena — and drew 15,000 more at the Yum Center — and brought such former luminaries as Prince, Mohammed, Rondo, Wall, Keith Bogans, etc., back to the Bluegrass.

Thing is, guys like Prince, Mohammed and Bogans didn't even play for Calipari. Prince, Bogans and Rondo were all Tubby Smith guys. Mohammed played for Pitino. But Prince said Calipari had gone out of his way to contact him and invite him back to campus, and he predicted that by fall, we would see NBA stars taking Calipari up on his open invitation.

He was right. Part of the draw has been Rock Oliver, Pitino's former strength coach who is now back on campus training the football team and has a strong connection to Mohammed.

"That leg workout was great this morning," Mohammed tweeted on Tuesday. "Coach Rock going to have u dunking on people again lol @RajonRondo."

And part of the draw is working out in a place that loves basketball as much as, if not more than, the pros do.

What does Kentucky get out of this? Some top-flight competition for one thing, as Durant also teased UK freshman Marquis Teague with a tweet, saying, "@MarquisTeague25 Russell Westbrook coming for u tomorrow lol but good work today brotha."

Better still: The program earns publicity that advertising money can't buy. Think of all the elite high schoolers who idolize Durant, Rondo, Rose, etc., and know that during the lockout, they came to Kentucky to train.

Thought bubble: "Kentucky is the place to be."

"Gotta give a special thanks 2 Bo and his managers for treating my guys like family," Mohammed tweeted about Bo Rodriguez in the UK basketball office. "My teammates & I really appreciate it."

There wasn't any mob scene Tuesday afternoon outside the Joe Craft Center. No stalkers. No gawkers. No paparazzi. There were a few kids shooting hoops on adjoining courts, but the rest were busy going back and forth to class, taking care of their business while the pros inside tried to take care of their business.

So just a word of advice: Not to go Andy Rooney on anyone here but, if you see the professionals out and about this week, treat them as if they've been here all along.

After all, it shouldn't be a big deal.

We're an NBA city now.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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