Revenge not advisable but could be motivational for Kentucky

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 21, 2012 

"He who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves." — Chinese proverb

Revenge dominates conversation about Kentucky's supposedly not-so-sweet mind-set going into Friday's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against Indiana. But UK Coach John Calipari distanced himself, and he hopes his team, from the idea of avenging a December loss to Indiana.

Robert Elliott, a Lexington-based psychiatrist, noted the wisdom in Calipari's approach.

"Revenge doesn't lead to anything healthy," he said. "I see patients talk about revenge. It generally results in a worsening of the mood. The performance at work suffers."

UK's performance against the Hoosiers seems at the heart of Calipari's attempt to downplay, if not eliminate, revenge as a factor.

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a former assistant coach, recoiled from the concept of revenge as a helpful motivation.

Noting how his colleague Digger Phelps talks about "payback" a lot, Bilas said, "I can't imagine that the idea of payback is going to motivate you to do the right thing in our preparation. ... I don't think any factor like revenge or payback is going to sustain you."

In speaking to reporters Tuesday, Calipari emphasized the importance of execution on a possession-by-possession basis, not the desire to do unto Indiana what Indiana did to UK on an electric afternoon in Bloomington on Dec. 10.

Dr. Richard Smith, a professor in UK's Department of Psychology, noted the power and prevalence of revenge as a motive not only in sporting events, but in all human endeavors.

"Imagine if you got rid of the revenge plot in Hollywood," he said. "What movies would we watch?"

Paul Newman's character in the movie The Sting drove home the point about the futility of revenge when he observed, "Revenge is for suckers."

English philosopher Francis Bacon said much the same thing, albeit poetically: "A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green."

Yet Kentucky basketball has its share of revenge plots.

Most famously, Kentucky exacted revenge on Indiana in the 1975 NCAA Tournament. Revenge was — and remains — sweet.

"It's a factor," said Kevin Grevey, who led the UK team that avenged a 98-74 loss at Indiana with a 92-90 victory over the Hoosiers in the Mideast Regional finals. "Don't deny it.

"People will say you don't want to get carried away. Revenge is a distraction. You get too caught up. But, listen, we talked about it. We wanted Indiana. We didn't want them to lose. We wanted a piece of those guys."

As they sat in their Holmes Hall dorm rooms that season, UK players plotted revenge against Indiana, Grevey said. They considered revenge and acted upon that impulse when the teams met again in the NCAA Tournament.

Grevey noted how he was on the wrong end of a revenge motive as a pro player. His Washington Bullets beat the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 7 of the 1978 NBA championship series. The teams played again in the 1979 finals.

"They were a completely different team," he said. "You could see the focus those guys had. They wanted us. Man, they wanted us. They were getting 50/50 balls. They were punishing us."

Revenge helped Kentucky prepare for its 1975 rematch with Indiana, Grevey said.

"Listen, the game is 50 percent physical gifts and 50 percent mentality," he said. "The older I've gotten the more I realize the importance of being mentally prepared."

Yet, coaches, including Calipari, downplay revenge as a motive. Bilas scoffed at the notion. "Once the ball is tipped off, no way John (Calipari) is going to say at a timeout, 'Hey, remember the Alamo.'"

Perhaps. But Grevey said he and his teammates remembered.

When asked why coaches avoid speaking publicly about revenge, Grevey said, "Because they want you to be focused. They want you to play like you do at 4 p.m. in practice. They don't want you to deviate. They're afraid you're going to get tight or too pumped up.

"But we're human beings. We're all wired a certain way."

Smith, the UK professor of psychology, called revenge among the most powerful of motivations.

Apparently, revenge can have a long-lasting shelf life. In the 1998 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky sought to avenge the famous 1992 loss to Duke in the so-called Christian Laettner game.

"It was in the back of our minds," said Cameron Mills, a member of UK's 1998 national champions. He said he and fellow Kentuckian Scott Padgett felt more of a need than their teammates to make amends for the 1992 loss.

Mills noted how often coaches might downplay a factor in public while emphasizing it in private.

"Nine times out of 10, the coach is saying (publicly) the opposite of what you're feeling and saying privately," he said.

Mills acknowledged a coach's fear of revenge as a distraction.

"All that's true," he said before borrowing a Calipari term to make an ironic point. "But the players are not robots. They are human beings."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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