UK basketball notebook: Bahamians cater to Cats in hopes of bringing them back

jtipton@herald-leader.comAugust 16, 2014 

Mario Bowleg, Vice President of the Bahamas Basketball Federation, talks about Kentucky's presence on islands.

KENTUCKY.COM

In the middle of an interview last week, Lea Miller's cell phone rang. It was John Calipari. He wanted a ride across the bridge from Paradise Island to Nassau.

Earlier that day, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wanted to use the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium for a workout. He wanted to know if that could be arranged.

What University of Kentucky basketball wants in the Bahamas, Miller tries to see it gets. Her company, Complete Sports Management, assigned three staffers to make sure the players' meals are tasty and served on time.

Calipari enjoys a 180-degree panorama ocean view in The Cove's Sapphire Room. The Cove is the high-end hotel in the sprawling Atlantis resort.

"We absolutely cater to them," Miller said. "We want them to have the ultimate VIP experience."

As for what Miller wants, that would be Kentucky's return to the Bahamas in another series of exhibitions some future summer. Or maybe UK would play in the early-season exempt tournament known as the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Miller held out little hope that Calipari would bring a Kentucky team to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. "That's not on Coach's radar," she said.

But another series of exhibitions seems possible. Miller noted that NCAA rules limit college teams to a foreign summer tour only once every four years. So mark the calendars for 2018 as a possibility.

The NCAA also limits appearances in specific exempt tournaments to once every four years. North Carolina is filling its quota this year. The Tar Heels arrived last week for exhibitions in the Bahamas. UNC will be back to play in this year's Battle 4 Atlantis.

Yet, Miller said it would be "incredibly powerful" if Kentucky returned to the Bahamas for another event: exhibition or early-season.

"Because it's one of the biggest names in college basketball," she said. "And it's continuing the brand of bringing big-time teams down to the Atlantis (resort) and down to the Bahamas."

Mario Bowleg (pronounced Bow-lay), the vice president of the Bahamas Basketball Federation, noted the attraction involved in Kentucky's probable No. 1 ranking going into this season. "Which is equivalent to the NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs," he said. "So that is a lot of excitement."

Bowleg said the UK team can be an inspiration for Bahamian youth who aspire to play college basketball. The Cats also might simply put the thought of attending college in a child's mind.

"Let the Bahamians know that basketball can be a vehicle for young kids to keep them out of trouble," he said, "and take them to get a college education."

There's another more immediate and bottom-line concern. The exhibition games can seem almost incidental to business considerations. The basketball draws fans and helps promote tourism.

"The goal of sports tourism is to put heads in beds," Miller said.

Kentucky's participation was also designed to help the debut of the SEC Network, which had Friday's UK-Dominican Republic game as part of its first full day of programming.

"The stars aligned with ESPN needing live content to launch the SEC Network," Miller said. "Well, what's bigger outside of college football than Kentucky basketball?"

Its window open for a foreign trip this year, Kentucky wanted to play exhibitions. Getting to the Bahamas was a relatively easy trip. A business and basketball marriage was made.

Planning seriously began just 90 days ago, a reason Miller cited for only about 600 UK fans signing up for the official travel package. When in Maui, UK fans typically fill the Lahaina Civic Center, which like the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium seats about 2,000 or so.

The catering to Kentucky's whims hit a snag early in the week. As the Cats routed a team from Puerto Rico on Tuesday, a man showed up holding a sign. He was protesting, good-naturedly, the one-sided nature of UK's exhibition games.

The sign said "the real drama in Bahama" would be a game pitting Louisville against Kentucky, the rivals who've each played in the Bahamas in recent years.

The man, Sam Basden, was from the Bahamas, but he said he had taught in the public schools in Jefferson County for 12 years. He wore a Louisville T-shirt to show his sporting allegiance.

Yes, Basden said, smiling, he was a Louisville fan. "No apologies, either," he said.

Miller was not amused.

Grown men

One of Kentucky's mantras for the exhibition games in the Bahamas was how its collegians would be playing professional players. Or, as was repeated often, grown men.

True enough. But after watching UK win its first three games by an average of 28 points, Mario Bowleg was not so sure.

Said the vice president of the Bahamas Basketball Federation: "Seeing how they beat them so easy made me wonder if those guys are just 19 or 20."

Guest speaker

When ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas spoke to the Kentucky players on Wednesday, he was mindful to stay on topic and not belabor the point.

"You have so much thrown at you," he said of college players. "That's why you try not to talk too long (as a guest speaker). ... Too much of that stuff goes right past people."

Bilas spoke to the UK players about mental toughness, the subject of a book he wrote and published in 2013. UK Coach John Calipari tweeted that the Bilas appearance was "one of the most insightful talks I've heard in a while."

Bilas, who said his talk merely re-emphasized points Calipari had already been making to the players, claimed his appearance might have only a fleeting impact at best.

"If it just motivates them for a day, then it's worthwhile," he said. "I'm under no illusion that anybody was taking notes or writing it down or pinning stuff in their locker room."

In hopes of fresh approaches changing players' mindsets, coaches see value in having different voices convey familiar messages to players. Bilas recalled his playing days at Duke in which Mike Krzyzewski brought in such guest speakers as Bob Knight, Stu Inman (the general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers who drafted Sam Bowie rather than Michael Jordan), Pete Newell and Henry Iba.

"I have a hard time remembering what a few of them said now," Bilas said. "But I remember they spoke, and I remember being really grateful that they did. And I thought it was a really cool thing."

Maui, UK No. 1

Sisters Peggy Kays and Barbara Coleman are regular followers of UK basketball to exotic locales. Dubbed the Golden Girls, they've been on every UK trip to Maui. They're on the current trip to the Bahamas.

They found the trip to the Bahamas enjoyable and the Bahamians friendly. But they prefer going to Maui.

"Maui is heads above it," Kays said. Coleman said she would take Maui over the Bahamas "any time."

Why? The weather. Temperatures are cooler, humidity lower and winds breezier on Hawaii in November when the Maui Invitational is played. Plus, the prices are less expensive.

"But," Kays said, "aren't you going to ask about the team?"

Oh, yeah. What do the Golden Girls think of the Kentucky team?

"Ahhh, we're going to be good," Kays said, "and we don't have two big players." That would be Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman Trey Lyles, who came on the trip but haven't played.

Added Coleman of the veterans who are playing in the Bahamas: "I see a difference in their bodies. They seem to be in better shape than they were last year. I'm very impressed.

"But, of course, I'm one to think we're going to win every game. We'll never lose."

Tiny Blue Nation

At the start of the Dominican Republic's game against a France-based pro team, there were 15 — count 'em, 15 — people in the bleachers. Two stood out in blue T-shirts as Kentucky fans.

The two were Anthony Hendrix and Trey Prewitt.

Hendrix is a former freshman coach for Madison Central. He compiles statistics for the school's teams. He got to know the UK coaches during the recruitment of Dominique Hawkins, so he came to the game to show support for Orlando Antigua, who's coaching the Dominican Republic National Team.

Hard to please

UK fans can be difficult to completely please. After last Sunday's 74-49 victory over the Puerto Rico National Team reserves, fan Paul Billig could be heard complaining to friend Ash Mason, "It's disappointing we didn't fill that dinky little gym."

The Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium seats about 2,000. It was, indeed, only about half full for each UK game.

Billig and Mason did their part. They came on the trip despite living in northern California: San Jose for Billig and San Francisco for Mason.

Congratulations

To Patsy Hampton. She plays the piano and organ at Republican Christian Church in Cynthiana.

In fact, today marks the 50th anniversary of when Patsy first began playing at services.

Her sons, John and Brent Hampton, will not be able to attend the anniversary. They are part of the officiating crew (with Bart Lenox) for Kentucky's exhibition games in the Bahamas. They will be calling the UK-Dominican Republic game today.

Good trip

Morehead State scored more than 100 points in each of its three games in the Bahamas last week.

Karam Mashour, a transfer from UNLV, put up big numbers. He averaged 18.7 points and 20 rebounds in the three games.

Coach Sean Woods, the former UK point guard, noted that Mashour had missed most of the last two seasons: 2012-13 as a transfer and 2013-14 because of a back injury.

Stump the band

During the Dominican Republic's game against Champagne Chalons-Reims, the Alabama State team arrived. Alabama State played in the next game.

Making conversation, I asked what team Alabama State would play.

"I'm just the athletic trainer," the woman said before turning and asking the person on her other side. That man, who appeared to be an assistant coach, pondered the question so long, the trainer turned to another coach behind her.

"I have no idea who we're playing," this man said. Then he reached into his carrying bag ("It's European!!!") and pulled out a sheet of paper.

Eureka! Alabama State was playing the Providence Storms, a team from the Bahamas.

Happy birthday

To Kenny Walker. He turns 50 on Monday. ... To Quinn Buckner. The former Indiana star turns 60 on Wednesday. ... To Lon Kruger. The Oklahoma coach, whose career stops include a time at Florida, turns 62 on Tuesday. ... To Boyd Grant. He turns 81 today. ... To Archie Goodwin. He turns 20 today. ... To Willie Cauley-Stein. He turns 21 on Monday. ... To James Young. He turned 19 on Saturday. ... To Terry Mills. He turned 66 on Friday.

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

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