To describe how Arkansas fans will regard watching him play against their beloved Razorbacks on Saturday, Kentucky freshman star Malik Monk made a telling word choice.
He said: “I think (thoughtful pause) heartbreaking.”
Although hyperbole is the language of sports, Monk was not exaggerating. He had been perceived as a homegrown wunderkind destined to return Arkansas basketball to prominence. Instead, this once-in-a-generation player signed with Kentucky, the program all Southeastern Conference teams, including Arkansas, envy and want to emulate.
“He knows that he would have been one of the state’s heroes if he had played here, while he is just another star at Kentucky,” reporter Dudley Dawson of wholehogsports.com wrote in an email.
The term “business decision” continues to be part of how Arkansas fans explain Monk’s college choice. Arkansans mean business in the sense of robber barons in the Gilded Age. Sentiment does not matter.
In the business of basketball, many of those Kentucky stars go to the NBA . . . quickly. In John Calipari’s first seven seasons as UK coach, 28 of his players were drafted (21 in the first round, 18 as so-called one-and-doners).
Arkansans saw Monk’s decision as UK’s one-stop, no-waiting way station to NBA fame and fortune trumping home and hearth.
When asked if Calipari’s record of NBA Draft picks was the reason he chose to play for Kentucky, Monk said, “That was in the mix.”
He cited another reason. “Coming to play with the best players ever,” he said. “The best players in the country.”
Meanwhile, the hurt in Arkansas — The Natural State — remains.
“There are some broken hearts here,” said Josh Bertaccini, the program director for radio station 92.1 The Ticket in Fayetteville. “Especially when you see him rip it up for you guys.”
Henry Apple, who covers high school sports for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, added, “To this day, I still see some bad sentiment harbored. Not too long ago, I saw people still have the venom. They consider Malik a traitor.”
Of course, it’s not just Monk. Arkansas fans booed every time Florida guard KeVaughn Allen touched the ball in last week’s game in Bud Walton Arena. Allen, who led North Little Rock High School to three state championships, had the best response: He made five three-pointers and scored 21 points in the Gators’ 81-72 victory.
“That’s my guy,” Monk said. “Same thing happened to Archie (Goodwin) when he went there. I was at that game.”
Arkansas fans booed every time Goodwin touched the ball when Kentucky played at Arkansas in 2013. Goodwin noticed. “It doesn’t really feel bad at all because I’m not from Fayetteville,” he said after the game. “I’m from Little Rock.”
Little Rock, the state capital, is 187 miles southeast of Fayetteville.
Monk was not put off by the booing of Goodwin.
“That’s Arkansas fans being loyal to Arkansas,” he said. “It’s not anything against us (players from Arkansas). . . .
“Arkansas always tries to get the in-state kids, every big-time in-state kid, and he didn’t come here. I can see why they were mad. But it was the best decision for him.”
When asked if Kentucky was the best decision he could have made, Monk said, “Of course.”
‘Had to turn people away’
Monk grew up in Lepanto, Ark., which is about 300 miles east of Fayetteville. He played his last three years of high school basketball for Bentonville High, which is about 26 miles from Fayetteville.
Yes, other high-profile players from Arkansas had gone out of state to college. But that proximity contributed to the expectation that Monk would play for Arkansas. That older brother Marcus Monk played football for Arkansas further fed expectations.
“For the first time in a long time, there was actually one right in Arkansas’ backdoor,” Apple said. “(Arkansas fans) knew the talents of Malik. They thought it’d be such a good fit to have him in Razorback red instead of any other color.”
Bentonville High School games became events. Capacity crowds were the norm.
“And there were lots of times we exceeded capacity, and had to turn people away,” said Scott Passmore the athletic director for the Bentonville district.
When Monk would prepare to shoot a free throw, fans would perform “the calling of the hogs,” the signature Arkansas cheer.
Bertaccini recalled the entire Arkansas team attending some Bentonville games. When coaches like Mike Anderson of Arkansas, Roy Williams of Kansas or Calipari came to games, impromptu autograph sessions formed at halftime as fans swarmed.
“It was definitely a circus,” Apple said.
Bobby Portis, the 2015 SEC Player of the Year, took the center ring when he announced he would leave Arkansas after his junior season and enter the 2015 NBA Draft.
“It was a tough decision for me because growing up in the state of Arkansas and being a native of this state, I felt like I was a great ambassador for our basketball team and for our program,” Portis said that day. “Not only for the basketball team, but for the whole, entire Razorbacks.”
Then in a thinly veiled message to Monk, Portis added, “I believe I showed kids that you don’t have to go to Kentucky or Florida just to try to live your dreams. Coach Anderson and his staff get it done here, too.”
Dawson heard a reference to Monk, who had just completed his junior season for Bentonville High.
“He didn’t mention him by name,” Dawson said, “but you knew who he was talking about.”
Venom for Monk
Monk was not expected to announce his college choice until last spring. But when De’Aaron Fox committed to Kentucky in the fall of 2015, Monk did the same shortly thereafter.
It was no coincidence, said Ron Crawford, who coached Monk for the AAU Arkansas Wings.
“I never doubted he was going to Kentucky the whole time,” Crawford said. “Because Coach Cal has a reputation of getting the ones good enough ready (for the NBA).”
Though this made (dollars and) sense, Monk’s decision did not go over well in Arkansas. The circus tent was folded and shipped to another recruiting-crazed locale.
Attendance at Bentonville High games decreased significantly. So did the cheers for Monk.
“Unless you were from Bentonville,” Apple said. “And even in the Bentonville ranks, there were some very lusty boos. . . .
“I never heard as much venom spewed out at Archie (Goodwin) as I heard at Malik. If he did one thing wrong, he was about to know about it. If he missed a dunk, here it comes. If he missed a free throw. If he was called for walking. If he double-dribbled. If he got called for a charge.”
Passmore declined to talk about how fans reacted to Monk’s commitment to Kentucky. “I don’t want this article to be about him not committing to Arkansas,” he said.
Perhaps hurt feelings contributed to the media being banned from Monk’s signing ceremony, which Passmore called a family decision.
Anderson holds no ill will toward Monk. “As disappointed as I am, we recruited the heck out of him. . . . ,” the Arkansas coach said Thursday. “But he is a good kid, and he is doing what we thought he would do.
“So I wish him the best. Just not in this game.”
Of the negative feedback his college choice generated, Monk said, “I really didn’t see that much. My brother and my mom blocked a lot of that stuff out.”
By all accounts, Marcus Monk helped his younger brother navigate the recruiting process. He declined an interview request.
When asked if he would want Saturday’s game in Lexington or Fayetteville, Monk all but said that he’ll follow Kentucky’s one-and-done formula.
“I think here is better because I don’t get as much boos,” he said with a smile. “But seeing how much they’ll boo me, I think that’ll be fun, too. But I’ll never see that.”
Arkansas at No. 6 Kentucky
8:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)