James Ulis is a district store manager for Nike. His territory stretches from his hometown of Chicago to Dallas, plus two stores in Toronto.
He knows leadership.
“When things are going great, you look great,” he said. “If you’re struggling, it’s on you. When you’re a leader, there is accountability. It always brings the best out of you, so I expect to see the best out of Tyler.”
Of course, he was talking about his son, UK point guard Tyler Ulis. All evidence suggests the son listened and learned how to be a leader.
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“I’m very willing to do it because that’s what’s going to help me and our team,” Ulis said this month. “I’m going to have to do it. I don’t have a choice.”
Ulis’ leadership skills caught the notice of both coaches in last week’s Kentucky-Duke game. Both John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski spoke of this intangible quality come to life in Ulis.
“You just feel it … ,” Calipari said. “When he’s off the court, you know we’re not the same.”
Calipari has also said that Ulis has improved as an off-court leader.
Krzyzewski spoke of a “presence” Ulis possesses. “He’s in complete control of his team,” the Duke coach said.
Apparently, Ulis has had the presence of a leader for a long time. Mike Taylor, who coached Ulis on the high school level, saw it years ago.
“That was noticeable to us fairly early,” he said. “And not vocally. But just his work ethic and how badly he wanted to compete. It helped him become a leader without having to raise his voice.”
The publication Entrepreneur listed five leadership qualities. The first was do what you say. The third was to be passionate about the task at hand.
“Taking charge. That’s what I tried to instill,” James Ulis said. “He just takes it to another level.”
In the preseason, Calipari said Ulis might be “the best floor general I’ve ever coached.”
The UK coach likened Ulis to a football quarterback, coincidentally the command-and-control position Ulis played in middle school. By the way, another quarterback/point guard — Allen Iverson — is one of Ulis’ heroes.
“Like a quarterback, he’s not getting signals from the sidelines,” Calipari said. “Do what you think you need to do. He’s going to be unselfish. He’s going to be for his teammates.
“He’s got a toughness about him. He wants to win. You want a general out there you want to follow. And they want to follow him.”
When asked why UK players were willing to follow Ulis, teammate Derek Willis said, “For me, Tyler is a real individual. That just makes me respect him off that. He’s trustworthy. Coach Cal has been on him about just-bring-the-team-together type stuff.”
Upon request, Willis defined what he meant by Ulis being a real individual.
“Coach Cal even says it, too,” Willis said. “He really tells the truth.”
For ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, Ulis’ leadership skills are obvious and valuable.
“They know he’s the leader,” he said. “There’s no debate. A leader is only as good as the people who are going to follow him. And this team is going to follow Tyler Ulis. That’s a non-debatable issue. Last year, I’m not sure they had a leader. They may have had a group of leaders.”
The sportswriter had asked Greenberg about Ulis’ intelligent play and savvy sense of anticipation. Yes, yes, Greenberg replied before changing the subject.
“Tyler Ulis’ greatest asset is he has the ability to get people to follow him, and buy into him,” Greenberg said.
This is especially important for a Kentucky program built upon a foundation of one-and-done freshmen, he said.
“When you have the turnover like they’ve had with the (NBA) Draft, you need someone that others are going to follow.”
The cliché that fits is coach on the floor. Unwittingly or not, it’s the reference the UK player’s father called upon.
“He’s excited to be John Calipari on the court,” James Ulis said of his son. “He relishes that.”
Fans are fans
While watching United Center authorities escort a shall-we-say exuberant UK fan from his seat in front of the press box Tuesday night, a recent conversation with Jay Bilas echoed in the mind.
The ESPN analyst voiced a revolutionary thought: Kentucky fans are not special.
When asked how Duke fans viewed Kentucky, he said, “The fans are exactly the same. The only thing that differs are the accents.
“They all have an air of superiority. ‘My one-and-dones are good kids that got a great opportunity. And your one-and-dones are a threat to what college basketball is all about.’
“All these fans are the same. I mean that in a positive way. They love their team, and they see every other team as being lesser. That’s fine.”
Of course, Bilas travels the country working college basketball for ESPN. So he has seen, heard and interacted with fans from coast to coast.
“You have an air of superiority,” he said of fans. “And not only are you better, the other one can’t hold a candle to it.
“Then if you lose, how could you lose? You should never lose under those circumstances.”
Most observers sees fans as an indispensible part of the game experience. Bilas does, too.
“But when they take it too far, that’s when you kind of go, c’mon, now,” Bilas said. “Keep some perspective.”
‘A great experience’
You may recall the note from October about the fan who made an economic decision. Rather than spend hundreds of dollars for UK season tickets, Rick Music decided to use that money for a trip to Chicago to see Kentucky play Duke.
So, he, his wife and two friends from Ashland went to Chicago, watched UK-Duke and Michigan State-Kansas. Here’s an edited version of Music’s report.
“It was a slam dunk to make the trip,” he wrote in an email. “It was like NCAA tourney time in November.”
The group made the trip a three-day holiday that included shopping at the Magnificent Mile.
“Great to see the streets of a city the size of Chi-town dotted with UK Blue,” Music wrote.
A bellman remarked that he attended the same high school as Charles Matthews.
As for the games, the group sat 16 rows from the United Center court. Each ticket cost about $50 more than a UK season ticket.
Music, a retiree from Ashland, Inc., chose not to renew his season tickets because the caliber of competition in Kentucky home games made him question the “entertainment value” of such a purchase. He believed he got better entertainment value by going to Chicago.
“Great basketball; a storied venue; exuberant fans; and a big UK win — what’s not to like?” Music wrote. “Too bad we can’t have more such experiences at home.
“It would be a fan’s dream to have a home-and-home series each year with UNC, Duke, Kansas and L’ville with two of those at Rupp each season! Now, that would be worth putting up some money even if it did put our home record at some risk!”
Brush with accuracy
John Calipari said he had a modest goal for Kentucky’s preparation going into the Duke game. “I just wanted enough (knowledge absorbed by UK players) so we didn’t embarrass ourselves in Chicago,” he said.
Why so modest a goal?
“We’re the most inexperienced team in the country,” Calipari said. He then invited reporters to double-check the accuracy of that statement.
Close to factual.
According to ESPN’s John Gasaway, Kentucky is tied with Boston College as the third-most inexperienced teams.
The most inexperienced teams are St. John’s followed by Liberty.
The teams with the most returning experience? Boston U., which UK plays Tuesday, is tied with Valparaiso and Tulsa as the most experienced teams.
Gasaway said the calculations are based on each player’s percentage of minutes played last season.
In the SEC, the most experienced team is South Carolina. In the other major conferences, the most experienced teams are Southern Cal and Oregon State in the Pac-12, Michigan in the Big Ten, and Florida State and North Carolina in the ACC.
In current basketball parlance, recruit Edrice “Bam” Adebayo is a “beast” (a physically intimidating player). UK Coach John Calipari emphasized that point on Thursday.
“If you watch the video that I did today, I said that we’d have to buy a couple more backboards down at Rupp because we only have three, and if he breaks one or two (we will need another),” Calipari said.
Actually, UK’s lease agreement with Rupp Arena calls for Lexington Center Corp. to provide the baskets and backboards. There are three, which counts a spare in case of malfunction. If the spare were needed, it would take about 30 or 40 minutes to make the switch.
But Bill Owen, the CEO and president of LCC, said he did not expect to need more than one backup goal/backboard.
“The advent of breakaway goals greatly reduced the risk of shattered backboards and rims pulled down,” he wrote in an email.
Then again, maybe Owen has not seen Adebayo play.
UK 2, Duke 0
For those keeping score (which means every UK fan), here’s good news. Kentucky moved past Duke twice on Tuesday.
Besides winning the game, Kentucky also took the top spot in a statistical category Duke had been touting: best winning percentage from the 2009-10 season to present (coincidentally, John Calipari’s time as UK coach).
Going into the game, Duke had a winning percentage of .839 in that time. Kentucky’s winning percentage was .835.
The percentages after Tuesday? UK and Duke were both .835. But by extending the division another decimal point, UK improved to .8355. Duke declined to .8348.
To Rupp’s Runt and Hall of Famer Louie Dampier. He turned 71 on Friday. … To EKU Athletics Director (and former member of UK’s “Super Kittens”) Steve Lochmueller. He turns 63 on Wednesday. … To businessman extraordinaire Jim Host. He turns 78 on Monday. … To UK assistant coach Kenny Payne. He turns 49 on Wednesday. … To ex-Cat Tom Payne. He turned 65 on Thursday.