When Joe B. Hall hasn’t been to a Kentucky practice for a few days, he expects to hear from John Calipari.
“He’ll give me a call,” Hall said last week, “and ask me, what’s wrong?”
Hall, who turns 87 on Monday, remains not only a UK basketball icon, but an active UK basketball icon. He goes to at least a couple of practices each week, attends home games (his seat is first row, near center court) and is something of a regular at high school sporting events.
It’s not unusual for Calipari to cite an observation Hall has made. For instance, Hall said he believed Skal Labissiere was further along in his development at this early stage of a freshman season than Karl-Anthony Towns.
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“I talk to him,” Hall said of the coach-to-coach chats he has with Calipari. “But not in a way of suggesting he do anything. I avoid that because he doesn’t want to hear me making suggestions. He’s more successful than I was. So, his way has definitely proved to be the right way.”
Of course, Hall was plenty successful in a 13-season run as Kentucky coach. His résumé includes the 1978 national championship, two other Final Four appearances, integration of the UK program, successfully following a legend (Adolph Rupp) and induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
At this stage of life, Hall looks back with gratitude. He’s thankful he grew up in a “nice community” (Cynthiana), in a loving family and found his calling in sports.
Hall appreciates that Calipari welcomes his presence at UK. “It’s something a lot of coaches would not want,” Hall said. “To have former coaches around.”
At worst, former coaches can be perceived as a threat. At best, a distraction.
“But he’s very comfortable in his own skin,” Hall said of Calipari, “and it doesn’t bother him that I’m there.”
Hall’s season and a half as a UK player did not include on-court heroics. “I was definitely in over my head with the Fabulous Five there,” he said.
But his time at UK had a profound effect on Hall’s life. It opened his eyes to the possibility of working in sports.
“I was really bitten by the bug, so to speak,” he said.
Well into his ninth decade of life, Hall remains a true believer in sports. At its best, sports can teach competitiveness, teamwork, sacrifice and the wisdom of playing by the rules, he said.
Hall put his 1985 retirement at age 56 as a promise fulfilled.
“When I got into coaching, it was kind of a selfish thing on my part in that it greatly affected my family to be gone so much,” he said. “So I made a promise (that) I wouldn’t go past a certain age. That I could come back and be a father and husband and give my family a normal existence.”
He’s proud of his children, grandchildren and extended family. But, yes, he still hears that siren call of coaching even though he called his retirement a chance to live a “normal unpressured existence.”
Still, 30 years after leaving the UK bench, Hall said, “Yeah, I missed it. I still miss it today.”
When a reporter playfully suggested Calipari might hire him as an assistant coach, Hall chuckled. “No,” he said. “I don’t think he’s looking for that kind of help. I’m too old-fashioned.”
The dribble-drive offense is a departure from the more structured style of play Hall used.
Besides, Hall does not go to away games.
“Travel is the last thing I want to do,” he said. “I’ve been everywhere, done everything. I don’t have travel on my bucket list.”
‘Vandy is legit’
Jim O’Connell, the national college basketball reporter for The Associated Press since 1987, covered his 20th Maui Invitational last week.
Here’s his take on Vanderbilt, which lost to Kansas in Wednesday’s championship game.
“Vandy is legit,” he wrote in an email. “They are long, tall and have a bunch of shooters. Kansas just shot the lights out against them. They are definitely a top 15 team.”
In sportswriting circles, O’Connell is famous for being maybe the only person to go to Maui and never get even a hint of a tan.
Tournament officials commemorated O’Connell’s years of service.
“They presented me with a miniature surfboard because they knew a full size one would be a waste on a non-beachgoer like me,” he wrote. “In the 20 years here, I never stepped on the sand or in the water. Just hoops and more hoops.”
Rajon Rondo, arguably the least appreciated former great Kentucky player, is enjoying something of a renaissance this NBA season.
As of Wednesday, he was leading the league in assists (10.8 per game). This after being traded by Boston, banished by Dallas and generally considered an undesirable within the last year.
Rondo signed a one-year, $9.5 million contract with Sacramento. Speculation quickly followed that he would clash with Coach George Karl. That hasn’t happened, as Karl suggested when the Kings played an exhibition game in Rupp Arena.
“It’s pretty much fun watching him recreate his career a little bit,” Karl said last week. “He’s kind of seized the moment and played at a high, high level. I really enjoy coaching him.”
Jason Jones chronicled Rondo’s renaissance in his blog for the Sacramento Bee.
Once considered a disruptive presence, Rondo has taken up tranquil off-court interests, according to Jones’ blog.
“I’m more so into reading now,” Rondo said. “Different religions, growing plants, I’m doing things of that nature. It’s kind of crazy. I never thought I’d be doing things like this, at this age. I always thought I’d get into gardening or something like that when I was 50.
“I didn’t finish college. I don’t look back on it or regret it. My goal was to do what I’m doing now and I reached that goal. But now I have new interests and new hobbies and new goals in life I’m looking forward to. I want to make a change and make a difference and continue educating myself.”
Dean: SEC murky
Joe Dean Jr., a longtime observer of SEC basketball, said that at least four league teams will play in the 2016 NCAA Tournament: Kentucky, LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
Then, things get murky.
“Five through 13, toss ’em up,” Dean said before working the UK-Wright State game.
Before the season, Dean believed Georgia would be a fifth SEC team to make the NCAA Tournament. Georgia’s opening-game loss to Chattanooga weakened that belief.
Dean has already circled two games on his calendar: UK at LSU on Jan. 5 and LSU at UK on Senior Day March 5.
The latter caused Dean to recall LSU playing at UK on Senior Day in 1981 when he was a UK assistant coach. LSU, which would advance to the Final Four, came with a 17-0 league record. No team had ever gone 18-0 in the SEC. No team had been undefeated champion since 1956.
Kentucky won 73-71. With wonder in his voice, Dean recalled Dirk Minniefield throwing a lob from half-court that Sam Bowie dunked.
“We played a great game,” Dean said, “and beat them by two points.”
During a teleconference leading into the Final Four last spring, the subject turned to Duke and hate.
A question was directed at former Blue Devils star Grant Hill: Why do people hate Duke?
At this point, Reggie Miller interrupted. “I’ll speak for Grant,” he said. “We all hate Duke. We hate Christian Laettner.”
Miller was joking, but also acknowledging that Duke engenders dislike. The same might be said of Kentucky. More than once, UK Coach John Calipari has referred to an unnamed “they” who do not wish him nor UK well.
The question is why?
“Love is so fake, but hate is so real,” Hill said. “I think people love to hate Duke. I think it speaks to, you know, the success. It’s amusing to me. As a fan, you’re a fanatic. That passion you have is what keeps us all in business.
“I guess I’m hated. If what we did and how we did it, people want to talk about it and why we were despised, I’m fine with it. I’m proud.”
Tyus Jones, who would be named Most Outstanding Player in last season’s Final Four, said he felt the hate.
“A little bit,” he said. “There’s always fans out there who would let you know their true feelings about you.”
As to why, Jones said, “Tradition. The legacy Duke carries. Coach K’s career. How much he’s won.”
Miller equated this hate to one of the seven deadly sins.
“A lot of that is jealousy,” he said, “and people being envious because with winners comes those two attributes.”
Then, Miller jokingly added, “I can’t stand Grant Hill, but he’s a hell of a basketball player.”
Reading is fundamental
A newspaper redesign — something the Herald-Leader unveiled this month — forces readers to adjust. Reader reaction is welcomed.
Reader Steve Slade volunteered his view of the Herald-Leader’s new look in an email.
“At least they don’t show a big picture of you like (John) Clay and (Mark) Story yet,” he wrote. “But I guess they’ll do that on Sunday.”
As this is being written, the readers have been spared that sight.
“I’ve already told John and Mark what I think of that,” Slade wrote. “Your words are the reason I buy and read the paper. Show me pictures of the games, not big pictures of the writers.”
Slade, 56, lives in Lexington. He is a civil engineer, a 1983 UK graduate in civil engineering. He considers himself a fan of all UK sports and horse racing.
To Jamal Mashburn. He turns 43 on Sunday (today). … To Julius Randle. He turns 21 on Sunday (today). … To Brandon Knight. He turns 24 on Wednesday. … To Larry Johnson. He turned 61 on Saturday. … To Brooks Downing. The former UK basketball publicist turns 52 on Monday.
Illinois State at Kentucky
7 p.m. (ESPN2)