The NBA Combine, which returns to the sporting calendar this week, can be more Kabuki theater than basketball experience.
This never seemed more obvious than last year when Willie Cauley-Stein denied he had an interest in art. “A lot of the quote-unquote interests that I have are not really interests,” he told reporters (and presumably teams) at the NBA Combine. “Like, I don’t really like art. And it got put on me early. Like, I really don’t enjoy art.”
Reporters exchanged glances and waited for the cock to crow. As Kentucky fans know, Cauley-Stein seemed to bare an artistic soul during his college career when he designed shirts and a personal logo, dyed his hair canary yellow and got multiple tattoos.
Del Harris, a longtime NBA coach, explained. Cauley-Stein and his agent were aware that NBA types wondered about the ex-Cat’s devotion to basketball. So, an interest in art was a bad thing. To prove his love of basketball, he turned his back on art.
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Or as Cauley-Stein told reporters at the Combine, “My life revolves around the ball.”
This story made Harris chuckle.
“Let’s face it,” he said. “The good agents are going to prep the good players just as a lawyer — and many of the agents are in fact lawyers — would prep a witness in a trial.
“Because this is a form of a trial. You’re put on the witness stand.”
So of what value are the team interviews if the players are not candid? Harris said teams try to move players off of prepared responses. That’s the purpose of unusual questions, which have themselves become a source of media inquiry: What’s the craziest question a team has asked?
“You want to ask the question that gives you a clue of what kind of teammate this guy will be,” Harris said. “You want to know about coachability. What things are important to him as a person. Who were his heroes in life.”
Games are played at the Combine. But when asked what NBA people learn from watching players in these Combine games and drills, Harris said, “Really, very little.”
James Ulis, the father of All-America point guard Tyler Ulis, said his son would not play in the games at this year’s Combine, which begins Wednesday and runs through next Sunday.
Marcus Lee, who is taking the full immersion option in the draft process, does plan to play in the games, his brother said. Jamal Murray had not decided whether to play in games, his father said, but as a projected lottery pick, it would be surprising if he did.
But all will play the interview game.
UK not exceptional?
With Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart joining the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee next year, the immediate thought is he can look out for Kentucky’s interests.
Not so, said David Worlock, the director of media coordination and statistics for the NCAA. Committee members must exit the room when their team comes up for discussion, he said.
This rule is strictly enforced.
“There is just no exception,” said Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner who is now working to enhance Southeastern Conference basketball. “When there is a discussion about Kentucky, Mitch has to leave the room.”
Barnhart can answer a question regarding Kentucky. “For example, if a committee member asks Mitch, ‘Did Player X play when UK lost to Syracuse?’ He can answer yes or no,” Worlock said in an email. “If the question is, ‘Would UK have beaten Syracuse if Player X didn’t miss the game?’ He wouldn’t be allowed to answer.”
A committee member can provide factual information about his or her team. But offering an opinion about that team is not permitted.
“That’s the line of demarcation,” said Tranghese, who served on the committee from 1996 to 2001 and was its chair in 2001.
And in the age of computers, social media and ever-present “devices,” a question seeking factual information is unlikely, Tranghese said. A committee member can look it up herself or himself.
Worlock also said that Barnhart will not be allowed to vote for Kentucky at all during the process of selecting, seeding and bracketing teams.
When asked about exceptions being made for an exceptional program like Kentucky, Tranghese said, “Well, that’s just not true.” Over the years, the committee has had representatives from UK, North Carolina, Duke and UCLA. “They are all treated the same way,” he said.
UK All-American Kenny Walker has been spreading the word about an Ed Davender Memorial Fund. Donations are being accepted at all Central Bank locations.
Walker hopes the fund can help Ed Davender’s family and preserve his memory as a standout Kentucky player. Davender died April 28.
“His number should be hanging from the rafters” in Rupp Arena, Walker said.
There’s a hint of irony here. Walker’s play overshadowed Davender’s in the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons. Then in Davender’s junior and senior seasons, Kentucky basketball was consumed with Rex Chapman mania.
It’s easy to forget Davender is the only UK player with more than 1,500 points and 400 assists. His 1,637 points ranks 11th on Kentucky’s career scoring list. He’s also the most prolific scorer in program history among players who never led UK in scoring in a season.
When you throw in high-level defense and a selfless team-first approach, Davender can be considered among the best complementary players in program history.
Rex Chapman said that he and Ed Davender formed the best backcourt in college basketball in the late 1980s.
“I promised Ed I would claim that forever,” Chapman said. “And I will.
“I don’t know that we are. But I think we are at least a No. 1 seed.”
‘No perfect folk’
Ed Davender’s friends acknowledged that he made mistakes. Long after his UK playing career, he was convicted of committing a series of college basketball ticket scams.
“I guess every saint has a past and every sinner a future,” said Rex Chapman, who pleaded guilty to four felony counts of theft last year.
During his eulogy at Davender’s funeral service, Rev. Dr. C.B. Akins Sr., mentioned William Shakespeare. Akins, the pastor of First Baptist Church Bracktown, quoted a line from the play Julius Caesar.
“The evil that men do lives after them,” Shakespeare wrote. “The good is oft interred with their bones.”
With that, Akins told the audience of several hundred, “Ain’t no perfect folk in this house today.”
Ed Davender’s death provided an opportunity to ponder whether he was under-appreciated as a Kentucky player.
“When I came here to play with Ed, I was nowhere near as good as he was,” Rex Chapman said. “He was stronger than I was. He was quicker than I was. He had two years of college weights and all that. I felt like I had to close the gap on he and James Blackmon just to compete.”
Of course, UK fans’ love of “King Rex” made all other players seem like auxiliary pieces.
“I always said Ed was so unassuming, the greatest prank he pulled on everybody was allowing people for two years to believe I was better than he was,” Chapman said, “And I was not. He was better than I was.
“I could shoot it a little farther out. Maybe jump a little bit higher. He did everything else better than I did. I really had to learn to play defense my freshman year in order to play with Ed. I felt bad. He looked at me sometimes and, like, ‘You got to do better than that.’ And I knew I had to.”
What might have been
Ed Davender carried a sense of what-might-have-been to the grave.
“Ed should have played 10 years in the NBA,” Rex Chapman said. “He played exactly like Mo Cheeks.”
Cheeks played 15 seasons in the NBA, mostly in the 1980s and mostly with the Sixers.
Kenny Walker and Chapman recalled being teammates with the Washington Bullets. Wes Unseld, the guiding light for the Bullets, asked them about Davender, who had been the team’s third-round draft pick in 1988. He said Davender was going to make the roster.
Walker remembered concern about a heart murmur. There’s also speculation about bad advice from an agent.
“I’m not sure he was wired for the grind of playing for the next 15 years,” Chapman said. “I think I was barely wired for it.”
Supply and demand
During Ed Davender’s funeral, former UK teammates Rex Chapman and Kenny Walker remembered their friend.
Chapman told a story about an Economics 101 class he and Davender took. The first test stumped them. They sat side-by-side in the back of the classroom and watched the other students turn in their papers.
“We had nothing,” Chapman said. “We were scared to death, but not too scared to look at each other’s papers.”
They collaborated on their answers. It did not take a detective to figure out what they did. The teacher was up to the task and asked them to report to him after the next class.
“What are we going to do?” the teacher asked Chapman and Davender.
To which, Chapman said he replied, “Get you an autographed ball and some shoes?”
This brought a playful response from Rev. Dr. C.B. Akins Sr., who delivered the eulogy.
Akins, who is vice chair of the UK Board of Trustees and chair of the University Athletics Committee, wanted to make sure no one had taped Chapman’s remarks.
“Just in case the NCAA or anyone is listening,” Akins said.
To Larry Steele. He turned 67 on Thursday. . . . To Heshimu Evans. He turns 41 on Sunday (today). . . . To J.P. Blevins. He turns 37 on Sunday (today). . . . To Jarrod Polson. He turns 25 on Sunday (today). . . . To Jon Hood. He turns 25 on Monday. . . . To former Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun. He turns 74 on Tuesday.