For EJ Floreal, a winner was declared Tuesday in his internal tug of war between track and basketball. He will leave Kentucky’s basketball team and join its track team, the school announced.
Floreal, the son of Olympians, was on UK’s basketball team the last three seasons while his father, Edrick, coached the track team. Throughout that time, the track-or-basketball question hovered.
A decorated high school track star and unpolished basketball player, Floreal will have two seasons of eligibility in track.
In a UK news release, Floreal thanked UK basketball coach John Calipari and his basketball teammates for the experience of the last three years.
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“Sometimes other opportunities come along,” he said in the release. “I want to use my athleticism to truly excel. And after seeing what my dad has done with his track and field athletes, I felt like this was my best chance to be the best version of myself.
“I want to make something clear. This was completely my decision and my decision alone.”
Floreal said he was “bred” for track. “As much as I love basketball, track is in my blood,” he said. “I’m excited for the next step.”
Floreal played in only 29 of Kentucky’s 115 games the past three seasons. In his UK basketball career, he played a total of 40 minutes, scoring three points.
Calipari thanked Floreal for the time he spent in basketball.
“EJ has elite athleticism, and I’m happy for him that he’ll truly get a chance to shine,” Calipari said in the news release. “I want to thank him for his hard work and dedication to our basketball program. He was a great teammate. He improved immensely over the last three years, and he was a big part of our success.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying that Floreal did not blossom at UK as a basketball player. Before Kentucky’s exhibition games in the Bahamas in the summer of 2014, Floreal worked out with Willie Cauley-Stein, who was recovering from an offseason surgery.
Floreal caught the eye of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who was working the game telecasts. Bilas spoke of the improvement Floreal showed.
“It felt like people are finally going to notice … ,” Floreal said the following October. “For somebody like Jay Bilas, who’s watched the best of the best back to LeBron (James) in high school or even Kobe (Bryant) in high school before that, for him to say I look good and I’m improving and he’s pulling for me, that was really big.”
Floreal and his parents knew he had a lot of improving to do to someday make an impact as a Kentucky player.
“EJ is a phenomenal athlete,” Edrick Floreal said of his son. “He just needs to learn the game.”
The elder Floreal noted a telling difference in excelling in track as opposed to basketball. The latter requires much more skill development and repetitive drills. Or, more “reps,” to use the vernacular of athletics.
“I tell him all the time, he can come to track and be a star right away,” Edrick Floreal said in 2014. His son could be “fantastic” in sprinting and jumping events, he said.
“Then again,” he added, “Michael Jordan could have been a world-record holder in the long jump.”
As a high school sprinter, Floreal finished fourth in the 100 meters and third in the 200 meters in the 2012 California Championships his junior year.
During the elder Floreal’s time as UK track coach, Wildcats have won five individual NCAA championships and 27 individual Southeastern Conference championships.
Earlier this year, ex-Cat Kendra Harrison broke a 28-year-old world record in the 100-meter hurdles.
The elder Floreal, a native of Haiti, competed for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games. His wife, LaVonna Martin-Floreal, won the silver medal in the 100-meter hurdles in 1992.
As the son of Olympians, Floreal acknowledged early on that his basketball skills needed to catch up to his speed and quickness.
A serious injury helped explain why his basketball skills lagged behind. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament as an eighth-grader.
“Basketball is just what I do, and I feel I can be really good at it once I get everything down,” Floreal said when he joined the UK team in 2013. “I guess part of it, you could say, is I wanted to venture out and do my own thing. Every kid wants to be better than their parents. And every parent wants their kid to be better than them.
“And as much as I probably could have run track, I really did want to be a basketball player.”