Sports

Divine intervention? Pastor recruits for Cats

Two Christian ministers were talking about Kentucky basketball ...

That sounds like the start of a joke that could include a rabbi, a bar bet and a donkey that shoots layups.

Actually, it's the start of a true-life recruiting story that brings guard prospect Russell Byrd to Kentucky's Big Blue Madness next month.

Byrd's father, Kelly Byrd, is a minister in Fort Wayne, Ind. One of his friends is Jeff Carrell, a minister in Huntington, Ind.

Carrell, who grew up in Paducah rooting for UK, and the elder Byrd share at least two interests: Christianity and basketball. This led Carrell, who once coached on the high school level, to be interested in Russell Byrd's recruitment.

"He kept asking me, 'Has Kentucky called? Has Kentucky called?'" Kelly Byrd said last week. "I kept saying, 'No, they haven't.'

"Then one day, he said, 'That's it.'

"I said, 'What do you mean, that's it?'"

But Carrell hung up.

In a case of the Lord helping those who help themselves, an exasperated Carrell called the UK basketball office. He was familiar with the inner workings of Kentucky basketball. As a child, he had attended Joe B. Hall's summer camps. Later, before he entered the ministry, he worked for a business that hired UK players Reggie Hanson and Travis Ford as summer employees.

"I still had the number to the basketball office," Carrell said. "I just talked to the lady, whoever it was that answered the phone."

Carrell told her that Kentucky should be recruiting Russell Byrd, and explained why.

"A day or two later, (UK Assistant Coach) Jeremy Cox started talking to Kelly," Carrell said. "The rest is history."

Madness will be the Byrds' third trip to UK. After Russell Byrd played in an Elite Camp in June, UK Coach Billy Gillispie offered a scholarship. Although playing at a basketball school rates "very important" to his son, Kelly Byrd said, the prospect did not commit immediately to Kentucky.

Why not?

The elder Byrd noted the relationships his son had developed with other coaches involved: Tom Izzo at Michigan State, John Beilein at Michigan, Thad Motta at Ohio State and Tom Crean at Indiana.

Plus, there was what Kelly Byrd called a "location issue." His son has to decide whether he wants to be close to home (a strong family value in the Christian home). UK is farthest from Fort Wayne.

"I honestly think that's a big thing," Kelly Byrd said. "He's trying to figure out how far away he wants to be. If he's going to be farther away than an hour and a half (the driving distance to Michigan State), Kentucky is a great place to be."

A second visit to UK helped re-enforce the Byrds' good feelings.

"The cool thing is Mitch Barnhart is a born-again Christian," Carrell said, "and that was big with Kelly."

During a meeting with the Byrds, Barnhart spoke of the options UK provided to strengthen a young person's Christian faith, Carrell said.

"Being a pastor and that's his son, that's a big deal," Carrell said.

'My sounding board'

After playing in The Keightley Classic on Monday, former UK player Scott Padgett spoke of how longtime equipment manager Bill Keightley helped him deal with tough times. Many former UK players have similar stories. No doubt these stories compelled them to play in the charity event.

"Mr. Keightley was my sounding board a lot of days," Padgett said. "There was never a more positive person. Let's face it. In sports, there's always a lot of negativity."

Players gripe about playing time (not enough) or shot attempts (not enough) or classroom assignments (too many). Coaches complain about media. Media complain about coaches. Players juggle demands from teammates, girlfriends, professors and reporters.

For Padgett, academic problems added to the usual uncertainty. He recalled being Rick Pitino's whipping boy as he sat out the first eight games of the 1996-97 season.

"I could go to Mr. Keightley and talk to him," Padgett said. Keightley encouraged him to be patient and expect better days ahead.

Padgett recalled Keightley saying he based the encouragement on having talked to Pitino.

Padgett paused for a moment and said, "He probably did talk to him and Coach said it. You're going to get to play.

"You knew he had insight."

But didn't Padgett wonder if Keightley was merely saying whatever happy talk would prevent a player from transferring?

"At first I did," Padgett said, "till things started going that way (that Keightley predicted).

"Even if it was (B.S.), he made you feel better."

Favor for Tubby

Businessman Joe Craft, the man who ponied up $6 million to secure funding for UK's new practice facility, acknowledged how his generosity was linked to a friendship with former Coach Tubby Smith.

Craft believed the practice facility would help Smith quiet critics.

"You have to have tools to be successful," Craft said after playing in The Keightley Classic. "He was saying from Day One that he needed a practice facility. ... I thought I'd do what I could to help."

Craft, a native of Hazard, got to know Smith when Smith first became Tulsa's coach. A 1972 UK graduate, Craft's business has offices in Tulsa and Lexington.

A mutual friend suggested Craft help Smith adjust to life in Tulsa. As it turned out, the coach's oldest son, G.G. Smith, would play on the same AAU team as the businessman's son, J.W. Craft.

So the two men came to travel together to the same AAU basketball events.

Dating yourself

If Joe Craft ever needs to remember the birthday of his son, J.W. Craft, he only has to look at a listing of UK basketball results.

J.W. was born the same night that UK played its first game in Rupp Arena: Nov. 27, 1976. Craft went from the game to the hospital. Four hours after UK beat Wisconsin 72-64, J.W. Craft was born.

So shouldn't the elder Craft have marked the occasion by naming his son "Rupp" or "Adolph?"

"I had to name him after my dad," Joe Craft said.

Pilgrim's progress

In this now-now-now world, it's easy to forget Matt Pilgrim. He's the transfer from Hampton who will sit out this season.

Pilgrim made an impression during UK's public pickup game session last weekend. He's obviously strong (6-8, 235) and willing to throw his body around. He can use this school year to improve his perimeter game.

Flipping through an old notebook, I came upon the observations of Kenny Walker. The former UK All-American watched Pilgrim play earlier in the summer.

"He is raw," Walker said. "He can jump out of the gym. He's a banger. And he had a couple eye-popping slam dunks off offensive rebounds."

Raw?

"You can tell he can run and jump," Walker said. But Pilgrim should work to develop "polished offensive moves," the former UK star said.

Holes in one

Former UK big man Nazr Mohammed did not shoot a hole in one during The Keightley Classic. That qualifies as news considering his two holes-in-one earlier this summer.

By the way, Mohammed, who turned 31 on Sept. 5, said he hopes to play three to five more seasons in the NBA. He said he's not sure about what career to pursue after basketball. For now, he's not interested in coaching.

Congratulations

UK notebook good wishes to:

Leon Smith, whose duel citizenship within the UK Athletics Association comes in the form of being Assistant Athletics Director and supervisor of all non-coaching staffers in the basketball office.

Smith became a father again on Sept. 5 with the birth of Margaret Elise. As he kept The Keightley Classic running smoothly, Smith noted that he was operating on two hours sleep.

■ Former Louisville All-American Wes Unseld. He was named U of L's 2008 Alumnus of the Year, the highest honor bestowed by the school's Alumni Association. U of L also named Unseld one of its Alumni Fellows for 2008.

Academic donation

Former Arkansas star Ronnie Brewer announced last week a donation of $50,000 to the school's African-American studies department.

"I'm sure some people think athletes only give back to athletics, so I guess I'm going out on a limb," Brewer said during a news conference on Wednesday.

The donation will fund an endowment supporting scholarships for students in the program who also demonstrate an interest in journalism.

"The world is so diverse," Brewer said. "In my opinion, you don't really see that many minority journalists."

Brewer was majoring in broadcast journalism when he left school. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he was about 40 credits shy of a degree. He intends to fulfill a promise to his mother by finishing school through online courses or possibly through a combination of online and summer-school studies, he said.

Lodge upgrade

A portion of the proceeds from The Keightley Classic will go toward a renovation of Wildcat Lodge.

Russ Pear, UK's Associate Director of Athletics for Operations, explained that the renovation is mostly cosmetic (including a paint job and new carpeting), plus new beds and casework.

Etc.

Also noteworthy were these tidbits:

■ While in the press box for the Tennessee-UCLA game, Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Mike Strange ran into Silas McKinnie. McKinnie was Wade Houston's top assistant in his final season as Tennessee basketball coach.

Silas, who had played football as well as basketball in his younger days, now works as a scout and personnel guy for the Detroit Lions.

Patrick Beverley removed the slim possibility of a return to Arkansas by signing with an agent. He plans to play overseas, perhaps for a team in Turkey or Germany.

Happy birthday

To Kenny Rollins. He turns 85 today.

Rollins, a member of UK's Fabulous Five, remains thankful for the thrills basketball provided him, most notably the national championship and Olympic gold medal in 1948.

"I look back on it and say, was that really me or was it somebody else?" he said.

In UK lore, Rollins is noted for an arrival that required destiny to lend a hand. Growing up in Ballard County, he began his college career at Western Kentucky. That lasted a week.

"Uncle Ed (WKU Coach Ed Diddle) said, 'I got two guards signed already,'" Rollins said. "'Good luck to you and goodbye.'"

A month later, UK Coach Adolph Rupp called and invited Rollins to try out.

"Me and 35 other guys played ball for a week," Rollins said. "I was one of five selected."

Rollins said making the team brought him and his family to tears of joy.

"It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said. "After that, well, it's all pretty much been said."

Perhaps less known is how Rollins met his wife, Mabel, in a zoology class at UK.

"We were cutting up frogs," he said. "I looked up and saw her. She was a lot better to look at than a cut-up frog."

Rollins and Mabel, who died in 1996, had two children: a son, Kevin, and a daughter, Corinne. Rollins lives with Kevin and his family in Indiana.

When asked how he was doing as his 85th birthday approached, Rollins repeated the question.

"'How do I feel?' It's kind of hard to say," he said. "When you're this age and your memory is leaving you, it's difficult to come up with an answer.

"I struggle. I'm not in pain. Nothing devastating. I have three speeds: slow, slower and slowest."

An 85th birthday comes as a surprise.

"I say to myself, how in the world did I live this long?" he said.

A dream he had one night last week provided another puzzle. Rollins dreamed about the train trip he took from California to Chicago after being discharged from military service in World War II. It was a four-day trip in a chair.

"Why, all of a sudden, was I thinking of that?" he said. "That was a miserable trip. It was the trip from hell."

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