Slone: The waited-for walk-on

John Clay
John Clay

Landon Slone's T-shirt was a plain and simple gray, short-sleeve variety, old-looking but not quite tattered — well-worn, you'd say.

Right smack on the chest, however, right over his heart, was the old Kentucky logo, the one with the Wildcat behind the slender block letters U and K, its claw reaching out and over the top ready to scratch the first thing that moved.

The logo was faded to the point where you figured it had to have been washed at least a thousand times.

This wasn't one of those brand-new Nike T-shirts, the fancy ones with the fitted sleeves and the latest screening, futuristic fashion statements UK athletes are handed and happily wear.

This was the faded favorite Slone surely had when he arrived on campus this fall, and it was the one he wore to the post-game press interview sessions after Kentucky's 76-69 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena.

"Actually, this shirt looked like this when I got it," Slone said. "My sister bought it for me, at the mall, I think."

A sister who knows her brother.

After all, this is what Slone said after the walk-on from Paintsville High played a career-high 25 minutes, contributed mightily (without scoring) to the stretch when the Cats finally took control of the game, and earned rave reviews from his head coach: "I'd do anything to play here."

That's the way the T-shirt looked, with the feeling of comfort, and familiarity, and love, with the history and passion behind it.

Isn't that what Kentucky fans want from their walk-ons, the ones who turn down scholarships from other schools because they just want to be "a part of it," be a Wildcat, and it's all the better when the kid is a Kentucky kid — in this case, a mountain kid, one from the 15th Region — who makes the most of his opportunity.

Cameron Mills did that (in modern times), making the scenario famous, and ever since UK fans have been looking for the "next Cameron Mills," without really finding him, until maybe now, this No. 10 with the mountain roots and the skinned elbows and what Billy Gillispie called "spark."

That's what Slone gave in a tough, tight game in which the visiting Owls, coached by the veteran Mike Jarvis, played much better than their record, while Kentucky played at times like a team that had seen several of their players tossed from practice.

So after playing a grand total of 10 minutes in the three games since his 16-minute contribution against Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 7, Slone entered in the first half, immediately dived to the floor to make a steal, earned a tie-up and forced a Florida Atlantic timeout.

The crowd of 24,018 roared.

It didn't stop there. Slone played 10 minutes the first half, 15 the second. He made three assists, with just one turnover. On defense, he disrupted with sheer will and hustle. And he did it all without much scoring, making just one of five shots, missing all four of his three-point attempts.

"I've got to work on my shot," he said. "That's bothering me."

Didn't bother Gillispie.

"He gave us the biggest spark of anyone on our team today," said the coach.

A spark that spreads.

"Him being a Kentucky boy, I think it's close to a lot of fans," said his teammate, Michael Porter. "When he plays well, I think they really enjoy that. And that makes me happy for him."

It does quite a bit for the kid from the 15th Region, as well. Slone recounted the story of visiting Gillispie over his high school spring break, and the coach asking the Paintsville star if he would consider walking on. Slone said he wanted to talk about it with his parents — as if there was anything to talk about — before he left for Gatlinburg, which he did, then called Billy G. to say a thousand times yes.

"It was the greatest feeling," said the kid sitting there in the jeans and the faded UK T-shirt.

"He's a very smart player," Gillispie said. "Who knows what can happen for him?"

Truth is, it's happening right now.