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John Clay: New UK assistant Strickland still a grinder

You're a 17-year NBA-lifestyle veteran, where you get used to certain things, nice things, and people doing things for you, nice things, and then one day you find yourself checking up on college kids at class, running errands, being a glorified gopher.

"It was humbling," Rod Strickland said.

Only here's the thing: It was expected.

"I knew the first year, I was going to have to fight through it," Strickland said.

This was 2006, when one of the NBA's better and enduring point guards re-entered the ranks of college basketball in an entry-level position — by entry-level we mean, pick up the mail, run to the airport, talk to a professor, do what has to be done — on John Calipari's staff at the University of Memphis.

Three summers later, Strickland, 42, is a full-time assistant on Calipari's first staff at the University of Kentucky.

And he's better off for having started at the bottom.

Strickland wasn't some high-profile NBA vet parachuting into a cushy job off name recognition and game reputation. This was Calipari saying, if you want to get into coaching, great, but you get into coaching the way Calipari did it: serving meals, running errands, working camps, working for nothing.

"And listening," Strickland said on Tuesday. "I listened to everything."

Milt Wagner paved the way. When Calipari took the Memphis job in 2002, he signed DeJuan Wagner, son of former University of Louisville star Milt Wagner. Then Milt joined the Memphis staff as director of player development, and everyone thought it was a quintessential father-son package deal.

But DeJuan left after a year for the NBA, and Milt stayed, and worked, and finished his degree. And in 2006, when Memphis assistant Tony Barbee became head coach at UTEP, Barbee took Wagner with him as a full-time assistant.

Meanwhile, Strickland had met Calipari a couple of times. So when Cal was at Memphis, he had a player, Arthur Barkley, who post-college got a job with FedEx in Washington, D.C.

"I was playing with the Wizards and coach called me and asked me to look after him," Strickland said. "Arthur ended up living with me for like two years."

When Strickland's career was winding down and the guard was thinking about what to do next, it was Barkley who told him that Wagner was leaving Memphis and that Calipari was looking for a replacement.

"I thought, 'Hey, I'd like to try that,' " Strickland said. "I wanted to see if that was for me."

Not that it was easy. One day you're an NBA star, the next you're making sure a college kid didn't skip study hall.

"Were there awkward moments? Of course," Strickland said. "But that was part of the process."

It took a year and a half before Strickland began to enjoy what he was doing, and he often thought back to his college days at DePaul.

"I thought, 'Wow, I really got on those coaches' nerves,'" he said, laughing. "I see guys now I can think back to what I did, and I tell them, 'That's not the way to do it.'"

See, that's what Strickland brings. He's been through it. At the highest level. That Calipari motto of "recruiting the best of the best," well, Strickland was one of those guys. A playground legend in New York — Strickland was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in September — who went on to be an All-American at DePaul and a first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks.

You play 17 years in the NBA for nine different teams (Knicks, Spurs, Blazers, Wizards, Heat, Timberwolves, Magic, Raptors and Rockets), you've got to be a grinder, someone who will do whatever it takes. Now you're a guy who can tell those who aspire to the NBA just what it takes.

"They need reality checks," Strickland said, smiling.

Just as Strickland got one of his own, going from NBA star to low-level gopher. Turns out, reality checks, humbling experiences, awkward moments, they're all educational. They're all part of the process.

"One day, I want to be a college head coach because you can kind of put your stamp on kids," Strickland said. "And show them the way."

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