Sports

Mark Story: 10 most fascinating Kentucky sports figures of 2011

Kentucky quarterback Matt Roark was carried off the field by fans and teammates after the Wildcats defeated Tennessee, UK's first win over the Volunteers since 1984.
Kentucky quarterback Matt Roark was carried off the field by fans and teammates after the Wildcats defeated Tennessee, UK's first win over the Volunteers since 1984.

With the whole world to pick from, three of Barbara Walter's choices for the 10 Most Fascinating People of 2011 were Donald Trump, Pippa Middleton and The Kardashians.

Really?

To me, we had scads of people more fascinating just among sports figures in the commonwealth.

My 2011 10 Most Fascinating People in Kentucky Sports:

10. Terrence Jones. In the late spring, we wondered whether the University of Kentucky basketball forward had deliberately dialed back his scoring for the good of his team — or if he were just slumping? After Kentucky made a surprise run to the Final Four, the question was whether Jones would, as expected, be a one-and-done player?

After he returned for his sophomore year, the questions have only increased. Ever since Jones turned in a disappearing act of a performance in a Kentucky upset loss at Indiana two Saturdays ago, the question you hear over and over is, "What's wrong with Jones?"

For reasons good and bad, Terrence Jones has had the whole state guessing all year.

9. Robby Albarado. Talk about a guy leaving 2011 with the ultimate what-if?

The Louisville-based jockey has never won the Kentucky Derby. This year, he was slated to ride a horse named Animal Kingdom in the 137th Run for the Roses. On the Wednesday before the race, Albarado was involved in a race spill at Churchill Downs that left him with a broken nose and a cut eye.

The owners of Animal Kingdom decided they would make a jockey change on their horse if Albarado did not ride on the Friday before the Derby. Albarado didn't.

So, when Animal Kingdom won, it was John Velazquez in the saddle. Poor Albarado — who was healthy enough to ride other horses on that Derby Saturday — has to now wonder whether his best chance to ever win the Kentucky Derby got away.

8. Samarie Walker. The power of the unknown made Walker one of the most anticipated athletes in Kentucky in 2011 — and she didn't even play in a game until Dec. 18. Amid much mystery, the 2010 McDonald's All-American transferred to UK midway through her freshman season from the glamorous women's hoops powerhouse Connecticut.

The questions were plentiful. Why did she leave UConn? Just how good is she?

But by the time Walker became eligible at Kentucky this past Sunday, UK was looking like a legitimate threat to contend for the school's first-ever women's Final Four trip. So the speculation about Walker has evolved into whether she is the player who can push the Cats the final distance to the promised land.

7. Adam Wing. It's probably a myth that every boy born in Kentucky dreams of being in Rupp Arena and having a day where one's shots literally cannot miss — but it is the ultimate fantasy for many. In the 2011 Kentucky boys' high school state tournament, Rowan County star Adam Wing lived that dream.

The then-junior sharpshooter hit five of five three-point shots to lead the Vikings to an upset win over Bullitt East in the state semifinals on Saturday morning. That night, the 6-foot-4 Wing made his first seven treys in what became an epic double-overtime state finals loss to Christian County.

Wing did not get the state title, but he will always be a guy you can ask what it feels like to play in Rupp on a day when you cannot miss.

6. Shoni Schimmel. Who would have dreamed that the closest thing we would have in Kentucky college basketball to Pistol Pete Maravich would be a female University of Louisville guard?

In 2011, it was so.

From no-look passes to step-back three-point jump shots at crunch time, Schimmel's charismatic play injected electricity into basketball in Kentucky in 2011 and helped U of L make a run to the NCAA Tournament's round of 16.

To make the story even richer, Schimmel grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon.

5. Josh Harrellson. If the University of Kentucky had been able to convince the NCAA to declare former Turkish pro player Enes Kanter an amateur, Harrellson likely would have spent the 2010-11 basketball season with a great seat to watch the Cats.

Instead, the senior who was semi-famous for his affinity for denim shorts became, in many ways, the face of UK's first men's basketball Final Four team since 1998.

After scoring two points total in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Harrellson averaged 12 points and 8.1 rebounds in Kentucky's eight post-season tournament games in 2011. A guy who averaged four minutes a game in 2010 became a 2011 second-round NBA Draft pick of the New York Knicks.

Looking for an embodiment of what is possible if one takes advantage of unexpected opportunity? Think Josh Harrellson in 2011.

4. Bruton Smith. When he gave Kentucky Speedway a long-elusive Sprint Cup race in 2011 by moving a date from Atlanta, Smith was set up to be a genuine Kentucky sports hero. However, things didn't quite go as planned for Smith.

The outspoken motorsports mogul's penchant for taking public pot shots at the Kentucky Derby didn't go down real well in the commonwealth. Then the sold-out Quaker State 400 in Sparta was ruined for many paying customers by massive traffic snarls that impeded entry to the event.

Rather than a folk hero in Kentucky, Smith ends 2011 with a need to woo back many of his racetrack's fans and followers.

3. Matt Roark. After injuries forced the Kentucky wide receiver to play quarterback in his final college game, Roark earned a permanent place in UK sports lore when he led the first Wildcats football victory over Tennessee since 1984. Yet what made Roark one of the interesting in-state sports figures of 2011 was what came before his Tennessee magic.

The senior started 2011 with a horrid case of the drops. His dropped passes became so plentiful, he was the subject of boos in Commonwealth Stadium when balls were thrown his way. Roark was, for a time, benched. Yet amid this swell of negativity, he persisted and had two 100-plus-yard receiving games in the second half of the season.

Every sports coach at all levels always preaches about what can happen if you never give up. In 2011, Roark became living proof.

2. Kenneth Faried. Not sure there has ever been a more interesting combination of player and person in Kentucky sports than the now ex-Morehead State men's basketball star. On the court, Faried's energy and passion for rebounding and blocking shots allowed him to dominate games without needing to score.

Off the floor, Faried was a product of the tough streets of Newark, N.J., whose smile and personal warmth allowed him to thrive in small-town Kentucky. The more we learned about Faried's backstory — from his acceptance of his mom's wife to the fact he was a practicing Muslim — the more compelling his narrative was.

1. Jacob Raleigh. Chances are, you won't recognize the name of the former Letcher County Central High School tennis standout. Here's why you should.

In 2009, Raleigh made the Kentucky high school state tournament as a left-handed serve-and-volley player with a power game. As a senior in 2011, he came back to the state tourney as a right-handed player with a finesse game built on guile and touch.

In between those two state tourney trips, Raleigh contracted a rare form of cancer, had to have his left arm amputated retaught himself the game of tennis playing right-handed.

There are almost no sports stories in which the word courage should appear. What Jacob Raleigh did in 2011 is an exception.

And far more fascinating than anything The Donald or The Kardashians managed in 2011.

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