The final game of the Lexington portion of The Basketball Tournament didn’t offer many on-the-court highlights for Daniel Orton, but it was a productive weekend nonetheless.
Orton, a world traveler since his stint as one of John Calipari’s original one-and-done freshmen at UK nearly a decade ago, was back in town for the first time since his college days. He averaged 8.0 points over the first two games of the event — a single-elimination, 64-team tournament with a winner-take-all purse of $2 million — before being held scoreless in Sunday’s regional championship game at Frederick Douglass High School, forced to the bench for much of the afternoon after two early fouls.
Most of those smiles came when Orton spoke of his time at Kentucky during the 2009-10 season — Calipari’s first as the Wildcats’ head coach — and his experiences throughout this homecoming weekend.
“Incredible,” he told the Herald-Leader of the last few days. “Love Lexington. Love coming back. Love seeing everybody.”
On Saturday morning, his team — which features former UK teammates DeMarcus Cousins as general manager — had a shootaround at the Joe Craft Center practice facility. While there, Orton was asked by UK deputy athletics director DeWayne Peevy, a longtime senior staff member for the men’s basketball program, to sign a mock-up of the Rupp Arena court that is on display and being filled with autographs from former Wildcats.
“It was surreal,” he said. “And it takes you back to being in that moment — coming in there every day in practice. You think about it, how much you took it for granted, but also how special those practices were — going up against DeMarcus everyday. Patrick Patterson. Perry Stevenson. Josh Harrellson. You think about all those guys you used to have those battles with, and it just brings back all the great memories you had here. And it all went by so fast, too.”
Orton, who was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 22 recruit in the 2009 class, actually committed to Kentucky while Billy Gillispie was the program’s head coach, but Calipari wanted to keep him on when he took over the program.
With Cousins playing in front of him, Orton was limited to a bench role in his one season as a Wildcat, averaging 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game. Still, he left UK after his freshman year and was selected with the No, 29 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
The manner in which he exited Lexington wasn’t ideal.
While it’s been a common practice for Calipari’s players to leave school before graduation, Orton departed without fulfilling all of his academic obligations for his final semester, a rarity in the Calipari era and something the UK coach has alluded to in interviews over the past several years.
Orton publicly apologized for the way he departed in a series of tweets back in 2010, and — though he hadn’t been back to campus until these past few days — said Sunday that he continues to look back fondly on his one season in Lexington.
He saw this trip as more of a joyous visit than a mending of fences.
“I could see people saying that, but, to me, there was really no hatchet to bury,” Orton said. “I’ve wanted to come back. … Now that I’ve had this summer off, it’s been incredible to be able to come back here and see Lexington. It’s a beautiful, beautiful city. So it kind of gives you that home feel.”
Orton said his time overseas has kept him plenty busy, and his chances to come back home have been relatively few until this summer. Since his last appearance in the NBA more than five years ago, Orton has played professionally for teams in Japan, China, Thailand, Greece, Lebanon and the Philippines. He said he’s especially enjoyed his time in Japan and will be returning next month for another season of pro ball there.
First, he’ll play for Loyalty Is Love in the Chicago portion of The Basketball Tournament, which starts with the quarterfinals Aug. 1 and wraps up with the nationally televised championship game Aug. 6 on ESPN. Orton is due to make $150,000 if his team wins it all.
This weekend, he got to visit with UK assistant John Robic and mingle with UK fans. He said he still keeps up with his old college team. The time zone differences and his own busy schedule often make it difficult to catch live games, but Orton checks scores, occasionally sees highlights, and follows the progress of the Wildcats from afar.
Nearly 10 years after his departure, he also still uses the collective “we” when talking about Kentucky, and — no matter how far from Lexington he finds himself — he sometimes spots a familiar logo in the crowd.
“There are UK fans everywhere. Everywhere,” Orton said with a smile. “Regardless of if they’re really from Kentucky or even from America. Kentucky is worldwide. I had Chinese fans that had UK shirts on. We’re universal now. Take it from me, we’re universal.”