UK Men's Basketball

Smile away, Monk: Ex-Cats advise die-hard fans they don’t want to root for robots

Malik Monk smiled on the bench late in the Cats’ 88-66 loss at Florida on Feb. 4, 2017 as Gators fans serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” on his 19th birthday. UK fans were not amused that the freshman star found anything funny at that moment. Others on the UK bench, left to right, were Isaiah Briscoe, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo.
Malik Monk smiled on the bench late in the Cats’ 88-66 loss at Florida on Feb. 4, 2017 as Gators fans serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” on his 19th birthday. UK fans were not amused that the freshman star found anything funny at that moment. Others on the UK bench, left to right, were Isaiah Briscoe, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Kentucky’s game at Missouri on Tuesday seems like a perfunctory exercise compared to Saturday’s rematch with Florida. Of course, a second Kentucky-Florida game will revive still-vivid memories of the first: an 88-66 UK defeat.

The second-worst loss in John Calipari’s eight seasons as UK coach will have happened only three weekends earlier when Kentucky and Florida tip off in Rupp Arena.

No doubt UK fans thirst for revenge. Wagons will be circled, powder kept dry and whatever other cliché conveys the idea of righteous retribution.

Which brings us to the television camera showing Malik Monk’s brief smile while sitting on the bench inside the final three minutes at Florida. He smiled in reaction to Florida students singing “Happy Birthday” (the game was played on Monk’s 19th birthday). Some jumped to the conclusion that Monk was not as emotionally invested as the fans.

Question: Is it really good for a player to be as zealous as the fans?

“Nah,” former UK All-American Kenny Walker said. “You can’t do that. No. No. No. You’d be in all kind of trouble.”

Kyle Macy, the point guard on Kentucky’s 1978 national championship team, said that fan-like passion hindered some UK players of his era. “Because they felt that pressure, and didn’t know exactly how to deal with it,” he said.

One of Macy’s teammates, Jack Givens, agreed.

“I don’t know if coaches want them that wound up,” he said. “That they’re so tight. They’re so play-by-play emotionally involved that if one thing goes wrong, they crash and burn. Players can’t be that way.”

Fan-like passion can lead to players playing not to make a mistake rather than aggressively taking the initiative, however risky that might be on occasion, Walker said.

Or a player swept up in emotion can be reckless. The legal system calls it crimes of passion, actions born of sudden and strong impulses.

Speaking of wrong-headed impulses, the mind drifts to UK fans grumbling about how Tayshaun Prince glided through games in his freshman season. Prince, who maintained a poker face on the court, eventually became the 2001 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. He’s eighth on UK’s career scoring list with 1,775 points.

There’s something to be said for poise and perspective.

‘A coping mechanism’

Before working the telecast of the Kentucky-Tennessee game last Tuesday, ESPN analyst Sean Farnham said that his high school girlfriend had died recently. She had given birth, held her baby for a few hours and then died of an aneurysm.

Farnham called her father to offer condolences. “He wanted to talk about basketball,” Farnham said.

This was Farnham’s way of saying that people find different ways to cope.

“How do people deal with death?” Farnham said. “Is there one way? Some people want to laugh.” A lively Irish wake comes to mind.

“Some people want to curl up in a fetal position,” Farnham said. “How do you cope? It’s a coping mechanism.”

Prompting this conversation was Malik Monk’s now-famous smile on the Kentucky bench near the end of a 22-point loss at Florida two weekends ago. Was it proper for Monk to smile (in reaction to Florida students singing “Happy Birthday” to him)? Or at that moment should he have been as inconsolable and grim-faced as the typical UK fan?

Farnham suggested that was not the most pertinent question. The better question revolves around being true to yourself.

“You have to be authentic,” he said.

Farnham recalled how differently two of his former UCLA teammates coped.

Earl Watson did not want to show any contentment or happiness,” he said. “Baron Davis played the game loose.

“I don’t think there’s one way that’s proper or improper. But I think you have to be authentic.”

Monk’s smile led to questions about his devotion to Kentucky’s success. Farnham, whose TV role gives him access to many Kentucky practices, said he had no doubt of Monk’s desire to win.

“The fans’ perspective is ‘we’re losing, how can you laugh?’” Farnham said. Monk’s smile “doesn’t mean he’s happy. It doesn’t mean he’s content.

“When things aren’t going well, that’s when your fans really start over-analyzing.”

Smile as therapy

Jack Givens and Kenny Walker agreed that a smile or laugh can help a player get through a difficult situation. That applies to UK players.

“They weren’t getting beaten by Florida,” Givens said of the game on Feb. 4. “They were getting spanked. And sometimes it gets so bad, you have to laugh to keep from crying.”

Sometimes something will strike you as funny, Walker said. The human reaction to smile or laugh can be a momentary escape.

Givens recalled enduring a 98-74 loss at Indiana in the third game of his freshman season.

“All I wanted to do was get out of the building,” he said. “If (Indiana star) Scott May had told me a joke at that point, I would have laughed at it to try to get him to leave me alone, and let me get out of the building.”

Of course, Kentucky exacted sweet revenge by beating undefeated Indiana 92-90 in the 1975 Mideast Region finals.

“These players are not robots,” Givens said. “And they’re not going to react to everything the way we expect them to react. Just because they don’t react the way some fans wanted them to react doesn’t make them a bad guy.”

Plus, dealing with defeat can be part of maturing.

“Fans would like it better if he was shedding tears,” Givens said of Malik Monk. “But that’s not the last time he’s going to lose.”

NIT experiment

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes applauded Monday’s announcement of an NCAA experiment in this year’s NIT. Team fouls will be reset to zero at the 10-minute mark of each half.

The one-and-one bonus free throw will be discarded. Instead, teams will shoot two free throws on all fouls after the fourth committed in each 10-minute segment.

Barnes liked the idea of moving college basketball closer to the NBA’s four quarters. “I’m just for having a universal game,” he said. “. . . I think it’s just a matter of time before (four quarters) does happen.”

In another nod toward bringing uniformity to play, Barnes also voiced support for bringing a shot clock to high school basketball.

Thoughts and prayers

Former UK player Larry Stamper is undergoing cancer treatment at the Cleveland Clinic.

Stamper, who turned 67 on Jan. 6, grew up in Beattyville and played for Lee County High School. His UK career spanned the coaching transition from Adolph Rupp to Joe B. Hall.

Kentucky won the SEC championship in his sophomore, junior and senior years. Stamper averaged 10.3 points as a junior.

His wife, Royetta Stamper, said that prayers and well wishes would be welcomed. Cards can be sent to TownePlace Suites, 7325 Engle Road, Middleburg Heights, OH 44130, c/o Larry Stamper, Room 313.

Congrats

To former UK big man Lukasz Obrzut. A native of Poland, Obrzut became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Thursday in Louisville.

He tweeted, “Muhammad Ali Center with family and friends! Ready to take the Oath and become American Citizen. What a great feeling.”

Obrzut played for UK from the 2003-04 season through 2006-07.

Odds

On Friday, Bovada updated its odds on teams winning the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

The odds of Kentucky winning the championship held steady at 11-1. That made UK (and Villanova) the fifth choice to win it.

Bovada made Duke, Gonzaga and Kansas the favorites, each at 8-1. UCLA was the fourth choice at 10-1.

Teams at 12-1 were Louisville, Arizona, North Carolina and Oregon.

‘A hard job’

Isaac Humphries offered a philosophical view of officiating. Bad calls are part of the game.

“Being a ref is a hard job,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t like it.”

Happy birthday

To Al Robinson. He turned 79 on Friday. … To Rajon Rondo. He turns 31 on Wednesday. … To Phil Argento. He turns 70 on Wednesday. … To Herb Sendek. The former UK assistant coach turns 54 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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