While taking a test recently, this UK student fought the urge to glance at the paper of the person sitting next to him. Then the student, former Kentucky player Gerald Fitch, felt a formerly unfamiliar emotion: guilt.
“Back in college, I was setting that up every day,” he said of this bit of classroom subterfuge. “Like setting that up a week in advance.”
Fitch, now 35, is not the same person he was as a UK player in the early 2000s. He’s older. He wiser. He’s more mature. He found humility while globetrotting the world as a basketball vagabond. More than once in an hour conversation last week, he expressed gratitude for the kindnesses that have come his way. He said his former self would have taken these kindnesses for granted.
UK’s lifetime scholarship program is one such kindness. Fitch returned to UK this fall semester to continue work on a degree in psychology.
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When asked what kind of student he was as a UK player, Fitch said, “I wouldn’t call myself a student, to be honest. Doing (school) work wasn’t something I was focused on. I felt like if they weren’t forcing us to go, I wouldn’t have been going to school. I have to say basketball was my god.”
Fitch said he was “self-absorbed” and had a lot of “fleshly desires” when he played for UK (2000-01 through the 2003-04 seasons).
The celebrity that comes with being a Kentucky player can enhance this self-centered existence. He suspects the celebrity has grown since he left UK.
“Some guys can handle it and some guys couldn’t,” Fitch said. “I was one of the guys, it went to my head.”
Fitch wonders if being raised in a single-parent home contributed to his inability to handle it. His mother, Ruby, raised him. He only saw his father four times, the last coming when Fitch was a junior in high school.
“I remember talking to Tubby (Smith) my freshman year about it,” he said. “He said, ‘Man, you should reach out to him.’ At the time, I’d just gotten to Kentucky (and thought) I don’t need him. I didn’t understand it. To this day, I wish I would have because I get it.”
Fitch’s father died in 2013.
Smith, the UK coach from 1997-98 through 2006-07, became a father figure. Fitch said he felt “that love” from Smith. “It motivated me to not want to let him down,” he said.
A pre-draft injury complicated Fitch’s hopes of immediately beginning an NBA career after college. He signed with the Wizards, but was cut.
“Everybody was expecting me to do this and that,” he said. “To call my mom, oh man, I remember it was just crazy.”
Fitch went to play in Croatia, making $20,000 a month and “absolutely hated it,” he said. He could not get the NBA, which was the sole focus of his basketball ambition, out of his mind.
Then he played in Ukraine. “Probably a little worse,” he said of living in a small town where no one spoke English and he subsisted on a daily diet of rice, potatoes and the chicken wings he baked.
Fitch joined the Miami Heat the next season. But after clashing with an assistant coach, an incident he said he regrets, he was traded to the Houston Rockets (for another ex-Cat, Derek Anderson) the next day.
The Heat won the NBA championship. Fitch could not let go of the feeling that he should have been on that team. “I was still stuck on Miami,” he said of his time with the Rockets. “I wasn’t humble. Not appreciative. Not being thankful.”
Fitch was out of the NBA by 2007. Thereafter, he played for teams in Turkey, China, Italy, France, Venezuela, Argentina, Lebanon, Spain, Morocco and Puerto Rico. He was playing in Puerto Rico until about two months ago when a foot injury ended his season. Like the Miami Heat, his Puerto Rico team won the championship without him.
“Totally different mindset now,” Fitch said. “I was rooting them on.”
Fitch looks back on his brief NBA flings as “beyond awesome.” But he wonders if the fame and fortune comes at a price.
“I know some guys who don’t have too much of nothing, and their life is awesome,” he said. “They feel great every day. And I know some NBA players with a ton of money. They have the dumbest problems. Women problems. Or babies. Or diseases. … It’s not really happiness.”
Once he completes work on his college degree, Fitch hopes to coach. In that role, he believes he can share what he’s learned with future generations.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of knowledge,” he said. “When I think of the game of basketball, I feel I know every aspect of it.”
The New York Times published a story Friday in which John Calipari explained how he’d want his big men to play. The story, by Malika Andrews, was about how the New Orleans Pelicans were counting on ex-Cats Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins to buck the NBA trend of playing small.
The story’s headline was “Pelicans have high hopes for their low post.”
“We teach our ‘bigs’ to start like guards and finish like ‘bigs,’” Calipari told Andrews. “I hate to give away trade secrets, but that’s my mentality with my big guys. I don’t want you to play like you’re a big guy. You start like you’re a guard. I want you to attack the basket, but I want you to finish like you’re a ‘big’ — go dunk on somebody. I want you to rebound and block like you’re a big guy.”
An Oklahoma-based film crew was in Lexington last week to do interviews for a possible documentary on Eddie Sutton.
Of course, Sutton was Kentucky’s coach for four ill-fated seasons in the 1980s. Great promise, fueled by a 32-4 debut season in 1985-86, dissolved amid an NCAA investigation and punishment. Widespread rumors of Sutton having a drinking problem further muddied the situation.
“He had flaws; he had demons,” director Chris Hunt said of Sutton. “But he was a helluva coach.”
Hunt said Sutton was the only college coach with 800 or more victories (806 to be exact) to have not been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is in the state halls of fame for Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, plus the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
While in Kentucky, the film crew from 1577 Productions, which included company president Dave Tester and producer Wendy Garrett, interviewed John Calipari, former UK players Rex Chapman, Kenny Walker and Roger Harden, plus retired WKYT-TV sports anchor Rob Bromley.
Kentucky plays again Monday against Morehead State in the “Kentucky Cares Classic.” Proceeds from the game will be donated to help fund relief efforts in areas impacted by recent hurricanes and wildfires.
For those who cannot attend, donations can be made by texting KYCARES to 87872.
Kansas, Mizzou care
Last Sunday’s Kansas-Missouri exhibition, dubbed the “Showdown For Relief,” raised $2,011,000 for relief in areas hit by recent hurricanes and wildfires.
The money came from ticket sales ($1.15 million), pay-per-view stream ($768,000) and text-to-give contributions ($68,000). Additional donations totaled $25,000.
“From the onset, I knew the charitable cause and the game would create excitement, but I never thought it would eclipse $2 million,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said in a release. “To the thousands of basketball fans who supported the cause, thank you. You helped make a difference in the lives of those in need.”
Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin also expressed gratitude, calling the event “an incredibly successful fundraiser.”
To former Georgia Coach Hugh Durham. He turned 80 on Thursday. … To Aaron and Andrew Harrison. They turned 23 on Saturday. … To Michael Parks. He turns 47 on Monday. … To former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer. He turns 88 on Monday. … To former LSU Coach Dale Brown. He turns 82 on Tuesday.