Next Friday will mark former Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall’s 90th birthday. We’ll pause to let that settle in.
“Isn’t that amazing?” Hall said recently.
Heredity contributes to Hall’s longevity. He said he had a great grandmother who lived to be 100. His mother reached 90, a brother 88. And he has a kid sister who is 80.
As he approaches 90, Hall is something of a tribute to modern medicine.
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“I’ve had every health problem the book writes about,” he said before reciting some of the ailments and procedures he’s experienced: cancer, prostate surgery, diabetes, bypass heart surgery, five stent implants.
What Hall describes as bone-on-bone pain in his left ankle has made it difficult to walk in recent years.
“My bad ankle affected me more than just physically,” he said. “It takes away my confidence and my feeling of well being. Just the fact I can’t go and do what I normally do.”
The fishing trips he’s loved are impossible. Hall attends UK practices and games much less frequently than he’d like. When he’s at a Kentucky game, he is a beloved figure. He embodies the program he has served as a fan, player, assistant coach, head coach and since retiring in 1985 as a fan again.
Hall came to Rupp Arena for last weekend’s victory over VMI. A man approached him bearing a gift. The man said his mother wanted her son to give him a Kentucky blue cane. Hall had been using a black cane.
Kenny Walker, a star on Hall’s final UK teams, described his former coach as someone who’s come to personify Kentucky basketball. “He’s kind of replaced Bill Keightley,” Walker said in reference to the program’s longtime equipment manager affectionately known as “Mr. Wildcat.”
Jack Givens, whose 41 points propelled Kentucky to victory in the 1978 national championship game, said of Hall, “He’s everybody’s coach.”
His former players remember Hall fondly. With time, they’ve grown to more fully understand and appreciate his coaching.
“As a player, he is a father figure, a disciplinarian,” Kyle Macy said. “As you graduate and move on, he’s more of a friend because you’ve been through so many things together.
“You didn’t see too many smiles when he was coaching.”
Kevin Grevey, an All-American in the mid-1970s, recalled being a naïve freshman and displaying a lack of reverence expected during a pregame playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
“I’m from Ohio,” he said. “I don’t know that song. I’m still flipping the ball up to the basket.”
“He called me over and said, ‘Hey, you just disrespected My Old Kentucky Home,’” Grevey said. “‘I want you to learn the song. I never want to see you dribbling a basketball or shooting a basketball or talking to one of your teammates when that’s being played. That is a religion here at Kentucky. Next time I see you, I want you to sing My Old Kentucky Home.’
“And I’m, like, ‘Are you serious?’ He said, ‘You’re damn right I’m serious. You will not practice or play till you learn that song.’”
Grevey learned the words to My Old Kentucky Home.
An All-American who scored 1,801 points as a UK player, Grevey credited Hall with giving him a boost of self-confidence.
“He’d tell me, ‘You don’t know how good you could be,’” Grevey said. “I didn’t. He made me better than I ever thought I could be. And I think that’s the greatness of a coach: Make them believe in themselves.”
Givens spoke of a “totally different perspective” a player gains with time.
“I think of the many, many times how easily ‘get a wall’ would roll off his tongue,” Givens said.
Another former UK player recalled Hall barking out an order to run the steps in Memorial Coliseum.
“I called him right before I got my kidney transplant,” Reggie Warford said. “We ended up saying the same thing at the end. I said, I love you. ...
“I’d love to hear him yell ‘get a wall’ one more time, and then be able to do it.”
Of course, there’s a method to a coach’s incessant demands of players. There’s a reason a coach nags, cajoles and maybe on occasion exasperates players. Givens and Hall shared this insight after Kentucky beat Duke in the 1978 championship game.
“I was walking off the court with the net around my neck,” Givens said. “He came up and put his arm around me. And he said, ‘Now, Jack, do you see what all that screaming and getting on you your whole career meant? And why I did that.’
“And we both laughed about it.”
Givens recalled the advice he received as a freshman from Grevey. Don’t take it personally when Hall scolds you. “That was my saving grace throughout my career,” Givens said.
On a flight home from an away game, Grevey was startled to hear that Hall wanted to speak with him. “Well, that’s not a good thing,” Grevey said he thought.
Hall told Grevey to look out the window at the darkness below. “I thought he was losing his mind,” Grevey said. “I said, ‘Coach, it’s black. It’s dark.’”
A bit later, Hall asked Grevey to again look out the window. This time, Grevey saw many pinpoints of light dotting the landscape like a swarm of fireflies.
Message: The team plane was now flying over Kentucky. The lights were from homes where people were staying up late to watch the replay of UK’s game earlier that night.
“These people love Kentucky basketball here,” Hall told Grevey. “Every home is watching our game. And I want you to know, you’re in Kentucky, pal. People care.
“And he said, you go back to your seat. I went, whoa! I think he wanted to make sure this green kid from Ohio knew he was now in Kentucky. I thought it was pretty cool. I love Coach Hall. I love him.”
PJ Washington had a simple explanation for his series of attention-getting performances of late: a career-high 25 points against North Dakota, a career-high 18 rebounds against VMI, double-doubles against VMI and Winthrop.
“I’m just trying to bring energy,” he said.
When asked what PJ Washington knew as a sophomore that his freshman predecessor did not, he said, “At this time last year, I just didn’t know my role. I didn’t know what Coach (John Calipari) wanted from me. This year, I know what he wants. I’m just trying to do that role the best I can.”
Talk vs. squawk
PJ Washington on the need to communicate on defense, even off the ball, rather than simply stand idly by if your man does not have the ball:
“In high school you can get away with it, but not here. Everybody back-doors and gets easy layups. In high school, you were just standing. In high school, you can get away with it. Nobody really talks in high school unless they’re just trash-talking.”
Duke’s 22 assists and four turnovers against Kentucky raised a few questions.
For instance, when was the last time an opponent had four or fewer turnovers against UK? Answer: You have to go back 30 years to March 5, 1988. Ole Miss had four turnovers in a game Kentucky won in Oxford, 78-71. How did UK win? By making 62.5 percent of its shots and enjoying an 18-5 advantage in free throw attempts.
The last time an opponent had fewer than four turnovers was Feb. 7, 1985. Vanderbilt had two turnovers in a game Kentucky won in Nashville 68-62. How did UK win? Kenny Walker had a monster game (31 points, 15 rebounds) and UK outscored Vandy 26-14 at the foul line.
Vandy’s 14 assists and two turnovers in that game marked the last time a UK opponent had an assist-to-turnover ratio as good or better than Duke’s 5.5-to-1.
While much attention is paid to RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish, a fourth Duke freshman might be relatively over-looked.
Through six games, point guard Tre Jones has an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 4-to-1: 33 assists, eight turnovers. And he’s made more than half his three-point shots (six of 11).
To Lexington businessman and sports marketing pioneer Jim Host. He turned 81 on Friday. ... To UCLA Coach Steve Alford. He turned 54 on Friday. ... To Reid Travis. He turns 23 on Sunday (today). ... To UK associate coach Kenny Payne. He turns 52 on Sunday (today). ... To Steve Lochmueller. He turns 66 on Sunday (today). ... To LSU Coach Will Wade. He turns 36 on Monday. ... To Larry Johnson. He turns 64 on Wednesday.