UK Men's Basketball

Mississippi players kneeling during anthem was ‘emotional decision’ to combat racism

Eight University of Mississippi players knelt as the national anthem was played before last weekend’s game against Georgia. They were demonstrating their objection to two groups of Confederate sympathizers — “Confederate 901” and “The Highwaymen’ — who gathered for a rally on campus that day.

The players said it was a one-game protest. No player knelt when Ole Miss played Tennessee on Wednesday nor are any expected to kneel when the Rebels play Kentucky on Tuesday.

Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork and Coach Kermit Davis Jr. voiced support for the players.

“This was all about the hate groups that came to our community to try to spread racism and bigotry,” Davis said in his post-game news conference last weekend. “Our players made an emotional decision to show these people they’re not welcome on our campus, and we respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”

About 60 Confederate sympathizers came to Ole Miss to show support for a memorial to Confederate soldiers that stands in front of the Lyceum, the school’s main administration building. A sculpture commemorating James Meredith, whose enrollment as the school’s first African-American student sparked riots in 1962, stands behind the building.

There have been repeated calls by some for the Confederate memorial to be removed from in front of the building that was built by slaves.

“I felt like I needed to stand up for my rights for righteousness sake,” guard Devontae Shuler, one of the players who knelt, told The New York Times. “My emotions were just for the students. I didn’t want anything to happen with us playing that game while the protest was going on. I felt like I couldn’t pass that moment by without making a difference.”

Teammate Breein Tyree said other players knelt, in part, because they didn’t want Shuler to be the only one protesting. Incidentally, Shuler made a key three-pointer late in the game that helped Ole Miss win 72-71.

“We’re just tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like it’s our actual university having these hate groups in our school,” Tyree said in a post-game interview.

Sportswriter Parrish Alford, who covers the Ole Miss team for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, said the protest during the national anthem largely caught fans in attendance off guard.

“There was murmuring, but I didn’t hear booing, per se,” Alford said of the fan reaction. “Not booing or jeering. But you did hear this low rumble.”

The New York Times and ESPN sent reporters to Mississippi’s home game against Tennessee on Wednesday. In post-game news conferences after the games Saturday and Wednesday, Davis answered questions about the protest.

Ole Miss has made moves to distance itself from an association with the Confederacy. In the late 1990s, the school banned Confederate flags at home football games. The “Colonel Reb” mascot has been replaced with a bear. The school band no longer plays “Dixie” at games.

When asked about the players kneeling, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas voiced support. To kneel is not to show disrespect to the flag or country, he said.

“It’s just players that are using their platform in order to draw attention to something they find objectionable,” he said. “That we should all find objectionable.”

It would seem coaches in the deep South have to walk a tightrope. Most of the players are black. And it seems reasonable to assume there are a number of fans support the presence of memorials to the Confederacy.

“There’s no tightrope to be walked,” Bilas said. “There’s no excuse for condoning the glorification of the Confederacy. And I don’t care if you live in the South, the East, the West or the North. That has no place in our society. None.”

Pitino in exile

If you wonder what life is like for Rick Pitino as the coach of a professional team in Greece, you should read a fascinating story that appeared on The Ringer website Wednesday.

Writer John Gonzalez spent time with Pitino in Athens. The story details Pitino’s life on and off the court.

Pitino acknowledges the emptiness that came with being dismissed by Louisville and no longer coaching.

“I did miss it,” he said. “I’ve always been a very positive person, and I hated the fact that I was very bitter. I hated that. I wanted to get away from that. That’s one of the reasons I took the job. You’re sitting at home, watching basketball, and you’re very bitter. That type of bitterness is not healthy at all.”

Coaches he considered friends distanced themselves from him, he said.

“By contrast, he said Bill Belichick, just an acquaintance, reached out several times to check on how he was doing,” Gonzalez writes. “So did John Calipari, a former foe turned friend.”

Calipari has floated the idea of Pitino returning to UK to take a bow for resuscitating the program in the early 1990s. Pitino told Gonzalez he did not think he would do so. “He said the current students there wouldn’t remember him as the old Kentucky coach, just as the guy who got kicked to the curb by the rival Cardinals,” Gonzalez wrote.

Pitino is coaching Panathinaikos, one of two professional teams in Athens. There is a bitter rivalry with the other team in city, Olympiacos. Pitino described the passion stoked by the rivalry as “Kentucky fans on steroids.”

Memphis Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace, who helped convince Pitino to coach in Greece, said animosity between Athens-based teams made sporting rivalries in the U.S. look like “church league volleyball on a Sunday night.”

As for coaching a college team again, Pitino does not think it will happen. UCLA boosters had an interest him replacing Steve Alford, Pitino said, but the school president ruled that out.

“And if I was in his shoes, I would nix it, too,” Pitino said. “He’s not going to research the Southern District of New York. ‘I don’t need that aggravation. Let me hire someone who is totally clean.’”

PJ vs. Grant

However much PJ Washington and Grant Williams went against each other in Saturday’s Kentucky-Tennessee game, this competition within the competition will not be a big factor in how the NBA evaluates each player.

That’s according to longtime NBA coach Del Harris, who incidentally was one of two recipients of this year’s John Bunn Award (given by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement).

For players projected to be among the top 35 or 40 picks, head-to-head competition “would comprise about .005 percent of the overall evaluation,” Harris wrote in a text message.

Such competition might be a bigger part of an evaluation for players projected to be taken late in a second round.

Of the two players, Harris saw Washington as the better pro prospect. He saw Williams as a “good hustle guy” in the mold of former Texas player P.J. Tucker. Washington is the better prospect because he can shoot “the corner three-ball,” Harris wrote.

Must-see TV

A note last Sunday about the most-watched college basketball games in ESPN’s history requires a follow-up.

To review, the Duke-North Carolina game of Feb. 20 had the third-highest rating in the history of ESPN’s coverage of college basketball.

The record for highest rating is another Duke-North Carolina game, this one on March 8, 2008. The second-highest rating was a matchup of the Nos. 1 and 2 teams: Tennessee against John Calipari-coached Memphis on Feb. 23, 2008.

The Duke-North Carolina game of Feb. 20 had 4,343,000 viewers, which is a record for a midweek game, ESPN said.

Here’s the follow-up question: What is the highest-rated Kentucky game ever televised by ESPN?

Answer: UK’s game in the Champions Classic against Michigan State on Nov. 12, 2013. Michigan State won 78-74 despite freshman Julius Randle staging a coming-out party as a force to be reckoned with by scoring 27 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. That game drew 4,002,000 viewers, ESPN said.

Schadenfreude

For Kentucky fans, the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune applied at Arkansas last weekend.

During halftime of the game against Texas A&M, Arkansas honored former guard U.S. Reed. As Tom Murphy wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Reed made one of the most iconic shots in Razorback history: A half-court heave at the buzzer to enable Arkansas to beat defending national champion Louisville 74-73 in the second round of the 1981 NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek presented Reed with a framed photograph of the shot. And former cheerleader Scott Atkinson, who retrieved the Spalding basketball on the court that March 14, 1981, day, presented the ball to Yurachek, who gave it to Reed.

Happy birthday

To Tayshaun Prince. He turned 39 on Thursday. … To former Louisville Coach Denny Crum. He turned 82 on Saturday. … To Florida Coach Michael White. He turned 42 on Saturday. … To UK radio play-by-play announcer Tom Leach. He turns 58 on Sunday (today). … To Shaquille O’Neal. He turns 47 on Wednesday.

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