UK Men's Basketball

‘Relentless’ basketball journey: From Kentucky manager to Lakers’ coach

PJ Washington ‘definitely where I want to be’ after second season at Kentucky

Kentucky's PJ Washington could serve as an example of how a second college season can pay off, but he said most players are looking to make it to the NBA as soon as possible.
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Kentucky's PJ Washington could serve as an example of how a second college season can pay off, but he said most players are looking to make it to the NBA as soon as possible.

Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Showtime. Hollywood. Beverly Hills. Jerry West. Elgin Baylor. Magic Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kobe Bryant. And now LeBron James.

You almost have to shield your eyes from the blinding glitz and glamour.

By contrast, Frank Vogel, the new coach scheduled to be formally introduced by the Lakers on Monday, had a decidedly humble launch into the world of basketball. He was a manager for Kentucky’s basketball program in 1995-96.

A native of Wildwood Crest, N.J., and a player at Division III Juniata College, Vogel wrote handwritten letters to then-UK Coach Rick Pitino looking for a job. Any job. He had encountered Pitino at 5-Star camps.

“He was relentless, which is kind of how Frank is,” said former UK player Cameron Mills, who roomed with Vogel for three semesters. “‘This is what I want to do. I’ve got this guy’s attention, and I’ve got to convince him I will do whatever you want me to do. Just give me a chance to sit and learn.’”

Pitino offered a manager’s job, which expanded to assistant video coordinator and point guard on UK’s short-lived junior varsity team.

As Mills recalled, Vogel’s job with video included splicing together a 15- to 30-minute tape on an upcoming opponent’s offense, another 15 to 30 minutes on the defense and five or six minutes on a particularly dangerous individual opponent’s favorite moves.

Mills remembered Vogel put together a “legendary” 45-minute tape on Tennessee star Allan Houston.

Vogel slept only a few hours each night, Mills said. He usually fell asleep with the movie “Hoosiers” playing in the VCR. He also compiled a book of quotes for when he or anyone needed inspiration.

“He was like the most motivated guy at Wildcat Lodge,” Mills said. “It was inspiring to be around him.”

When Pitino left Kentucky to be the Boston Celtics’ coach, he took Vogel with him. Life as a video coordinator for a dynastic NBA franchise was not all gold-plated glory. Vogel shared a desk with three other staffers: assistant coach Andy Enfield (now coach at Southern Cal), Kevin Willard (now coach at Seton Hall) and Mark Starns (later an accomplished Kentucky high school coach).

“Desks weren’t that big,” Enfield recalled. “So we got to know each other well.”

For instance, Enfield introduced Vogel to the woman who would become his wife.

“I could tell at that time that his insights and his knowledge of the game were special,” Enfield said. “And he was going to be a great coach one day.”

Vogel and Willard were roommates as well as Celtics staffers.

“We lived off cheap Chinese food,” Willard said. A nearby restaurant delivered orders within 10 minutes.

“He loved everything about it,” Willard said of the workload. “That’s one thing I loved being around him. Work was always fun for him.”

As Mills and Willard quickly confirmed, Vogel first gained basketball prominence as an eighth-grader. He appeared on in a stupid human tricks segment on David Letterman’s late-night show. His trick? Spinning a basketball on one end of a toothbrush while he brushed his teeth with the bristled end.

“I unfortunately had to see it far too many times,” Mills said with a chuckle. “That was like the ‘Hoosiers’ thing.”

Between bites of Chinese takeout, Willard watched tape of his roommate’s appearance on Letterman.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Willard said. “He’ll show it to you, now. He’s as humble as it gets, but he will let you know that he spun the ball on Letterman.”

Vogel eventually worked as an assistant coach for the Celtics, Sixers and Pacers. He was named interim coach of the Pacers in 2011, and he got the head coaching job after leading the team to the playoffs.

Mills marveled at his basketball-loving ex-roommate working for Larry Bird.

“It’s like the basketball dream world he’s living in,” Mills said of this time, “and he’s living in it because he’s working his tail off.”

After the Pacers, Vogel coached the Orlando Magic for two seasons. It was during this time that he and Willard reunited.

Willard’s aging parents (his father is former UK assistant Ralph Willard) lived in Naples, Fla. An approaching hurricane two years ago led to a call for an evacuation. But the parents have no place to go.

“I’m freaking out,” Willard said. “I’m trying to find them a hotel. I think, well, let me call Frank. ‘Frank, I’m in a jam. I know you haven’t seen my mom and dad in about 20 years. Can you take my parents in?’

“Without hesitation, he said, ‘Absolutely. Tell the to come up. We’ll have a great time.’”

The Willards stayed in Vogel’s home in Orlando for four days.

Vogel sent Willard a photo of a golf outing on a decidedly windy day.

“My parents still talk about that to this day,” Willard said. “It’s the best hurricane they’ve ever been through.”

‘I’m a competitor’

His agent advised him not to play in the five-on-five games at the NBA Combine. But Tennessee standout Grant Williams played.

“I’m a competitor,” Williams said. “I wanted to play.”

His agent’s reaction?

“He laughed,” Williams said with a smile.

Of course, it’s not unusual for players and their agents to decline to play in the Combine games. Too much risk, too little reward is the thinking.

Perhaps along those lines, several of the projected top picks either did not come to the Combine or participated in a limited fashion. This applied to Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Coby White, Darius Garland and Jarrett Culver.

“Most guys are told to understand your draft position and stuff like that,” Williams said. “But for myself, I said, I don’t care. I’m going to come out here and compete because it’s what I love to do. I love playing basketball, and I’m not going to be that guy who sits out or avoids anything.”

Williams said this after his first game, in which he made two of 13 shots (0-for-5 from three-point range).

‘I really want this’

Enes Kanter, who spent 2010-11 with the UK basketball program, also played in the Combine’s five-on-five games. Although a relative unknown talent, he was projected as a top-five pick.

“I want to show them who I am,” NBA consultant Ryan Blake recalled Kanter’s attitude. “He was a guy who said, ‘I don’t care. I want to work out in the drills and skills. I want to show them I really want this.’

“And that’s a huge thing. That resonated a lot.”

Utah took Kanter with the third pick of the 2011 NBA Draft.

‘Hesitancy’

Nassir Little, who entered this year’s NBA Draft after his freshman season for North Carolina, raised eyebrows by voicing what sounded like frustration with his time at UNC.

In speaking to reporters at the NBA Combine on Thursday, Little said he was not sure “exactly what my role was, especially on offense. …

“That created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t really allow” him to play his best.

Little, a McDonald’s All-American, averaged 9.8 points per game.

Measurements

For PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, here’s how measurements made at the NBA Combine compared to numbers listed by Kentucky this past season. Keep in mind the NBA measurements are for players not wearing shoes.

The NBA had Washington as 6-foot-6½ and 230 pounds. UK listed him at 6-8, 228.

The NBA had Johnson at 6-4¾ and 216. UK listed him at 6-6 and 211.

The NBA had Herro at 6-4½ and 192. UK listed him at 6-5, 195.

Tennessee forward Grant Williams was a two-time SEC Player of the Year. The NBA measured his height as 6-foot-5¾. He has a wingspan of 6-9¾.

In terms of body fat, Johnson was at 5.6 percent, Herro 7.1 percent and Washington at 8.6 percent.

One other number: Tacko Fall’s wingspan was measured at 8 feet, 2¼ inches.

First times six

Tennessee guard Jordan Bone excelled in the testing at the Combine. He finished first or tied for first among all players in six categories: standing vertical leap, shuttle run, lane agility, three-quarter sprint, “NBA break left shooting” and top-of-the-key shooting. He tied with Ole Miss guard Terence Davis in that last category.

Together again

Guards Tyler Herro of Kentucky and Fletcher Magee of Wofford have a history. Magee set a record for career three-point baskets. But led by Herro, UK’s defense resulted in Magee missing all 12 of his three-point shots against the Cats in the NCAA Tournament.

“Me and him are close,” Herro said Friday. “We signed with the same agency. So we’ve been working out together a little bit.”

Belated happy birthday

To Nate Sestina. He turned 22 on May 12.

Happy birthday

To former Tennessee Coach Buzz Peterson. He turned 56 on Friday. … To Ron Mercer. He turned 43 on Saturday. … To Enes Kanter. He turns 27 on Monday. … To Jamaal Magloire. He turns 41 on Tuesday. … To Rob Lock. He turns 53 on Wednesday.

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