UK Men's Basketball

Nate Sestina playing for UK basketball creates euphoria in Emporium

As the NCAA inches toward allowing college athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses, Nate Sestina could be first in line if this opportunity existed in 2019-20. The owner of a business in his hometown of Emporium, Pa., has long had Kentucky basketball’s graduate transfer in mind as a pitch man.

“He’s a really good publicity man,” said Josh Zucal, who owns Aroma Café in Emporium. “Not afraid to let people know what he’s about and what he loves. I’m trying to build some kind of sponsorship program.”

When he returns to Emporium, Sestina usually stops at Aroma Café. He and his parents set aside three hours for a meal because of all the hellos and good-to-see-you’s they expect to exchange with townspeople who stop by the table. Such is his celebrity back home.

Aroma Café tries to be as craft as possible, Zucal said. They roast their own coffee on site.

“I always get a bag of coffee or a shirt to go,” Sestina said. “They now sell a five-pound bag. My mom is going to bring me down a bag for Big Blue Madness, so I’m excited.”

The hazelnut blend he bought the last time he at Aroma Café was “really, really good,” Sestina said.

Commercial possibilities aside, Sestina has long been an inspirational figure in Emporium as the quintessential local boy who made good.

“He’s a huge celebrity,” said Justin Zimmer, the mayor of Emporium. “All the kids here aspire to be Nate.”

According the 2010 census, Emporium had a population of 2,073. The town in the north central Pennsylvania covered 0.73 square miles. Tina Solak, the director of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce, said Emporium consisted of two blocks. There are two stop lights.

“It’s hometown America,” Solak said. “It’s a step back sometimes, you think.”

Sestina remembered riding his bicycle to friends’ homes. Going in for a visit. His friends did the same at his house.

“Everybody knew who I was,” he said. “Everybody knew who my parents were. It kind of makes me who I am. I’m a small-town kid.”

As Solak termed it, Sestina is much more than that. His example allows other small-town kids to see big-time dreams within reach.

“He knew the sky was the limit,” she said of Sestina. “It didn’t matter that you’re coming from a town of 2,000 people. You can do anything you put your mind to. He knew that, and he’s showing all the students here and others who are living here.”

‘Something different there’

Don Sestina said he knew the youngest of his five children could be extraordinary. By watching his two older brothers and two older sisters compete, Nate was sports-minded at an early age.

His father recalled washing dishes in the kitchen sink and hearing Nate in the backyard humming nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah theme song from ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” When Don looked, he saw Nate had placed a football in one portion of the yard, a baseball in another section and a basketball in third area. Don watched his son go from station to station, doing a Heisman Trophy pose with the football, then throwing and catching a baseball pop-up and then shooting the basketball. Returning home from kindergarten, Nate Sestina usually wanted to catch up on the latest sports news by turning on “SportsCenter.”

“So we knew there was something different there,” his father said.

Don Sestina was a high school coach. Among his players was Zucal.

Jon Songer coached the Cameron County High School teams when Nate Sestina scored 1,703 points and grabbed 955 rebounds. When he signed with Bucknell, he became the town’s first Division I athlete since the 1970s.

Songer attributed this bit of history to Sestina’s devotion to basketball and willingness to work.

“I can’t remember a time I had to get on him to do a drill harder,” Songer said. “I’m sure you get that a lot from coaches. But I can say this truthfully, most of the time, if not all the time, he was first in the gym and the last to leave.”

Hunting and fishing — the area’s most popular pastimes — provided a respite. Sestina loved hunting white-tailed deer. But the only turkey he ever killed tops his list of hunting stories. His weapon was his father’s new Hyundai Santa Fe. The collision with the turkey did $5,348 worth of damage to the front end of the car. “He wasn’t too happy about that,” Sestina said of his father.

Sestina was the last player recruited by then Bucknell Coach Dave Paulsen, who left for George Mason before the following season. Paulsen saw Sestina as a “diamond in the rough.” Then Bucknell assistant coach Dane Fischer, who now is coach at William & Mary, said Sestina had a college-ready body, a skill set the coaches thought would expand and a toughness to compete.

Paulsen fretted about rival recruiters.

“Once I figured out that we wanted him, not too many people knew about him,” Paulsen said. “So I watched him play (at camps), but I always sat at a different court so that nobody would know that I was watching him.”

Sestina signing with Bucknell was “a very big deal” in Emporium, Songer said. Or as Solak recalled, “they would have Bucknell blue-and-orange day even though we’re the Cameron County Red Raiders and everything is red.”

After a dislocated shoulder led to a medical redshirt freshman season, Sestina backed up an all-Patriot League center (Nana Foulland) the next two seasons. Then last season, he started and made second-team all-league.

Bucknell helped UK

After the season, Sestina pondered his basketball future. Bucknell does not emphasize graduate school study, so one more season for the Bison was not realistic.

“Initially, he was talking of just going to play,” Bucknell Coach Nathan Davis said. “Because he always had a dream of getting paid to play and going to Europe.”

The Bucknell coaches found a spot for Sestina on a professional team in Belgium.

It’s not unusual for a mid-major team to resent a high-level team snatching a player as a graduate transfer. In Sestina’s case, Bucknell and UK collaborated in the transfer.

Because assistant coach Joe Meehan had coached Brad Calipari on teams that toured Europe in the previous two summers, Davis suggested a call to UK Coach John Calipari.

Meehan sent the elder Calipari a text and highlight video on Sestina.

“Coach Cal got back to me pretty quickly, actually,” Meehan said, “and set up a call for that night.”

Calipari let Meehan know that Kentucky was interested in Sestina.

“When Kentucky came in, it was kind of a shock to (Sestina),” Meehan said. “He was ecstatic about it.”

A conference call was set up for the next night involving Sestina, his parents, Calipari, UK assistant coach Tony Barbee and Meehan.

Meehan recalled Don Sestina being “kind of star struck” during the conference call. The elder Sestina put his reaction in more earthy terms. He said he felt the need to check to make sure he had not (soiled) his pants.

“I couldn’t believe I had Coach Calipari on the line,” Don Sestina said. “He was, like, ‘Don and Ricki, how ya doing?’”

Ricki is Nate Sestina’s mother, Rachelle, who in her college days had been a swimmer on the Division II level.

Sestina, his parents and Meehan visited the UK campus two weeks later.

“When we were introduced to the illustrious Kenny Payne,” Don Sestina said. UK’s associate coach “scared the crap out of my wife and me. He got right in Nate’s face. He said, ‘This isn’t for everybody. It’s going to be hard and I will break you down.’”

As Nate Sestina recalled, “My mom’s mouth kind of opened and she just said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my son. You better be nice to him.’”

Don Sestina remembered his son defusing the situation.

“Nate just sat there looking at (Payne),” the player’s father said. “And he says, ‘I’m in, coach.’ And that was it.”

Nate Sestina committed on the visit.

“We got back to the hotel, I said, ‘Mom, this is what I need (and) what I want,’” Nate Sestina said. “‘And this is what I’m going to need to get where I want to go.’”

Payne breathed life into his warning about the challenges ahead. As of early September, Sestina had lost 26 pounds.

Sestina said he viewed this as part of the process of playing on college basketball’s grand stage and joining the throng of players who advanced to the NBA.

Not Reid Travis 2.0

It’s natural to compare Sestina to Reid Travis, who played for Kentucky last season as a graduate transfer. The two are of similar size: Travis listed at 6-foot-8 and 238 pounds; Sestina at 6-9 and 234.

“We have different games,” Sestina said, “and it’s going to be a little bit different story.”

Travis was a low-post strong man wanting to add perimeter shooting to his game. He made seven of 26 three-point shots last season (26.9 percent accuracy). In his college career, he made 25 of 88 three-point shots (28.4 percent).

Sestina is billed as a big man who can stretch defenses as a perimeter shooter. He made more three-pointers last season (41) than Travis made in his career. Sestina shot threes with 38-percent accuracy last season and 36.4-percent accuracy in his Bucknell career.

Davis, the Bucknell coach, said working with UK coaches and the experience gained when the Bison played high-level Division I opponents should serve Sestina well. For instance, Sestina had a double-double against TCU last season: 14 points and 11 rebounds.

“I have no doubt he’ll be able to compete,” Davis said. “Now, is he going to be an all-SEC guy? I won’t go that far. But I think he certainly can help a team in a lot of ways.”

Sestina said he won’t be discouraged if he does not experience immediate success. He pointed out that he did not start for Bucknell until his senior season.

“I’m a very patient person to begin with,” he said. “It depends on what I’m doing.”

With basketball, he said he’s patient.

“If it’s coffee, and it’s not good coffee, I’m not very patient.”

Meanwhile, Zucal said his Aroma Café and the town of Emporium are anticipating a thrilling time being part of the Big Blue Nation.

“Here we are, this little microscopic spot on the map,” Zucal said. “It has a huge ripple effect in the community. There’s just a buzz about it. ‘Did you hear about Nate Sestina?’

“There’s like a festival spirit behind the whole thing.”

Important upcoming dates

Sept. 27: Big Blue Madness ticket distribution

Oct. 1: Media Day

Oct. 6: Pro Day

Oct. 11: Big Blue Madness

Oct. 16: SEC Media Day

Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage

Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College

Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State

Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State

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Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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