UK Men's Basketball

Yes, Kentucky fans, there is a UK player who used to root for Duke

Perhaps you should read no further. If you insist on continuing, it might be a good idea to send the children to another room.

Brace yourself, dear reader. A Kentucky player can also, at one point in time, be a Duke fan.

When the subject of Nate Sestina being a Duke fan was raised more than once recently, things immediately got tense … as in past tense.

“He was years ago,” said Jon Songer, who coached the Kentucky big man on the high school level. “That’s probably changed now. But years ago, he was a Coach K lover.”

As if an involuntary reflex, Don Sestina offered an immediate correction when asked about his son being a Duke fan and admirer of Mike Krzyzewski.

“No!” the UK player’s father said before adding, “he had been. He was a Duke fan.”

What would cause Sestina, now a graduate transfer expected to be a consequential contributor for Kentucky this season, to root for Duke?

“I questioned the same thing,” Don Sestina said. “You’ll probably have to get that from Nate.”

Nate Sestina described his rooting for Kentucky basketball’s arch nemesis as a relic from childhood.

“I was when I was little,” he said. “But there’s a story behind it, though.”

Surely any Kentucky fan would feel an explanation was required.

It seems college basketball divided the Sestina family’s rooting interest. Nate Sestina made moving into Duke’s corner sound inspired by a hint of youthful rebellion mixed with sibling rivalry.

“My dad was a big Syracuse fan,” the UK player said. “And every time Duke played Syracuse, my brother and dad would root for Syracuse.

“And I would root for Duke. And my mom would be on my side. So it was sort of a two-on-two battle.”

It should be noted that Christian Laettner made his famous shot that caused ever-lasting heartache for the Big Blue Nation five years before Nate Sestina was born.

Nate Sestina said he rooted for Duke through his high school years. During his time at Bucknell, he expanded his rooting interests. “It could be Siena and Albany, it didn’t matter,” Don Sestina said of the attention his youngest son paid to the sport. “He liked college basketball” in a more general sense. Kentucky caught his eye in winning the 2012 national championship.

When asked about a favorite Duke player, Sestina said, “I got to appreciate J.J. Redick. He was a bucket.”

Then he was careful to volunteer a favorite Kentucky player.

“Obviously, Anthony Davis,” he said. “He put on 40 pounds of muscle. He’s really where the NBA is going for big men. I think he’s really been a big shift in the NBA. And it’s been a positive thing.”

Mum’s the word

Before the volleyball match against Louisville on Sept. 20, UK honored middle blocker Leah Meyer. A graduate transfer from Duke, Meyer made her 1,000th career kill in UK’s match against Indiana the previous Saturday. She added 10 kills against Louisville to her career total.

Meyer, who is from Buffalo, N.Y., said she’s learned since coming to UK that mentioning she attended Duke was a no-no.

“I was in summer classes and I would say Duke, and people would kind of scowl at me,” she said. “And look at me and say some not-so-nice things. So I’ve gotten into the habit of saying, ‘my old school.’ So I don’t say Duke as much anymore.”

Role models

When asked what big men he considered basketball role models, Nick Richards named two former All-Americans: Anthony Davis of UK and Patrick Ewing of Georgetown.

“I’d say those two are my favorite players,” Richards said.

Of Davis, Richards said, “People in high school really said I modeled my game after him. Just a dude who blocks shots and catches lobs.”

That Richards admired Ewing probably extends beyond basketball. Both are natives of Kingston, Jamaica. Both grew up playing soccer and cricket. Ewing moved to the U.S. at age 12. Richards moved to the U.S. as he entered high school.

Richards said he watched video of Ewing on YouTube.

“I tried to watch his offensive game,” he said. “See how he used to move around the basket. What he used to do to get easy shots.”

‘A tournament guy’

UK Coach John Calipari makes no secret of how he keeps his focus on the NCAA Tournament. All in summer through preseason through regular season is preparation for March Madness.

In freshman Johnny Juzang, he has a kindred spirit.

When asked about following Kentucky basketball as he grew up in southern California, Juzang said, “We always see them come tournament time, and all that.

“To be honest, I’m just a tournament watcher, really. I watch an occasional (regular-season) college game. The big ones. … But I’m really a tournament guy, OK?”

When asked why he has discriminating tastes when it comes to college basketball, Juzang said, “The tournament is so exciting. That’s what I gravitate toward.”

‘My hero’

Riley Welch, a junior walk-on on the UK team, will wear No. 13 because Steve Nash wore that number.

“He’s been my hero growing up,” Welch said. “I’ve always tried to emulate the way he plays.”

Coincidentally, Welch said his home in Los Angeles is about 10 minutes away from where Nash lives. The UK player’s father, John Welch, is an assistant coach with the Clippers.

The proximity has nothing to do with why Welch admires Nash.

“I just think it’s cool,” Welch said of Nash living nearby. “And I hope to run into him one day. He’s a great guy and someone I aspire to be on the court and off the court.”

Welch said he especially liked how Nash played basketball so selflessly.

Why UK fans?

Marsha Poe and Angela McCoy annually camp out for tickets to UK’s Big Blue Madness. Speaking with them outside Memorial Coliseum brought an obvious question to mind: Why are you Kentucky fans?

Poe credited “the grace of God and Wildcat parents.”

A retired postal worker who lives in Louisville, she proved there’s no exit ramp off her devotion to UK basketball by staying to the bitter end (the bitter final 30 minutes?) of the 118-84 loss to Duke to begin last season.

“I don’t leave till my team leaves,” she said. “I was trying to find a reason to keep cheering. ‘Boy, that’s a good rebound.’”

McCoy, who made zucchini bread (plain and lemon flavored) for the campout, explained rooting for the Wildcats by saying, “I was born in Kentucky. You’re born a UK fan.”

Coaching revival

Mike Rice drew the kind of attention no one wants when video surfaced of him as Rutgers coach berating and throwing basketballs at players.

He now coaches Team Rio, an elite AAU team sponsored by Under Armour. One of his players, Scottie Lewis, is a freshman at Florida.

Between those coaching jobs, Rice coached at The Patrick School in New Jersey. Among his players was Nick Richards. So a demanding coach like John Calipari has been nothing new for Richards.

“I have a fiery personality,” Rice said, “and Nick enjoyed that energy and that intensity.”

Happy birthday

To Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He turned 26 on Thursday. .… To Riley Welch. He turned 22 on Thursday. … To Jeff Sheppard. He turns 45 on Sunday (today). … To Ronnie Lyons. He turns 67 on Monday. … To former Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings. He turns 59 on Tuesday.

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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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