UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Polson finds refuge from spotlight in faith

Kyle Wiltjer, Jarrod Polson, Brian Long left the court after the University of Kentucky defeated Maryland in the Barclays Center Classic held in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY., Friday, November 9, 2012. UK won 72-69. This is second half action. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Kyle Wiltjer, Jarrod Polson, Brian Long left the court after the University of Kentucky defeated Maryland in the Barclays Center Classic held in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY., Friday, November 9, 2012. UK won 72-69. This is second half action. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

Cameron Mills, one of the heroes of Kentucky's 1998 national championship team, remembers what it was like to be a UK basketball player. Really, how could he forget? It's a 24/7 experience. Sort of like breathing, only with self-consciousness. Consider it one aspect of what the program advertises as "The Kentucky Effect" ... with no off switch.

"That comes with the territory of being a Kentucky basketball player or a movie star or some other sort of celebrity," Mills said last week. "When you're in public, you always feel a sense of being 'on.' Because people are always watching you."

The late, great Al McGuire once famously noted that being Kentucky coach was like being Wilt Chamberlain. "You can never hide," McGuire said.

Which brings us to one of this early-season's Kentucky heroes, Jarrod Polson. He would not like the word "hide" to describe the time he spends off stage. For him, UK's Christian Student Fellowship is more sanctuary (pun intended) than hideout.

"It's like a comfort place for me," he said. "A lot of people see me as a basketball player whenever I got out in public. At CSF, they don't really care at all. None of my friends really would mind if I was a basketball player or not. That's a really cool thing."


"It's cool just to be like a normal person and just have normal friends," he explained. "It's kind of a place you can just go be yourself."

In the UK basketball world, Polson is a gritty reserve with plenty of resolve. Not being of Chamberlain-like height, he has a chance to blend in off the court. At CSF, he blends in, period.

"When you go to CSF," he said, "that's just Jarrod."

CSF Director Brian Marshall said that it is no coincidence that an athlete like Polson could feel what Mills called "freedom" at Christian Student Fellowship.

"The nerdy pastor reason is we just think people are created equal in God's eye," he said. "The practical reason is we know they're kind of always in the spotlight. We just want to give them a place you can just be a person."

Polson learned of CSF through one of his older brothers, Eric Coker. In his first year, he occasionally attended the organization's freshman orientation program called "Shift" (think transition to being a college student). He got more involved as a sophomore.

As a junior this school year, Polson helps teach a "Shift" group. Its latest topic is a book called Not a Fan. No, it's not an anti-John Calipari screed. The book discusses how Christians should be more than admirers of Jesus. They should be followers in the fullest sense of the term.

Polson regularly attends CSF's Thursday's church service, called "Synergy." UK basketball duty makes him a no-show for either Friday Night Flapjacks (think maple-flavored fellowship) or what CSF calls "The HQ" (short for The Headquarters, the name for another chance to socialize).

"He's the real deal," Max Appel said of Polson.

Appel, who is not involved in CSF, conducts the Kentucky team's voluntary pre-game chapel and weekly Bible study.

"There's people who talk about faith," he said. "And Jarrod lives his faith. Keeping the main thing the main thing. Keeping Jesus at the forefront."

The player's father, George Polson, noted how CSF kept his son "grounded." For example, Jarrod turned down chances to play in Belize one summer in order to attend a CSF retreat for leaders. Another summer, he chose to go on vacation with his family rather than play in Brazil.

"Basketball is not an end all-be all for him," the elder Polson said.

In a sense, Polson lives in two distinct worlds. The foundational principles of Christianity — turn the other cheek, love, mercy — are anathema in athletics.

And do we need to note the language barrier between the sublime of religion and the ridiculously profane in athletics?

While acknowledging that basketball is a more competitive and time-consuming environment, Polson balked at the notion of two distinct worlds. "Pretty much everybody on campus is a Kentucky basketball fan," he said with a smile.

Rather than isolating itself at its building near the UK library, CSF seeks to make the spiritual part of all campus worlds.

"The real goal is to bring as many people to heaven as you can," Polson said.

CSF participants are well aware of Polson's basketball exploits. His coming-out party against Maryland in this season's opener prompted many congratulatory texts. When Cosmopolitan magazine named Polson one of the 30 "Hottest Guys of March Madness 2012" last spring, his CSF friends teased him unmercifully. How could they not when Cosmo said of Polson, "All we think when we see Jarrod is 'dimples'"?

Said Marshall: "He took a lot of ribbing. Jarrod's so humble. He doesn't like to seek out attention."

Of course, temptations lurk for all UK basketball players. Polson is no exception.

There are what used to be politely called the pleasures of the flesh. But Mills, long a role model for Polson, noted another of the seven deadly sins: pride.

"One of the things I struggled with more than anything was pride," he said. "Because I was a Kentucky basketball player."

Mills recalled his girlfriend of six years making a biting observation shortly before they broke up in his senior year. "You're not the sweet little Cameron I fell in love with in high school," she said.

Looking back, Mills pleaded guilty. If Polson feels superior, it's hard to detect.

"That pride and ego starts to sneak in," Mills said. "That's just a big a turn-off as anything else. People hate arrogance. The thing I failed at most was probably just humility.

"Being a Kentucky basketball player, it's a gift. (Players should think) 'I don't deserve to be here.'"

No doubt, Polson appreciates how CSF and UK basketball provide a "good balance" in his life. Each supplements the other.

Of Kentucky basketball's visibility, he said, "It really gives you a chance to step out in your faith."

Gaffe-filled week?

Did Morehead State Coach Sean Woods commit a gaffe early last week when he questioned whether the so-called one-and-done rule adversely affected the appreciation for UK players should feel? He also noted a "sense of entitlement."

Maybe he committed a gaffe. But didn't ESPN analyst Dick Vitale the week before say much the same thing — albeit in a less-jarring manner — when he likened UK basketball to a drive-through window at a fast-food restaurant?

To paraphrase political commentator Michael Kinsley, a gaffe is when a coach says what he really thinks.

The public relations bath Woods took last week continued in his team's loss at Kentucky. He got a renewed sense of the UK basketball spotlight when television cameras caught him shoving and then berating a player. In another setting, it might have gone largely unnoticed. Birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. Coaches gotta be irrational.

But when it happened in a game at Kentucky, and, as the kids say, it went viral on the Internet, Morehead State suspended Woods for one game.

Harrowing experience

That Ryan Harrow misses UK games for mysterious reasons sounded familiar to N.C. State fans.

When playing for the Wolfpack as a freshman in 2010-11, Harrow missed the team's first game against archrival North Carolina. The school cited a stomach illness, but sportswriter Joe Giglio still wonders if a high-pressure atmosphere made Harrow anxious.

Giglio, who covers N.C. State for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, recalled last week how Harrow paid attention to fans. He posted reactions to fans' message board comments as a recruit and freshman. It left Giglio wondering if Harrow would do best at a lower-profile program.

"To me, I always felt he'd be better off at Georgia," Giglio said of Harrow, who is from Marietta, Ga. "Somewhere pressure-free that doesn't have the spotlight of N.C. State, let alone Kentucky where everything is ratcheted up."

No-go to Maui?

Unless something changes, Kentucky won't be going back to the Maui Invitational as long as John Calipari is coach.

When UK played in the 2010 Maui Invitational, Calipari candidly questioned the value of traveling to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to play three games. He wondered aloud if such a trip took too much out of a team, especially a freshman-dependent team. (Never mind that two participants in 2010, UK and UConn, advanced to the Final Four the following spring).

Calipari apparently meant to signal that he wouldn't take another UK team to Hawaii. The Maui Invitational, which again was played during Thanksgiving week, might not include UK in its regular rotation for the foreseeable future. The Cats are due to return in 2014, but will they?

Regularly in the last 20 years, the Cats played in the event: 1993 (Jeff Brassow tip-in), 1997 (early in Tubby Smith's national championship season), 2002 (later 26-game winning streak halted by Dwyane Wade), 2006 (UK battered by Calipari-coached Memphis) and 2010 (darn that Kemba Walker, Part I).

Memorable basketball adventures in paradise for UK fans to treasure, if not re-live.

Sharpening teeth

Georgia got off to a stumbling start with losses to Youngstown State and Southern Miss in two of its first three games.

In the Youngstown State game, Georgia made only three of 24 first-half shots. That evoked memories of UK's 3-for-33 second half against Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four.

Sophomore star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made 10 of 18 shots in the game. His teammates made seven of 35. The pattern has continued with Caldwell-Pope accounting for 16 of the team's 34 three-point baskets and 16 of its 37 steals going into a game against East Tennessee State last Friday.

Through three games, Georgia made 37 percent of its shots and been out-rebounded by an average of 39-32.7.

It didn't get any easier for Georgia moving forward. The Bulldogs' next game was against No. 1 Indiana.

Looking ahead at the SEC Media Day, Georgia Coach Mark Fox welcomed the challenge of facing Indiana.

"We need to learn how to play teams like that," he said. "You don't sharpen your teeth by eating bread pudding."

Masiello scores

Former UK player Steve Masiello made a score in recruiting last week. Chris Thomas, a five-star prospect from Chipola Junior College, committed to Masiello's Manhattan program.

Thomas originally committed to Xavier before changing his mind.

Chipola Coach Patrick Blake told to credit Manhattan assistant coach Rasheen Davis for getting Thomas, a 6-5 scorer.

"Chris is a loyal kid and Coach Davis has always been there for him since day one," Blake told the recruiting service. "Manhattan started recruiting him again and I think that relationship with Coach Davis really stood out."

Thomas also took a liking to Masiello, the JC coach said. "He really likes the way coach Mas develops his players and his style of play."

Happy birthday

To Larry Johnson. The former UK point guard turns 58 on Wednesday. ... To Steve Lochmueller. The former member of UK's SuperKittens turns 60 today. ... To Hall of Famer Jim Host. He turned 75 on Friday.

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