Kentucky's team bus arrived at the Yum Center. It parked. Then ...
As if he were basketball's Sir Walter Raleigh, the driver got out of his seat and laid out a ceremonial blue carpet in front of the bus door. Only then did the players file off and head inside for this season's game against Louisville.
Given Coach John Calipari's repeated calls for blue-collar toughness, this blue carpet treatment seems, at best, a contradiction and, at worst, an impediment.
For years, UK coaches have lamented how the players get treated like celebrities. The many pats on the back and hip-hip-hoorays hindered the process of hardening the players' competitive spirit into a sharp edge of remorseless zeal. Not to mention the rose petals strewn by the media (blush).
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When asked Friday about the Kentucky players being rock stars, Calipari said pointedly, "They used to be that here. Now, they're not told so much that they're great."
As Groucho Marx might say as he rocked on his heels, "Oh, really."
Maybe the UK coaches, starting with the ever-demanding Calipari, maintain the sunny disposition of a drill sergeant with bunions. But the players must get the non-spoken message that they're special.
When UK starters are introduced at home games, the Rupp Arena lights dim. The bang of indoor fireworks accompanies each name. (What? No Hail to the Chief?)
During the game, the video boards inform fans that other programs have mere players. Kentucky has, ahem, "legends."
Then there's Rupp Arena's new home locker room, or as it's formally called, "The Joe Craft Basketball Suite." About 6,000 square feet of plush, costing about $3.1 million and used 18 times this season.
And, as Calipari noted on a tour for reporters this season, the new Wildcat Coal Lodge has a chef on duty.
Reserve guard Jon Hood conceded that life as a Kentucky player includes star treatment.
"We're treated like that outside of here," he said to reporters in the Craft Center before Friday's practice. "Once you get in here, everything changes. Once you step across the line, no more Mr. Nice Guy."
Despite its reliance on freshmen, Kentucky has been plenty competitive and tough in Calipari's four seasons as coach. This season's team increasingly throws its weight around.
"We are tough just because of what we do between the lines," Hood said in reference to practices. "It doesn't matter what happens outside, and how we're treated out there. Our toughness comes from getting into the gym and working together."
Calipari made that toughness sound indispensable.
"If you're not tough, you're not making it," he said. "You're not making it in this sport."
Calipari's most recent theme is that toughness means more than muscle and sweat. There's also a mental toughness, which translates into courage under fire.
"Can't be afraid to make the game-winning play," the UK coach said.
Calipari recalled the game at Mississippi two years ago when Darius Miller could not bring himself to shoot a shot in the final minute when Kentucky needed only to beat the shot clock. Instead, the 35-second shot clock violation gave Ole Miss a better opportunity to regroup and make the winning shot.
The next season, Miller was Mr. Clutch for a Kentucky team that won the national championship.
"We're working through exactly the same kind of stuff," Calipari said.
Now, where are my rose petals?
Noel as measuring stick
Longtime NBC broadcaster Dick Enberg received the Bluegrass Sports Commission's Tom Hammond Award for Lifetime Achievement at a banquet Thursday night.
In accepting the award, Enberg told a tongue-in-cheek story about being picked up at the airport. He asked how far it was to the hotel.
"Driver Nerlens Noel said, 'About 12 blocks.'" Enberg quipped.
The audience laughed and applauded.
Enberg, who now works as play-by-play man for the San Diego Padres, also saluted Tom Hammond. He noted Hammond's knowledge of horse racing and recommended the Lexington native be NBC's lead man at the Kentucky Derby.
"I knew enough about horse racing to put a show bet on Secretariat," Enberg joked.
In a recent interview, Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson could be as rapid with a response as he is quick on the trigger. He sort of self edits as he goes along.
When asked about the Rebels playing Kentucky, he started to say UK was not a special opponent. Then he recognized the self-evident: Kentucky is a dynasty program that commands respect. Then he got to what he wanted to say: Kentucky was not the opponent to engage his competitive instincts.
"I've always watched them and I know the history," Henderson said of the Cats. "But if we were to play Duke, I'd have the best game of my life. Because I've been ready to play Duke since I was 4 years old. Like that has been my school forever, and I'm the biggest Duke Blue Devil fan in the world."
Message: Kentucky is not the only program that inspires opponents to new heights.
The attention from opposing defenses afforded Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson frees teammates. That's the theory, plausible and logical, as long as someone like Nerlens Noel is not protecting the basket and, as a counterweight, similarly warping the offense.
"Anytime you run action for him," Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said of Henderson, "there's just not going to be as much help."
Steve Green, who coached Henderson for South Plains College last season, saw the same effect on the junior college level.
"You focus so much attention on him, he basically turns the game on some occasions to four-on-four basketball," he said.
This led Green to recall being on Don Haskins' coaching staff at UTEP. Haskins told his assistants about an observation he heard made by his college coach, Hank Iba.
"Basketball would be a great game if it was four-on-four," Iba said. "The fifth man just screws things up."
Green also recalled Haskins explaining why he ran the "flex" offense, which requires passing, cutting and screening.
"What it does is slow my star down from shooting," Green recalled Haskins saying. Then Green added, "I did some of that with Marshall."
UK fan-like exuberance
When asked why Marshall Henderson was such a free spirit, South Plains Coach Steve Green said, "Maybe he grew up watching Pete Maravich videos."
I forgot to ask Henderson about that possibility. But when told that his movement without the ball evoked memories of John Havlicek, the Ole Miss guard said he knew the reference.
"Oh yeah," he said. "He was a baller."
In describing Henderson's exuberance, Green cited a familiar reference point.
"He's like the Kentucky fan that sits in the stands," the South Plains coach said. "He paints his face blue and white. He yells.
"But (the difference is) he's on the floor. That's Marshall. He's the biggest fan in the arena."
When he worked the most recent Ole Miss-Tennessee game, Hall of Fame Coach Bob Knight repeatedly suggested that Marshall Henderson could use the shot-fake to good effect.
"I was actually talking to him after the game," Henderson said. Knight repeated his advice about using a shot-fake.
"He was, like, 'You'd be surprised how many times the defense will jump,'" Henderson said. "'When you're not even thinking of shooting. Then you've got him from there.'"
Knight's advice sounded a bit dated.
"Well, I'm going to take that to heart," Henderson said. "He's the greatest coach of all time."
UK Coach John Calipari said Kentucky worked every day on staying down and not being influenced by the shot-fake. That's for all games.
Then, Calipari noted, Alex Poythress bit on Henderson's shot-fake on Ole Miss's first possession of the game.
"Everything is new to them," Calipari said of his freshmen. "Everything is a (new) experience to them."
Former UK player Valerie Still will be in Lexington Sunday as part of a book tour.
Her new book, Still Alive on the Underground Railroad, Volume Two, is part of her series directed at young readers.
Still, the career scoring leader in UK basketball history (men's and women's), will be at Joseph Beth Booksellers (11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) and at the UK-Georgia women's game (1 p.m. to 2 p.m.).
The book is also available on amazon.com.
"I'm excited about the series," Still wrote in an email. "Every year a volume comes out, and it's about my family history."
Her son, Aaron, might be a player to keep an eye on. He attends a private military academy outside of Philadelphia. Aaron plays basketball.
"He's 16, about 6-9 and playing pretty well!!!" Still wrote.
Florida beat Kentucky in the fifth annual Big Blue Slam. This year's friendly competition for blood donations saw Florida win 1,878-1,607.
Of course, both sides "win." With the weather shaky, the drive helps bolster blood banks in both states.
"They are touching the lives of Kentucky patients who depend on the continued generosity of blood donors, said Martha Osborne, the Kentucky Blood Center's executive director of marketing and recruitment.
In the five years of the Big Blue Slam, the Kentucky Blood Center has won three times against Florida and its LifeSouth Community Blood Center in Gainesville.
'Basketball is his life'
Happy birthday to Bob Wiggins, the Cal Ripken of UK basketball. He turns 85 on Monday.
Wiggins attended 1,643 straight games before health concerns caused him to not go to road games this season.
"He's disappointed," his wife, Helen, said of the streak's end. "He certainly enjoyed every minute of it. Basketball is his life."
When asked why her husband loved basketball so much, Helen noted that he played the sport in high school.
"I tell him it's a disease," she quipped. "He will not miss a game at home if he's able to go."
Birthday plans include going to see the movie Lincoln and dinner.
"Nothing major," Helen said. "Just him and me."
To Andre Riddick. UK's rejector of yesteryear turned 40 on Friday. ... To Walter McCarty. He turned 39 on Friday. ... To Truman Claytor. He turned 56 on Saturday. ... To Stan Key. He turned 63 on Saturday. ... To Ramel Bradley. He turns 28 on Tuesday. ... To C.M. Newton. He turned 83 on Saturday.