UK Men's Basketball

Ex-Cat big men answer BBN’s big question: What’s wrong with Skal?

Sam Bowie went to the dry cleaners the other day. Never mind whether he wanted his shirts folded or on hangers. A more pressing matter, so to speak, was on the mind of the clerk.

“The lady asked me, ‘What’s wrong with Skal?’” Bowie said.

The early-season struggles of Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere are Topic A these days in the Big Blue Nation. Who better to seek answers from than Bowie, a sky-scraping player for UK in the 1980s? Who has greater insight than Bowie and other big men who played the position here and elsewhere?

One consensus emerged: Labissiere or any other basketball “big” must bring a can-do attitude to the court.

“He’s got to know he’s the best thing on the court,” Bowie said. “You have to go out there with that mentality.”

Len Elmore, an All-American at Maryland in the 1970s, said “bigs” must be territorial. “That the real estate is yours … ,” he said of the basket area. “One thing (Labissiere) needs is to get that take-no-prisoners type of attitude down low. Obviously, as slender as he is, it’s a hard thing to enforce. It’s still a mental state.”

Kenny “Sky” Walker, a low-post presence for UK in the 1980s, called it a desire to be “a blue-collar worker.”

Rick Robey, the “king” to Mike Phillips’ “kong” in Kentucky’s Twin Towers lineup in the 1970s, offered an important qualifier. This don’t-tread-on-me approach must be genuine.

Robey learned that lesson in his first road game as a UK freshman: At Indiana and against the Hoosiers’ celebrated big man, Kent Benson. He recalled pondering that matchup.

“I laid in bed and thought, ‘Do I go out and talk a lot of stuff? Or do I just go out and play?’” he said. “I went out and tried to talk stuff. I got my rear end kicked.”

Benson scored 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Indiana’s 98-74 victory. Robey had six points and seven rebounds.

“Ever since that game, everybody who ever came down and talked stuff to me, I knew they were scared to death of me,” Robey said. “I took advantage of them. That was one lesson I learned real quick.”

He’s got to know he’s the best thing on the court. You have to go out there with that mentality.

Sam Bowie

Terry Tippett, who coached Labissiere in high school, said that his former player needed to gain about 30 or 40 pounds in order to play in the low post.

But bulk is not mandatory, the six big men contacted this week said. Elmore went so far as to remind that new rules designed to reduce physical play lessen the benefit of sheer muscle power.

“I don’t think bulk is necessary,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played center for Duke in the 1980s. “But you’ve got to have strength. You’ve got to have lower body strength, so you can hold your position.”

Walker, no heavyweight at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, proved that the lack of bulk can be overcome.

“You have to understand that in the paint you’re going to be hit with elbows,” he said. “It’s going to hurt. There’s going to be nights you might get your nose bloody. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But that’s part of basketball.”

Any player crosses an important hurdle, Walker said, “once you figure out it’s going to hurt a little bit, but it’s not going to kill you. You’ve got elbows. You can push back and you can fight back.”

Walker stressed the mental preparation he did before games. He would envision the elbows, getting knocked to the floor and, maybe most importantly, getting up again.

No one questions Labissiere’s skill. And, the big men said, he doesn’t have to try to be a bully.

“Even if you’re a finesse player, that doesn’t mean you can’t be effective,” Walker said. “Look at Tayshaun Prince.”

At 6-9 and 213 pounds, Prince starred for Kentucky even though fans lamented his supposed lack of competitive vigor. He even posted up for baskets.

You have to understand that in the paint you’re going to be hit with elbows. It’s going to hurt. There’s going to be nights you might get your nose bloody. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But that’s part of basketball.

Kenny “Sky” Walker

Dan Issel, the career scoring leader for Kentucky’s men’s program, said a physical presence is more important on defense. He used his competitions against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as an example.

When on defense, he tried to beat Abdul-Jabbar to the spot at the post, Issel said. He tried to body Abdul-Jabbar away from the basket, if only a foot or so.

Issel, who attended Kentucky’s practice last Friday, said of Labissiere’s defensive approach, “Instead of bodying up against somebody and keeping that physical contact, he kind of stands. His legs are straight. Then he bends over from the waist, and his hands are out. That’s why he gets in foul trouble because he’s trying to play defense with his hands rather than with the body.”

When on offense, Issel said he moved away from the post in order to draw Abdul-Jabbar away from the basket. From the high post, Issel could either take jump shots or try to drive around Abdul-Jabbar, in either case lessening the advantage the defender had in size and strength.

At least for now, Bilas advised against Labissiere seeking out physical exchanges as a low-post scorer.

“It’s not how much he weighs or how bulky he is,” Bilas said. “It’s how strong he is, and right now he’s not strong enough.

“What that means is he can’t afford to get into wrestling matches. He’s going to have to use his speed and quickness to counter that. It’s not like Kentucky and other programs haven’t had skinny players.”

Bowie, who was 7-1 and 230, said he learned to use his “assets” immediately. His first game was against Duke veterans Mike Gminski and Gene Banks.

“I knew then I had to work on my strength,” Bowie said, “but while I was working on it, I also knew I could do some things they couldn’t do. I was quicker. I jumped higher. I ran faster. I used that to my advantage.”

Bowie scored 22 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in his college debut.

In the pros, he had to compete against a low-post monster like Shaquille O’Neal.

“I couldn’t go into the game thinking I was just going down on the block and get the position I wanted, post up and ask for the ball,” Bowie said. “No matter how much weight lifting and squats I could do. He was just physically stronger than me.”

The ups and downs associated with freshmen have marked Labissiere’s season to date. The high point came against NJIT a month ago. His 10-for-12 shooting and 26 points combined with a game against Duke three days later evoked thoughts of Christian Laettner-like efficiency. No one seemed to mind he grabbed only five rebounds, the same total as point guard Tyler Ulis.

“Skal puts on a show,” blared a Page 1 headline in the Herald-Leader.

Then Kentucky played Duke. Marshall Plumlee’s aggressive offensive rebounding drove Labissiere to the bench.

“I was flabbergasted, in particular in the first half, how little he knew about being able to block his man out … ,” Elmore said. “Marshall Plumlee just ate him alive in the first half.”

It’s not how much he weighs or how bulky he is. It’s how strong he is, and right now he’s not strong enough.

Jay Bilas

UK Coach John Calipari spoke hopefully that the nadir came against Arizona State last weekend. Labissiere had 0 points and 0 rebounds while fouling out in 13 minutes.

Bowie did not like how Labissiere carried himself in the game.

“You’ve got to have fun to be successful,” he said. “The last ball game, it really concerned me because I saw him start to question and doubt himself.”

Several of the former big men saw significance in Labissiere growing up in Haiti, then having an abbreviated high school career. A stress fracture in his back sidelined him as a junior. After being ruled eligible as a senior, he played a schedule of glorified pickup games for an ad hoc team created by his guardian.

“It certainly helps when you grew up here in the U.S.,” Walker said. “I played in the South with a bunch of country boys.”

Walker, who also got knocked around as the youngest of four brothers, lumped himself with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. “All slim guys,” he said. “But, you know what? We got in there and battled.”

No doubt, Labissiere can count on having further opportunities to compete. By season’s end, he figures to be battle tested and then some.

Being rated by some as the No. 1 prospect in his class was like waving a pork chop in front of a pit bull.

“When you come in with such expectations,” Elmore said, “opponents dream of tearing you down.”

Labissiere’s early-season struggles further whetted such appetites.

“The whole country knows: be physical with Skal,” Walker said. “He’s not going to fight back. Till he fights back, everybody’s going to do it.”

While Labissiere attends a basketball school of hard knocks, the former big men said they expected him to graduate and become an effective player.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he can do it,” Issel said. “He has all the talent in the world. … I think he’s going to be fine. It’s not something you learn overnight.”

That’s pretty much what Bowie said at the dry cleaners. With the expectation of Labissiere enjoying a long and lucrative pro career in the future, Bowie said he told that clerk, “Everybody’s complaining about Skal. They won’t have to be worrying about him and complaining about him next year, because he won’t be here.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton


Kentucky vs. Ohio State

What: CBS Sports Classic

When: 3:30 p.m.

Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.