“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
Legendary University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp was known to have tweaked this bit of the 121st Psalm to reference the source of talent on some of his greatest teams: Appalachia. The mountains and hills of Eastern Kentucky.
Indeed, some of the most beloved Wildcats of all time hail from this part of the state. Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones of the “Fabulous Five” — the team that truly put Rupp and UK on the NCAA map — was a Harlan boy. Johnny Cox, an All-American and 1958 national champion, was from Hazard. Jerry Bird came out of Corbin to be All-SEC in 1956. The 1970-71 team, Rupp’s penultimate squad, featured Beattyville’s Larry Stamper and Barbourville’s Terry Mills (father of later UK hero Cameron Mills). The tradition carried on long past Rupp as well — who can forget, of course, “the Unforgettables,” with Manchester’s Richie Farmer and Paintsville’s John Pelphrey? Or Reggie Hanson from Pulaski County? Countless others from the region have suited up in the blue and white, just for a chance to wear that special uniform.
For Eastern Kentucky, UK has long been a source of great pride. An impoverished area, often looked down upon by others in the nation as a land of hillbillies, outhouses and soot-faced miners, Appalachian Kentuckians saw an opportunity to identify with something special when Rupp first turned UK into big-time basketball. Kentucky boys would regularly go up to New York and school the big city cagers on the floor of Madison Square Garden, as folks back home in otherwise meager conditions waited to read the results in the newspaper, or perhaps listened along on the radio with the golden voices of Claude Sullivan (himself from Winchester, the gateway from Lexington into Eastern Kentucky) or Harlan product Cawood Ledford. The Wildcats might have been the flagship school for the whole state, but it always seemed to mean more to those in the east — a source of pride, a claim to glory for a struggling citizenry.
Now, “the hills” have produced the next Kentucky schoolboy legend, the type to rival your Richie Farmers, your Rex Chapmans, your Reggie Hansons: Reed Sheppard.
Simply put, Reed Sheppard needs to be a Willdcat.
Sheppard is, of course, the son of former Wildcat and two-time NCAA Tournament champion Jeff Sheppard and the former Stacey Reed, a Laurel County great before making her mark on the UK women’s program and in international play, winning gold and silver medals in different games. Simply put, the kid’s genes have guaranteed him basketball greatness — and at least on the high school level, that’s proven to be the case. Sheppard, only a sophomore, has been a scoring machine, with a point per game average in the 30s and several 50-plus-point games to his name. Who knows for sure how his game will translate to the pro or even the college levels — but he’s the type of player who, in the past, Kentucky would be all over.
No one can quite predict how this recruitment will go for sure, though. It’s been reported that Kentucky has been in contact with Sheppard. It’s been whispered – and denied by North Laurel coach Nate Valentine, for whatever that’s worth — that Papa Jeff Sheppard and UK Coach John Calipari aren’t on the same page, that Shep may be more loyal to his own coach Rick Pitino, now at Iona. The situation even warranted a Sports Illustrated article by national observer (and former Kentucky journalist) Pat Forde, published just this week.
In that article, everyone’s saying the right things: Reed may to go Kentucky, he may not. It depends on if it’s the right place. Parents won’t interfere. And that’s as it should be. The pressure shouldn’t be on the kid to choose the home state school.
No, the pressure should be on Calipari to make him feel wanted. Truth is, UK’s bombastic coach is the emperor whose imaginary clothes are starting to cover a lot less. An early national title, a few Final Fours, and an annual recruiting haul of the best talent in the nation endeared him to UK fans after the program had fallen into a bit of a rut. What was sacrificed along the way were many of the things that made UK great — players with home state pride. Players who stayed three or four years and developed. Players like Sheppard will likely turn out to be. Other than UK in 2012 and Duke in 2015, every championship team in the One-and-Done era has been built on the shoulders of players like this — but Calipari has seemed hesitant to focus on anything other than 5-star “Diaper Dandies” who stay barely long enough to have a cup of coffee (or a burger at Tolly Ho).
UK fans used to care about these things. Calipari’s early success made them willing to do without those traditions. But the perfect storm of circumstances this year has exposed the undercurrent of One-and-Done fatigue coursing underneath the surface: First, the team’s political protest (with Coach Cal’s full support) that rubbed many the wrong way. Then, a losing season this year — a disastrous season, in fact, one in which the Wildcats still haven’t reached double-figures in the “win” column, one which may turn out to be even worse than Eddie Sutton’s final scandal-ridden season.
And there’s the presence of Dontaie Allen, the last Kentucky high school legend (this one from Pendleton County) who Calipari signed despite Allen “only” being a four-star, top 75 recruit (god forbid he’d only had three stars — shudder). Allen’s shooting ability is one ingredient this UK team seems to lack, yet Allen’s minutes have been, to put it delicately, conservatively distributed. Fans have clamored for Cal to play the Kentucky boy more — at this point, what can it hurt? — but the general feeling is that Calipari has been reluctant to do so. Who knows what really goes on in the coach’s head, but a fan could be forgiven for coming to the assumption that Cal is biased toward players that are surefire lottery pics — and more dismissive of homegrown products.
Read the message boards. Listen to call-in shows. Calipari’s M.O. is starting to wear thin. Fans complain of not even knowing the players’ names year-to-year, with so much turnover. The connection of the everyman fan to the player on the court is no longer there. That feeling of everyone being a part of something bigger than themselves that sports fandom relies upon is evaporating rapidly. Calipari may continue to have winning seasons in the future, but the damage has been done, the emperor in many ways exposed. Fans are starting to see Cal may care more about the NBA and putting players in it than about the proud Commonwealth of Kentucky. And at a school with a tradition and history like Kentucky, that simply should not be. Some things should be more important than winning seasons and Final Fours — those can only buy so much good will.
Putting a full-court press on a player like Sheppard would go a long way toward showing Calipari actually “gets it” after all. Sheppard may not have any Rivals stars yet, and only has a handful of offers (interestingly, most reportedly from schools with Kentucky connections — including Jeff Sheppard’s former coaches, Pitino at Iona and Tubby Smith at High Point, and Laurel County native Richie Riley at South Alabama), but big-name coaches are sniffing around and it won’t be long before Sheppard has a lot more offers. If he’ll ever be seen as a One-and-Done candidate is yet to be determined, but whether he is or not, it would feel wrong for Kentucky to do anything less than roll out the red (er, blue) carpet for him and make him feel welcome and wanted at the school where his family legacy was born, and the school which has gotten so much from the Eastern Kentucky mountains over the decades.
Calipari will likely never see this editorial, but Coach, if you’re listening: Reed Sheppard is everything that Kentucky basketball is about. He may decide to go elsewhere, but it should not be for lack of trying on your part. Don’t let him be one that got away. Don’t let him be another Dominique Hawkins or Dontaie Allen, Mr. Basketballs in the state who went to Kentucky but found themselves treated largely like afterthoughts. Recruit him. Develop him. Give him room to be a leader as an upperclassman, not just a back-up to the latest 5-star to check in and check out of school in the blink of an eye. Give this kid every chance to succeed and thrive at the program that is practically his birthright. If it doesn’t happen, let that be on him — don’t let there be room to complain that you didn’t do right by him. That’s what Kentucky fans — real, true fans not just of the team but from the fabric of the Bluegrass itself — are worried will happen. Don’t let it.
Reed Sheppard deserves to be a Kentucky legend. He can succeed at Iona. He can succeed anywhere. But he shouldn’t feel like those are his only options. Hopefully, his destiny is as a UK Wildcat — and with any luck, one of the school’s all-time greats.
Just like Mom and Dad.
THE COMMONWEALTH JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD consists of Mark Walker, General Manager; Jeff Neal, Editor; Steve Cornelius, Sports Editor; Mary Ann Flynn, Advertising; Shirley Randall, Production; and Christopher Harris, Staff Writer.