Showcase: UAB star Vaden makes huge leap for loyalty to coach

Updated: February 20, 2008, 1:36 PM ET
Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Robert Vaden was an instant starter and rising star at basketball-crazy Indiana, his favorite boyhood team.

Then he gave it up for loyalty.

Vaden traded all that in for a 500-mile move, a frustrating year on the sidelines and a much lower profile at UAB in football-mad Alabama. More importantly, for loyalty to a coach who stood by his side through the death of his father and in some ways filled the painful void.

Vaden transferred from the Hoosiers to the Blazers after coach Mike Davis made the same move. Just like that, he went from star to spectator, having to sit out last season under NCAA transfer rules.

"That's definitely loyalty and character," said Mike Davis Jr., the coach's son and Vaden's teammate at prep school, Indiana and now UAB. "Not many people would do that, and definitely not bigtime players like Vaden.

"He was our best all-around player at Indiana. Also for him to leave his home state, that was huge. That shows what type of guy he is."

After his one-year exile, Vaden has been working to prove what type of player he is. A versatile guard from Indianapolis who started all 60 games with the Hoosiers, he has now become one of the nation's top 3-point shooters and is among Conference USA's top scorers.

Through Tuesday's games, Vaden was averaging 21.1 points -- fourth in the league -- and his 4.3 3s a game ranked second nationally. That's up from his 13.5-point average as a sophomore at Indiana, where he led the team in assists and steals and was second in scoring and rebounds.

Maybe it's the reward for all those lonely hours in the gym, making 1,000 shots a day, six or seven days a week when not practicing with the team. And the extra work doing ballhandling drills trying to hone his skills.

"The only thing I could do was practice, really," Vaden said. "Besides practice, all I could do was come in the gym by myself and work on my game. That's pretty much all I did. I really couldn't even watch basketball on TV."

The Blazers were struggling to a 15-16 record and he couldn't do anything about it. Now, they are 17-8 and hoping a strong finish will land them in the NCAA tournament. They took No. 1 Memphis down to the final second in a 79-78 loss last weekend with Vaden scoring 27 points.

He said making the decision to leave Indiana with Davis was easy, even if sitting out wasn't.

His father, Robert Head, died of cancer following Vaden's freshman season. And when the player turned for comfort, for fatherly advice, Davis was there.

At the funeral, eating with the family afterward, in the gym every day.

"He really helped me out," Vaden said. "He's really like my father right now. He's been there for me ever since (Head) passed away."

He returned the favor when Davis resigned from Indiana, where fans never fully embraced Bob Knight's successor.

"I told him as soon as it was announced that he was going to resign that I was going wherever he was going if he got another coaching job," Vaden said.

Davis was impressed that he kept his word.

"He doesn't have my DNA, but he's my son," the coach said. "All of these boys are my sons. He's a loyal kid. A lot of people tell you they'll do something and then when it really comes down to it they won't. And he did."

Vaden moved with his mother, Cathy Vaden, to Birmingham and lives with her a few miles from campus. A home health care worker, she is a frequent presence at her son's practices, goes to every home game and shares the same warm feelings about Davis for how he treated "my baby."

"Coach Davis is a tremendous man, he's a great man," said Cathy Vaden, who was in a relationship with Head for more than two decades though they never married. "For him to be there for my son at the time that his father passed away, that meant a lot to me. That took my heart.

"He's like my son's father. You couldn't ask for a greater coach. He's the best coach in the world, to me."

Vaden's decision to leave Indiana prompted a predictable response from Hoosiers fans, everything from support to vitriol like "I hate you, I hope you break your legs," Vaden said.

"When I announced I was going to transfer, I went to class and there were cameras at my classroom waiting on me," he said. "It was pretty crazy at that time. I'm glad I got out of that situation."

Vaden has thrived in UAB's two biggest games. Besides the big game against Memphis, he also scored 28 second-half points, 33 overall, and made a key 3-pointer in a win over Kentucky.

"He's a better basketball player now than he was at Indiana," Davis said. "The Kentucky game showed the whole country what type of player we have here at UAB. He's a good player.

"When you're watching film of him as an opposing coach, I know you've got to say, 'Wow."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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