DON'T CLOSE your eyes.
Halloween night, 1988. He was 15 years old, on a gurney in the back of an ambulance as it sped down Fordham Road in the Bronx, sirens stacking atop one another like pages in a book.
Fifteen, with a bullet in his head, listening to the paramedics radio ahead to the emergency room. The language of panic: "GSW near left eye. Entry, no exit."
Don't close your eyes.
He repeated those same four words to himself, over and over, like a prayer. A child's logic: If you can see, you can't die. A child's fear: If you close your eyes, darkness wins.
Don't close your eyes.
LOOK DOWN AT the court, past the players auditioning for the NBA, past the guys talking into the camera, past the head coach whose presence is as understated as the sun on a clear day. See the big guy with the just-right hair who sits between the famous coach and the soon-to-be famous players? You've probably never had much reason to think about that stretch of bench, those three or four seats that separate fame from fame, but what if you discovered that one of those seats held the best story of all?
Once upon a time, Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua could really play, but that's not even close to the best part. The way he played edges a bit closer -- wild with energy, joyous, aggressive, as if every trip down the court were a referendum on his worth as a human being.
Two decades later, Antigua's enthusiasm plays well in living rooms and on the practice court. Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who as a high school star in Alabama committed to John Calipari and Antigua at Memphis and followed them to Kentucky, says, "When Cal is chewing you out, Coach O is always a guy you can go to." Many of the young men running up and down the floor wearing Wildcats blue are there because of Antigua. It might have been something he saw in them or something they saw in him; it's impossible to say which came first.
But if the scouts and hypesters are even close to being prescient, the talent in Kentucky's freshman class -- a group recruited initially by Antigua and fellow assistant Kenny Payne and closed by Calipari -- is borderline ridiculous: six of the 24 McDonald's high school All-Americans and five of ESPN's top 10 recruits. It's on the short list of the best recruiting classes ever.
Power forward Julius Randle is so versatile at 6'9" that he might make a bigger impact than Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. The Harrison twins -- point guard Andrew and shooting guard Aaron -- are so smooth and fast you forget they're 6'6". Dakari Johnson is a wide-bodied seven-footer in the Cousins mold. Marcus Lee is a slender 6'9" leaper whom forward Willie Cauley-Stein calls "stupid bouncy." And Calipari says NBA scouts who have watched the team practice come away calling 6'6" swingman James Young the best player on the floor.
But the Kentucky basketball program, as constructed and maintained by Calipari, is a fragile ecosystem. The seasonal migration of players -- the flocks of talent that land annually in Lexington before scattering to the NBA -- can create unpredictable results. Case in point: This year Kentucky became the first team in history to finish one season unranked in the coaches poll and begin the next ranked No. 1.
The Wildcats had deficiencies in depth and leadership last season. But now, as you look at all that talent converging in one place, it's natural to ask: How did it all get there?
SOMEONE THREW an egg. Fate can be so stupid sometimes. He and his friend were just rubbernecking a commotion in front of an electronics store. A security guard and a maintenance guy were arguing with two or three teenagers. They wandered over to see where it might lead. His friend was sitting on the hood of a car. He stood next to him, one foot on the bumper.
Behind the security guard and the maintenance guy was a group of serious-looking men wearing business suits. Their hands were in their pockets. It's funny what you remember. He remembers the looks on their faces and the hands in their pockets.
Someone threw an egg. Halloween night in the Bronx, a good chance someone had an egg. The guys in the suits jumped out of the way, looked up, saw the tall kid with a foot on the bumper.
One of the hands came out of one of the pockets, holding a .22 pistol.
CALIPARI'S TRACK RECORD makes it easy to be dismissive. It's simple to say the best high school players in the country sign with Kentucky based on reputation and future considerations, lured by some clandestine backstage set change orchestrated by shoe companies, AAU coaches and the notorious World Wide Wes.
Or it could be this:
You're not going to be the star.
How's that for a recruiting pitch?
"They'll straight up tell you in a home visit: You're going to have seven other guys equivalent to you," Cauley-Stein says. "You're not going to be the man. You're not going to get to shoot every ball. Coach O wasn't feeding me BS like every other program. He'll tell you the same thing every visit: 'The sky's the limit for you, and if you want to be a pro, come here.'"
What everyone calls chemistry is better described -- at Kentucky, anyway -- as a collective and willing submergence of ego for the greater good. When it works, the dribble-drive motion offense is a fascinating organism. When it doesn't, when every guy looks for his own shot, it's a stagnant mess.
"Look, we could just tell these kids whatever they want to hear, but eventually we have to coach them," Calipari says. "People ask, 'How do you get these kids to buy in?' We're honest with them, that's how. I want coaches who aren't judgmental. We're going into homes, and we'd better be empathetic. We have to go in with one attitude: How can we help this family get where they want to go? Often it's through their son. That's just fact. That's real talk, and Orlando's been there."
The 40-year-old Antigua explains his unlikely career arc by saying he's led a charmed life. He portrays himself as a recipient of random providence. The polite response is to nod and let it pass, to agree with the popular and facile idea that everything happens for a reason, that we are all helpless products of some great fate-making machine in the sky.
But to conclude that all of this is out of his control would belittle the journey. Random? Hardly. Antigua was the de facto dad to his two younger brothers by the time he was 10. They had come to America from the Dominican Republic with their mom in the late 1970s. "He was role model, disciplinarian and father figure in that house," says Oliver Antigua, two years younger than Orlando and an assistant at Seton Hall. "We were petrified of making mistakes and screwing up in school."
Random? During Orlando's senior year in high school, his family was evicted from its apartment and lived for a time in an uninhabited convent down the block from St. Raymond High School with basketball coach Gary DeCesare and his wife. "Those priests and brothers saved our lives," Oliver says. Orlando became student body president at St. Raymond and earned a basketball scholarship to Pitt. Nobody in the family had ever attended college before, but when Orlando committed, Oliver said, "We're going to follow you there."
Oliver -- Orlando's first recruiting score -- also graduated from Pitt, and Omar graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and became a successful salesman of medical equipment in Florida.
Orlando was finishing his final semester at Pitt when he got a call from the Harlem Globetrotters. "You sure you got the right guy?" he asked. Then-owner Mannie Jackson had seen Antigua's exuberant style of play, had read about his unique past and identified him as the perfect candidate to be the first Latin Globetrotter. The NBA wasn't interested, so Orlando signed with Jackson. It didn't take long for "The Hurricane" to become the face of the Globetrotters; he gave motivational talks to community groups in nearly every city they visited. He played for seven and a half years in 49 countries and retired undefeated in 2002.
After the Globetrotters, Antigua went to work selling promotional products in Pittsburgh. He also helped out a friend by coaching the post players at Mount Lebanon High School. "I knew right away," he says. "This is what I should be doing." The next year, he was hired by Jamie Dixon at Pitt -- he spent three years as director of basketball ops, two years on the bench -- and then by Calipari at Memphis, where together they reached the Final Four before making the pilgrimage to Kentucky in 2009.
Two years later, Antigua practically begged Calipari to coach the Dominican national team. Calipari agreed, provided Antigua would take over after a year. Following a surprising run to the final round of the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship, Calipari agreed to stay one more year after the team came within a win of the country's first Olympic berth. This summer, coached by Antigua, the D.R. qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 35 years. "He made me look bad, going further than I did," Calipari jokes.
Sooner rather than later, Antigua will be a head coach. Calipari is resigned to it. "He has a presence and the courage to be a head coach," Calipari says. "You have to be able to do the right things even if it's not popular among players."
Random? Out of his control? All of it?
"You do have a choice in how you deal with your obstacles," Antigua says. "It might not be a gunshot to the head, but we all have hardships. I can talk to a kid from a rough neighborhood and say, 'Look, I wore those shoes, and if you do this and have this kind of mindset and surround yourself with people who are going to help you, you're going to become successful.'"
After all, nothing can be truly charmed without first being cursed.
POLICE OFFICERS CAME running up the street, past the store, their eyes trained on the guys in the suits, nightsticks in their hands. He tried to stop one of them. Hand covering his eye, he said, "Officer, officer, that man just shot me."
Who knows what the cop thought he saw. A nuisance? A Dominican kid who shouldn't have been there? A suspect?
Who knows, but what he did to the 15-year-old boy with his hand over his eye and the bullet in his head was dismiss him with a swing of his nightstick. The cop barely broke stride.
He leaned against a wall. Blood ran down his face. People scattered in both directions.
Another officer stopped to ask what had happened. This one called for help, and when the spinning lights of an ambulance appeared down the street, the kid didn't wait for permission. He ran toward it and got in.
His two younger brothers were home. His mother was working her usual sundown-to-sunup shift as a barmaid at a Dominican club in Manhattan.
His ears were ringing. He could smell the gunpowder. As he repeated his four-word prayer, one panic replaced another.
He asked the paramedic for a favor: Can you tell my mom I'm not dead?
KENTUCKY IS NOT an easy place to underachieve. For four nights in early October, more than 750 tents surround the Joe Craft Center like Civil War encampments. They're staked three- and four-deep on strips of grass next to parking lots and Lexington Avenue. The residents -- some of them third-generation campers -- read books or dribble basketballs or lean on the barricades and plead for autographs as the players walk between the practice facility and the athletes-only dorm known as the Wildcat Coal Lodge.
It's four nights in a tent for the right to get a ticket to Big Blue Madness. At other universities, they camp out for games. At Kentucky, they camp out for the right to watch a scrimmage that's almost entirely for show. It's like lining up outside a concert hall to secure tickets to an hour of throat-clearings.
The symbolism is impossible to miss. The support is appreciated inside the building, but make no mistake: They're out there. Waiting. Watching. And you can't run a program in this place, and in this way, and expect mediocrity to be tolerated. An off year is not a blip, it's a disaster.
Calipari's method -- his reliance on one-and-done players who are merely fulfilling an obligation as dictated by the NBA and NCAA -- is an ingenious and slightly distorted byproduct of an arbitrary NBA rule. He's not building a program so much as crafting a series of single-season narratives. College basketball programs can still be rich historical novels, four-year epics, but they just won't win as many games. Kentucky is, without apology, a short-story collection for a short-attention-span world.
It worked for the 2010 Elite Eight team with Cousins and John Wall and for the Final Four team a year later. It worked for the 2012 national title team with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It didn't work last season. Kentucky went to the NIT, which is like Pavarotti busking for quarters at the Greyhound station, and it lost in the first round to Robert Morris, which is like Pavarotti packing up and leaving with an empty hat.
"Last year whenever they had hardships, they didn't have those players who could handle it," says Patrick Patterson, a star junior on the 2009-10 team and now a forward for the Kings. This year they have power forwards who can defend point guards, point guards who can post up centers, centers who can go from two feet on the ground to one hand on the top of the backboard in a blink. They have big guards who attack the basket and rebounders so quick off the floor that Calipari practically encourages missed shots.
After an unofficial practice the first week of October, Calipari drove off for a meeting and called Antigua.
"What did you think?" Calipari asked.
"Whew," Antigua said. "Real good. Really good."
OLIVER answered the phone. He and Omar were home by themselves. Your brother's been shot, the voice on the other end said.
To a 13-year-old in the Bronx in 1988, shot meant dead.
Oliver called his mother. Damaris Antigua was so upset she had to be sedated at the hospital.
The bullet entered about a centimeter to the left of Orlando's left eye, but it didn't penetrate the skull, lodging in the soft tissue near the ear. Twice he was prepped for surgery and twice the surgeon decided it was riskier to his hearing and vision to operate than to let the body reject the foreign object on its own.
Orlando spent a week in the hospital, and at one point Damaris sat beside her son's bed and said, "I don't know why God left you on this earth, but there had to be a reason."
THEY ALL TELL the same story: halftime, SEC championship game, 2010. Antigua was recovering from a torn Achilles -- suffered during a pickup game -- and needed to prop his leg onto a scooter-like contraption to get around.
Kentucky played a horrible first half against Mississippi State, and when the Wildcats reached the locker room, they found Antigua waiting for them.
"He beat everybody there," says senior guard Jon Hood, a freshman on the 2009-10 team. "And he just reamed us for a good two minutes. He said, 'Y'all are playing like you don't have any heart. You all are playing scared' -- and some stuff I can't repeat. The coach who's screaming has one leg up on a scooter. It was hilarious."
Adds Patterson: "We were trying not to laugh. He's trying to motivate, screaming and yelling, and all we could see was this guy wheeling around like crazy. He was so mad. We tried to hold it in, but we couldn't help ourselves."
Antigua: "I don't remember that at all."
Then it's his turn: He tries to keep a straight face, and fails.
SIX YEARS AFTER the shooting, in the summer of 1994, before his senior year in college, with the bullet still somewhere in his head, Antigua was playing basketball in Puerto Rico. His left ear began to hurt and bleed and leak pus.
The man who allegedly shot him -- the store manager -- had long ago been acquitted, a 15-year-old with a bullet in his head no contest for big-time lawyers. Antigua lived with fierce migraines but hadn't had a moment of bitterness or self-pity since.
The ear must have become infected from all the swimming in the ocean, he thought. A doctor prescribed antibiotics, but the pain got worse. He couldn't sleep. It became unbearable.
He called the trainer back at Pitt, who told him to get on the next plane back. An ear, nose and throat doctor ordered a CAT scan. As he looked at it, he asked Antigua, "Have you ever had any head trauma?"
"I got shot about six years ago."
"Yeah, that's a bullet in there."
An hour later, the doctor pulled a .22 slug out of Antigua's ear canal.
PART OF EARNING your way into the living room is knowing how to read the room. You don't stroll into the home of a McDonald's All-American and immediately start talking about uninhabited convents and ambulance rides and the bullet that once lived in your head.
"I pick my spots," Antigua says. "Everyone has hardships. This is the hand I was dealt."
And so he talks about opportunity and coaching and everything else that makes it easy for a recruiter from Kentucky to get into a living room in the first place. But we are nothing but a collection of our experiences, and Antigua's nonjudgmental side -- the part Calipari considers essential -- makes it possible for him to draw on his experience without, as he puts it, "using it."
"You use it when it's appropriate," he says. "I don't know how many of these guys even know."Cauley-Stein sits in the Wildcats' film room, his seven-foot body the archetype of college-student torpor, and says, "I don't really even know the story. I just heard he got shot in the head."
He says it nonchalantly, almost shrugging, as if getting shot in the head is the equivalent of not liking lettuce or turning an ankle.
But then he is told something close to the whole story about the coach who eschews BS and connects with recruits. He's told about the bullet and its six-year residence in Antigua's head, about the 10-year-old father figure and disciplinarian, about the convent and the brothers, about the Globetrotters, and Cauley-Stein begins nodding like he's figured out the answers to a test.
"Wow. He's always so peppy, and now, like, it makes total sense," he says, suddenly animated. "How much passion he has? I just thought it was him. But this dude got shot in the head. Shouldn't be here.
"I totally get it now."