Playing for Kentucky isn't easy

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The man, an airport worker, opened the door to the plane and Kenny Walker, a teenager from the tiny rural Georgia town of Roberta, ducked his head so he could fold his 6-foot-8 frame through the doorway.

He hadn't quite gotten out when the airport worker stopped him.

"Are you a basketball player?" he asked.

Walker said that he was, offering his name and his hand to shake.

"Kenny Walker, the UK recruit coming in? The one averaging 28 points and 17 rebounds?" the man said to Walker. "I just read about you on Cats Pause. Do you mind signing an autograph?''

Amazed but also a little skeptical, Walker scratched his name on a piece of paper and headed to the baggage claim, where he met up with Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall and his assistant, Leonard Hamilton.

He told them what had just happened, how some stranger not only knew who he was and knew his stats, but wanted his autograph -- even though he was a recruit, not yet committed to play at Kentucky.

"So I asked them: 'Did you put him up to it? Was it a setup?''' Walker said recently, recalling a story from more than 30 years ago. "And they told me: 'No, not at all. That's just Kentucky.'''

If you've paid even the slightest bit of attention to college basketball this season, you know that Kentucky is undefeated. If you've had your ear to the ground a little bit more intently, you'll know that being undefeated at Kentucky is especially hard, harder maybe than it was for Wichita State a year ago, harder than maybe it was for Saint Joseph's in 2004, maybe even harder than it was for UNLV in 1991 and Indiana all the way back in 1976.

At least that is the message being peddled, and that is to say, peddled more in a deflection/explanation way than an insincere one.

You see, John Calipari likes themes. When he was at Memphis, he liked to tell everyone that it took a village to build his mid-major team (though the Tigers weren't quite Middle Tennessee State). A few years ago, he coined "succeed and proceed," a playful little tweak of the one-and-done tag his players had been labeled with.

This year his message has been how hard it is to do what the Cats are doing -- not winning all the games, though that certainly is difficult -- but doing it under the microscope that is the University of Kentucky, where donning a jersey requires as much mental fortitude as it does a good crossover.

"There's not one game we will walk into where the other team is not ready,'' Calipari said recently. "There's not one game we will walk into where the other team isn't going to play their best and make shots they never make. ... If you're not ready to be in the Super Bowl every night you play here, then you're not ready to go here.''

He is not wrong, of course.

Kentucky is a court-storm waiting to erupt, the circled date on most every opposing team's calendar, the obsession and passion of a fan base that is most definitely the most obsessive, and certainly among the most passionate, in the country.

The joke is that they only hang national championship banners in Lexington ... except it's not entirely a joke. They hang nothing less than Final Four banners from the rafters of Rupp Arena and are so enamored of their teams that they give them names: the Unforgettables (1992), the Untouchables (1996) and the Comeback Cats (1998).

So there is a voracious appetite for victory that expects to be fed annually, a need so primal that it carries with it an unrealistic level of expectation and, in turn, an extraordinary burden of pressure.

But the hard-knock life of a Wildcat basketball player also includes the 2-year-old, $7 million Wildcat Coal Lodge, a state-of-the-art dorm that comes with its own chef and the $30 million Craft Center. It includes all the accoutrements afforded any big-time athlete, as well as the promise of lifelong adulation -- the inverse, really, of the parable of the faithful servant. Of whom much is expected, much also is given.

So is it really as hard as it's cracked up to be, to be an 18-year-old rock star? To be Justin Bieber in the throes of Biebermania?

Well, yes and no.

"It's a phenomenon, that's what it is,'' said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who helped Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four. "It's hard to explain unless you've been through it. It's the same thing that makes Alabama football Alabama football. What makes it so hard is what also makes it so great.''

A few years back, a church in Kentucky invited Cameron Mills to speak to the congregation. The pastor created a flier to alert people that Mills, who went from walk-on to NCAA tournament hero during the course of his Wildcat career, would be arriving.

Included was an old picture of Mills from his playing days in the mid-'90s, in 3-point form, arms extended, ball flying off his fingertips. Except the pastor had the photo doctored, and where the ball should have been, there was a Bible. Mills was shooting a Bible.

"And then after I was done preaching, we're dismissing, he calls me up to the front of the church and has me re-create it so he can take a picture,'' Mills said.

The way Mills sees it, regardless of whether he chose to walk on at Kentucky or go to Georgia as a recruited athlete, his path wouldn't have been terribly different. He was called to ministry at age 12 and knew from that moment where his life was headed.

Only he envisioned a life serving most likely as a youth pastor. Instead, he has a two-hour radio show on 1580 AM in Kentucky, and since 1998 he has run his own nonprofit, Cameron Mills Ministries.

"I am 16 years removed from my playing career, don't in any way, shape or form look like a basketball player anymore, but I have been able to continue a Christian ministry now for 16 years for two reasons,'' he said. "No. 1, God is more faithful to me than I am to him, and No. 2, because of UK fans. I'm still a Kentucky basketball player.''

Mills will be the first to admit he is nothing like the players walking around in Kentucky jerseys today, nor was he much like his teammates in the early '90s. He was always destined to be a four-and-done -- four years and done with basketball. But he grew up at the knee of a dad who played for Adolph Rupp and in a town, like many in Kentucky, that revered the Cats.

So to merely have the opportunity to sit at the end of the bench, to be yelled at by Rick Pitino in practice (which happened frequently to a player who became known as Tread Mills because of his frequent punishment) was an honor.

And because he was "one of them," Mills was treated then, and is treated now, with the same star quality.

Did it become tiresome? Sure. A Spanish teacher once greeted him with 20 posters to sign in class ... and failed him for the class anyway, but after he graduated he was paid handsomely to sign autographs at the local Fayette Mall.

Any pressure he felt, he said, wasn't from the fans so much as it was from his coaches, who were merely taking the pressure they felt from the outside and passing it to their players.

"You're a hero because you're on this team,'' he said. "Whether you're a starter or the 12th guy on the bench, you're a member of these 13, 14, 15 guys that everybody, or most people, dream of being. I've been living off it for 16 years and it's still good.''

Mills is a fantastic storyteller and has more than a few yarns to spin about the laser-focused Pitino -- like the time, on Christmas Day of Mills' freshman year, he made the mistake of asking his coach if practice was over -- but he tells them not to skewer his old coach but rather to highlight where he believes the real pressure of being a Cat stems from.

It's from the outside, yes, but the outside relayed through the very internal prism of the head coach -- paying forward the pressure, if you will.

"Fun? You're wanting a coach to think about anything other than the job and the focus and the pressure,'' Mills said. "No, no, no. Fun comes later. I love when coaches, with the pregame talk, they say, 'Fellas, the most important thing is to go out there and have fun tonight.' You know what's fun? Fun is winning by 30.''

Every circus needs its ringleader, and most agree that college basketball's version of Barnum & Bailey has found its perfect top-hatted man in Calipari.

He is both a master of attention and deflection, somehow getting everyone to talk about Kentucky, yet reminding everyone how hard it is to always be talked about.

"I was doing talk radio when Billy Gillispie got fired and Cal was first mentioned for the job,'' said Scott Padgett, now the head coach at Samford, who was a starting forward on the Cats' 1998 title team. "I thought it was the ultimate perfect hire because what Kentucky fans cherish the most is that people are always talking about Kentucky. Whether it's recruiting, how good they are, Hoops for Haiti -- they want to be on the tips of everybody's tongues, and nobody does that better than John Calipari.''

Being the center of attention at age 18, of course, can wear on a person. Kids make mistakes. They say stupid things. They do stupid things.

Above all, they have bad games.

But that's not tolerated in a state where there is no professional sports buffer to alleviate the heat. The Cats are critiqued as much as the Knicks, maybe more since New York can split the pot between its bounty of franchises.

Beat a lousy team by 10? Shoulda been 20.

Win 38 games, as Kentucky did in 2012? How in the world did those Cats lose to Indiana and Vanderbilt?

Padgett understands it because before he was a Wildcat, he was an 8-year-old boy attending the annual open practice Kentucky held at Louisville's Freedom Hall, waiting for hours to get every player's autograph.

He once demanded the perfection of his idols that, in turn, the fans later demanded of him.

"I can understand why it's not for everybody,'' Padgett said. "You come to Midnight Madness the first time and you think it's the coolest thing you've ever seen. What you don't realize is, it's Midnight Madness every day. There are no days off.''

Padgett experienced the ridiculous (he was asked to sign body parts but prefers not to name which ones) and the surreal (he knows of three babies named Scott in his honor, so christened after Padgett hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in the Wildcats' 1998 regional final against Duke). People still stop him today, 16 years later, to tell him where they were during that game against the Blue Devils. "This is not the man on the moon, but it's the same thing,'' Padgett said.

And yes, it could be exhausting and even, at times, annoying. But Padgett always considered the alternative -- a place where no one cared or where mediocrity was tolerable, if not acceptable.

"To an outsider, it sounds crazy,'' he said. "From an insider, you want crazy. If you want to be great, you want crazy.''

In the five years since Calipari has been in Lexington, the Wildcats have won one national championship, played in two national title games, made three Final Fours and reached four regional finals.

And then there is the other year, the year that shall not be named, the year the Wildcats' season ended with the three most despised letters in the commonwealth (well after l-o-s-s, L-o-u-i-s-v-i-l-l-e and P-i-t-i-n-o): NIT.

That was Nerlens Noel's one year at Kentucky, a year that ended with Noel on the sideline after a knee injury and the Wildcats out of the NCAA bracket in what could only be termed a disappointing season.

That Kentucky team won 21 of its 33 games.

Noel has won 12 as a Philadelphia 76er this season ... out of 56.

You want to know hard? Noel knows hard.

"Oh, the NBA is much harder,'' Noel said after practice on the day of the NBA trade deadline, a day when his gutted roster took another slice, with the trade of Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee. "There are a lot more expectations.''

But while Noel's knee arrived in the NBA unready, the rest of him was prepared, in no small part because of the chaos of playing at Kentucky. Everyone likes to point out the run of top classes that Calipari has welcomed to Lexington, but good players have been flocking to campus for years.

And they chose it, much the way Noel did, for the same reasons an engineer might choose MIT -- it is the best place to prepare them for their career.

That career just doesn't require an actual degree.

"When things don't go well, it's hard,'' Noel said. "When you have a bad game, you have to show up in class or campus and people want to know what happened, why it happened. Trying to always live up to the standards, that's tough. But it also makes you stronger.''

It's been more than 30 years since Kenny Walker stepped off that airplane, 28 since he wore a Kentucky uniform. Since then he's played five years in the NBA, winning one memorable dunk contest against Clyde Drexler. He's lived quite literally all over the world, from Japan to Spain to Italy, and he once even raced a horse (he beat a slow nag named Pugwash).

It's been, to say the least, a full life.

And yet, he is most often identified as a former University of Kentucky basketball player.

Even when he was with the Knicks, sitting in the locker room alongside Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson, accomplished players from established programs themselves, they'd ask him what it was like to play for the Wildcats.

He'd try to explain the intensity of the glare: of the 500 fans who would greet a plane after an NCAA tournament regional win, not a national title win; of the pressure to match the excellence represented in the rafters; of the life of celebrity and yes, leisure, handed to a teenager simply because he might deliver a championship; and of the everlasting opportunities afforded a player who was wise enough not to sully the uniform once he put it on.

"It's not normal,'' he said. "From the day you sign your name to play for the University of Kentucky, there's nothing normal about this experience. Nothing. Every day is an adventure from that moment on.''

The challenge is to enjoy the ride.