In another world—one where COVID-19 never existed, March Madness wasn’t canceled, and Greg Gumble’s soothing voice didn’t leave us in our time of need—this weekend would have been the start of the 2020 NBA Finals. Instead, we’re left with nothing but reruns on ESPN, deflated balls in our driveways, and a tentative promise that league play will resume in August at Disney World, possibly with piped-in video game crowd noise. (Wait, what?)
Adding to this painful fact is that, for the first time in a decade, this year’s Finals stage would have most likely featured a former Wildcat in a prominent role. That’s right: as Jack Pilgrim pointed out on Thursday, five of the top six teams in the NBA standings have at least one ex-UK player on their active roster. If the results followed seeding, we would be spending our Sunday night watching Anthony Davis and the Lakers face off against Eric Bledsoe‘s Bucks for a shot at that first elusive, legacy-defining championship ring. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Now, we have a few extra months to wait. Oh well. But I didn’t want the significance and relative rarity of this event to be overlooked. So today, we’re taking a stroll through NBA Finals history to figure out which former Kentucky players put on the best performances when the lights were brightest.
If you ask the average younger fan what they think of first when it comes to memorable Finals performances by #LaFamilia, the first name you’re likely to hear is Rajon Rondo. There are two very good reasons for that. One is because the slick-passing Celtics point guard tore it up against the Lakers in both 2008 and 2010. Over seven games in 2010, he averaged 13.6 points per game, 7.6 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals, leading the team in each of the latter three categories. During Game 2 of the series, he registered a triple-double.
The second reason is that, up until DeMarcus Cousins and Jodie Meeks appeared briefly in reserve roles last year, Rondo’s 2010 run was the last time an ex-cat logged a single minute in the Finals.
How is that possible, you ask, given the prolific amount of NBA talent that’s passed through John Calipari’s program over the same time frame? Well, the short answer is that reaching the NBA’s championship pedestal is hard. It’s a team sport, too. And when you’re drafted in the lottery, it’s usually by a bottom-feeder. Heck, it took Michael Jordan eight years (and two regular-season MVP trophies) to reach his first Finals. Maybe Davis is on a similar track? (Hey, having a guy named LeBron James on your team might help.)
If the Finals of the 2010s were a light traffic zone for Cats in the Pros (blame the Golden State Warriors), the previous decade was like High Street on game night. The first ten years of the 21st century saw four Cats crowned as champions, aided by a period of relative parity in the league.
In the years before Rondo rode to glory with the Celtics’ Big Three in ’08, there was no shortage of #BBN representation. In 2006, former “Untouchables” Derek Anderson and Antoine Walker earned their first rings with the Miami Heat and coach Pat Riley. Anderson didn’t play in the series but the 29-year-old Walker started every game, finishing second on the team in scoring behind Dwyane Wade.
The 2005 Spurs-Pistons classic featured Cats on both sides. For San Antonio, Nazr Mohammed played 22 minutes per game, contributing 4.9 points and 6.0 rebounds while sharing the paint with Tim Duncan. Opposite the explosive Spurs backcourt was defensive stopper Tayshaun Prince, who averaged 10 points and 1.5 steals in a losing effort.
Prince is likely better remembered for his role on Detroit’s championship team the year before, when he was tasked with shutting down Kobe Bryant and the star-studded Lakers. Sure enough, Prince held Bryant to 38% shooting over five games, and the Pistons successfully stopped LA’s bid for a four-peat.
It’s probably safe to say that dynasties don’t help parity. Just as the Warriors, Cavs and Heat effectively prevented modern stars like Davis and John Wall from reaching the Finals in recent years, so too did Jordan’s Bulls, Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics in the ’80s and ’90s. The only Cat to make an appearance in either decade was Rick Robey, who averaged 7.8 points over six games for the Celtics in 1981.
The ’70s, however, were a different story. Both the 1978 and 1979 seasons ended with the Washington Bullets facing off against the Seattle SuperSonics; for the Bullets–alongside two Hall-of-Famers in Elvin Hayes and the late Wes Unseld–was former Kentucky guard Kevin Grevey. During the 1978 series, Grevey scored 20+ points twice and helped lead the Bullets (now the Wizards) to its only championship run to date.
Pat Riley appeared in three Finals as a player (’72, ’73 and ’76), winning it all with the Lakers in 1972. Larry Steele also appeared off the bench for Portland in 1977, taking home a title with Bill Walton.
Meanwhile, in the ABA, which lasted from 1967 until the NBA merger in 1976, the Kentucky Colonels made a habit of employing local talent. Headlined by Dan Issel, Louie Dampier and Mike Pratt, the Colonels played for three ABA titles in its eight years of existence, and won its only title in 1975. Issel averaged 21.6 points in that series and Dampier contributed 14.0.
1950s and ’60s
Technically, the first Wildcat to play in the NBA Finals was Paul Noel, a forward for the glorious 1951 Rochester Royals. But that was literally the second season of play in the newly formed National Basketball Association, and he scored a total of eight points. So here’s a more interesting story:
The least-talked-about rivalry in NBA Finals history may very well have been between two college teammates, Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey. Between 1957 and 1961, they clashed four times, with Ramsey’s Celtics getting the best of Hagan’s St. Louis Hawks on three occasions. Both now reside in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Interestingly, they nearly ended up on the same side. After graduating in 1953, Hagan, Ramsey and Lou Tsioropulous were all drafted by the Boston Celtics. However, the star trio opted to return to school for their final year of eligibility, and they went on to lead UK to the only undefeated season in school history; unfortunately, a stupid NCAA rule declared them ineligible to play in the postseason as graduate students, so the NCAA bid was declined.
Fast forward a few years and Hagan, after returning from military service, was traded to the Hawks in the very same deal that landed Boston the rights to Bill Russell. Teaming with Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit (you know, “the Bombardier from Baton Rouge”), he delivered the Hawks their first and only championship in 1958, with Ramsey and Tsioropulous sitting on the opposing bench.
For his part, Ramsey helped jump-start the Celtics’ Russell-led ’60s dynasty as a starting guard for the franchise’s first seven championships (Tsioropulous retired after the first two). He would go on to coach Issel with the Kentucky Colonels; you can read more about him in this great profile written after his death in 2018.
Not bad for a few Kentucky boys, I’d say.
Which Finals run by a former Cat sticks out the most in your memory?