We had ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski on KSTV last week to discuss the release of his book, “The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed College Basketball”, which chronicles the journey of both Kentucky and Duke in the years leading up to their famous 1992 East Regional. He talked about writing a book that wasn’t so much a look back at the game, but rather a story of the uniquely different paths that led Kentucky and Duke’s teams to that night in Philadelphia.
The good folks over at Penguin Publishing were kind enough to send over the following excerpt to stimulate your mind on this dull, rainy work day. In it, a freshman superstar by the name of Jamal Mashburn has just arrived on the University of Kentucky campus and serves as a 6’8″ tower of hope for the future of the rebuilding Wildcat basketball program. But before he could duke it out with Kansas, North Carolina and LSU, he had to face The Rock.
Let’s take a trip back to 1990….
Kentucky’s basketball Jesus arrived on campus three days before fall classes began. Less than a week later, Mashburn wanted out. He had been told to report to Memorial Coliseum at 3 p. m. for his first conditioning session with his new team. Except that Mashburn didn’t know that three o’clock really meant 2:45 in “Wildcat Time.” In the world of Pitino, Wildcat Time was always 15 minutes before the scheduled event. Not only was Mashburn late for his first official team workout, he was nearly two miles away from where he was supposed to be.
“Where’s everybody?” he asked a student manager.
“They ran to the track,” he was told.
Ran? Holy shit, thought Mashburn. Shouldn’t that be the workout?
Mashburn was issued a set of workout clothes that tellingly didn’t include basketball sneakers. Instead, he was given a pair of running shoes. A student manager then drove him to the track, where he was introduced to Rock Oliver.
Oliver said the Wildcats were going to run a mile. Mashburn had played pickup ball all summer, so he figured he could do that. He was in decent shape. How bad it could it be, right?
That wasn’t so bad. Then Oliver said they were going to sprint, not run, twelve 220s. Mashburn turned to one of the Wildcats.
“What’s a 220?” he said.
“It’s halfway around the track.”
“And we’re sprinting that?”
Nobody, certainly not Pitino, had mentioned anything about this during the recruiting process. Sendek had damn sure not written anything about running 220s on those corny postcards. Come to think of it, Mashburn had never met Oliver during his recruiting visit to UK.
Mashburn was able to complete two of the 220- yard sprints before his legs started to wobble. By the sixth or seventh sprint, his lungs felt like someone had pounded them like chicken fried steak. By the twelfth and final 220, Mashburn was useless. He was soaked in sweat and nauseated. Several times he had staggered to the side of the track and threw up.
“That was the first time I was ever drunk without alcohol,” says Mashburn.
By the time the conditioning session finished, Mashburn was reduced to a puddle of agony. There was nothing left in his stomach to vomit. His legs were numb. He was still dizzy. Worse yet, he was supposed to return to Memorial to play in pickup games with the rest of the Wildcats. Full-court games. Mashburn couldn’t run to the garbage cans to throw up, much less run the length of the gym. His body had shut down.
He wasn’t alone. Fellow freshman Gimel Martinez, a center from Miami whose 6’8” frame was as thin as an eyebrow, couldn’t move either. Even his sweat was sweating.
Only one UK teammate stayed behind to check on Mashburn and Martinez. That teammate was Farmer.
“They were in really bad shape, and everybody walked off, leaving ’em laying there,” Farmer says. “And I turned around and I would go back. Every day that that happened, I would try to get them some water . . . or make sure they were okay, because I had been there and nobody stayed to help me. . . . I would talk to them and tell them, ‘Guys, it will get better. You’ll get stronger. You’ll get through it– just hang in there.’ Because I never had anybody to stay and tell me that, or just encourage me or whatever. . . . [I] would have loved to have had somebody help me when I was going through a difficult time, but there was nobody.”
The two freshmen stayed sprawled on the infield grass for nearly an hour before trying to stand up. A UK maintenance man drove them back to Wildcat Lodge, where they collapsed in their dorm- room beds.
Mashburn had never lifted a weight in high school. He had never run 220s. On the AAU circuit, in high school, or at The Rucker, you were in basketball shape, not in win-an- Ironman- Triathlon shape. You were there to break ankles, take it hard to the hoop, keep the court. He had signed with Kentucky to play ball and prepare himself for the pros. He hadn’t meant pro track.
“I didn’t even know what conditioning meant,” he says. “Conditioning? I thought that was some kind of hair product.”
During those first few days on campus, when it hurt just to walk down a flight of stairs, Mashburn began to think he had made a huge mistake. Maybe some of his friends back in New York were right, that he belonged in the Big East, not the southeast. Everybody had told him that Pitino didn’t churn out NBA types. And anyway, what kind of coach leaves the Knicks and the Garden for Lexington, Kentucky, and a program on life support?
One night during that first week at UK, Mashburn sat exhausted on his bed in his darkened dorm room. Martinez was on the other side of the room, in no better shape.
“What school are you transferring to?” Mashburn asked his roommate.
“University of Miami,” said Martinez.
“You know what, screw what my mother said,” Mashburn said. “I’m going to St. John’s.”
But they didn’t leave. Mashburn, despite his brazen talk, couldn’t defy his mother’s wishes. He didn’t want to let her down. And he didn’t want to break a promise he had made to himself.
The projects were filled with could-have-beens and should-have-beens. Mashburn had seen them on the street corners and heard their sad stories and their tired excuses. He didn’t want to become that person. In fact, he feared becoming that person, the guy about whom everybody in the neighborhood would say, “Yeah, he went to college, but he couldn’t last and now he’s back in the projects again.”
But Farmer was right: It got a little easier each day. Very little.
“My first three weeks there, it was hell to pay,” says Mashburn. “Most of those guys had been there the whole summer doing that stuff. I was the ‘before’ photo. Those guys had already had their ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. Me and Gimel were the ‘before’ pictures.”
Mashburn and Martinez weren’t the only newcomers. Willard had left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky. It was assumed that Pitino would simply choose a new assistant from his and/ or Newton’s vast pool of candidates, but Pitino wanted to do something different. He wanted to hire a woman.
Pitino understood the value of keeping his program in the news. Hiring another male assistant would have made the Transactions agate of the newspaper sports pages. Hiring the first woman assistant coach in major Division I men’s basketball would be a public relations bonanza, and UK could use the positive publicity.
The idea wasn’t immediately embraced by the other Wildcat assistant coaches, who openly questioned the decision and argued that the program would be better served by hiring a male coach. But Pitino wasn’t interested in their concerns. He instructed Tubby Smith to contact a University of Georgia Lady Bulldogs assistant named Bernadette Locke.
Locke, 30, had read a USA Today story several weeks earlier about Pitino’s intentions to hire a female assistant coach. Good for him, she thought. And then she forgot about it.
When Smith’s phone call came, her first reaction was that Smith had accidentally been given a message she had left recently for a member of the UK women’s team staff. Smith assured her there had been no mistake; Pitino was interested in hiring her.
After a series of interviews with Smith and then Pitino, Locke was offered the job. She wouldn’t be staff window dressing. Pitino expected her to coach (individual instruction, scouting, etc.), as well as oversee the players’ academic progress, postgraduate job prospects, and on-campus recruiting.
If there was any question about her basketball bona fides, they were answered during her first appearance in Pitino’s dawn- patrol pickup game. The former UGA All- American more than held her own. And in the ultimate sign of respect, Pitino cared enough to “fire” her on more than one occasion.
Kentucky remained ineligible for the SEC championship and postseason play, but its games could now be shown on live TV. The NCAA still allowed the Wildcats to play a series of intrasquad scrimmages in assorted towns around the state. After the first of those scrimmages, Pitino told Jerry Tipton and the other UK beat writers that Mashburn would become one of the greatest players, if not the greatest, to wear a Kentucky uniform.
It was a startling statement, even for the hyperbole- prone Pitino. But the quiet Mashburn– so quiet that UK coaches sometimes didn’t realize he was in team meetings– instantly transformed the lineup and gave Pitino options he didn’t have a season earlier. The more he watched Mashburn, the more Pitino was convinced that the UK rebuilding project might take only two years as opposed to his original four- year projection.
Oliver, too, was immediately aware of Mashburn’s vast physical potential. “A genetic freak,” says Oliver. “Finally, somebody I get to take a little weight off and there’s muscle under there.”
So vital was Mashburn to UK’s success that Oliver made an unprecedented exception for the freshman. The Law of Rock dictated that all players had to run the mile in six minutes or less. Oliver arranged for Mashburn to run it in segments and then added the times together. He needed Mashburn to succeed, even if it meant bending the rules. A year earlier he likely wouldn’t have made the same exception.
This didn’t go over well with Pelphrey, who was sort of the mother hen of the team. Pelphrey always wanted the other Wildcats to follow his lead.
“What’s up with this?” Pelphrey asked.
“Mind your own business,” said Oliver.
The players recognized basketball greatness when they saw it. So did Kentucky’s fans. When Martinez and Mashburn walked into Commonwealth Stadium that fall to watch a UK football game, the entire student section stood up and applauded. Martinez knew they weren’t clapping for him.
Mashburn could score so effortlessly. He did things on the court that they couldn’t do– and never would be able to do. Hanson, who battled Mashburn every single day in practice, could only shake his head at some of the freshman’s moves.
“We would have never been able to do the things we did without [Mashburn],” says Pelphrey. “Before him, we were just a bunch of white guys with bad haircuts. He changed our program. We had a few good players and then we had Jamal. If you took away Jamal from us, we were Vandy. . . . He was a guard who played at the center spot, and nobody could guard him.”
Kentucky won its first three games of the season and entered its fourth game against Kansas intent on exacting revenge. They met on December 8, one day short of the anniversary of UK’s 55-point humiliation at Allen Fieldhouse.
“That was bloodlust,” says Pat Forde, who had just begun his first season as the UK beat reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Pitino wanted that badly. So did the fans. . . . With Pitino it’s always about payback.”
Pitino has a long memory. He is a master at creating an enemy that doesn’t necessarily exist. But the grudge against KU and Williams was no invention. It was real, and a Rupp Arena crowd of 24,175 made sure to remind the Jayhawks that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Moments before tip- off, Pitino huddled his team at courtside. Locke leaned in, but it was no use. The UK fans had become human Harley- Davidsons, gunning their voices into one overpowering roar. Locke could see Pitino talk, but she couldn’t hear a word. “And I was standing right there,” she says. “I don’t know how the guys heard him.”
Kentucky forced 20 Kansas turnovers, had five players score in double figures (Woods had a career- high 25; Mashburn had 15) and won 88— 71. “I would have liked to have been able to beat them by 55,” says Farmer.
Next, Pitino turned his attention to Dean Smith and North Carolina, who had beaten the Wildcats last December by 11. This time they would play at Chapel Hill. And once again Carolina would win, the result of UK foul trouble and the Wildcats’ inability to hold a late lead.
Lazy fouls and blown leads were the symptoms of a tired team. Afterward, Pitino snapped at Oliver. “This is the worst- conditioned team I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Later, Oliver made his way to the team bus for the ride to the local airport. As he began to board the vehicle, Pitino said, “What are you doing on the bus?”
Oliver had to catch a ride back to Lexington with a UK booster. He didn’t get home until 4:30 the next morning. As he walked into his house, Oliver nervously rehearsed the speech he was going to give his wife when she woke up. He had been fi red, he would tell her. But he’d get another job somewhere and they’d be fine.
Then the phone rang. It was Sendek.
“Where are you?” said Sendek, who was in the UK basketball offi ce.
“Herb, I got fired,” said Oliver.
“You’ll get fired every day. Now get back in here.”
Pitino fired someone almost daily, sometimes hourly. He could be caring, dictatorial, and impossible in the same fi ve minutes.
That Christmas he invited Mashburn and Martinez to dine with his family, since the two players couldn’t afford to fly home for the holidays. As Mashburn sat at the dining- room table, he remembered there was a practice scheduled for the next day.
“Uh, Coach, what kind of practice are we going to have tomorrow?” said Mashburn. The harder the practice, the less Christmas dinner Mashburn was going to eat.
“Jamal, it’s going to be light,” said Pitino. “So just eat up.”
Mashburn dug into the massive food spread. He even went back for seconds.
The next day, he walked onto the court and saw that team managers had set up garbage cans near each basket.
Holy shit, thought Mashburn.
“We start practicing and he’s running the shit out of us,” says Mashburn. “The only thing I can feel is my stomach cramping. You saw people throwing up [including Mashburn]. Obviously they ate a lot during Christmas break, too.”
UK beat Louisville in late December at Freedom Hall. It opened its SEC schedule in early January by beating defending conference champion Georgia, 81— 80, in Athens. Mashburn had 17 points and 15 rebounds, and he hit two free throws in the final 5 seconds to help seal the win.
In its next game, UK defeated O’Neal and LSU at Rupp. Shaq had 28 points and 17 rebounds against his undersized defender, Feldhaus. But Feldhaus confounded O’Neal by stepping out to the three- point line and hitting six treys. He finished with 27 points.
Something weird and unexpected was going on. Kentucky, the program everybody assumed would be roadkill for at least three years, was on its way to winning the SEC regular- season title.