Never a group to not fulfill something that we’ve promised to you, your KSR buddies are back with the latest (third? fourth? I feel like Antonio Cromartie trying to remember) round of the “Who Wants to Be a Blogger?” contest. In this round, we’ll trim the list from 15 to 10 and each of the groups will profile a member of the 1998 NCAA title team. As usual, we’ll be scanning the bolds of each, pretending we read the whole thing and ranking them from best to worst before crushing someone’s dreams. First up, Nathan Glower, John Wilmhoff and Adam Reeves with a look at everyone’s Twitter buddy, Wayne Turner.
Proceed if you dare.
Wayne Turner: The Game that Solidified His Legacy
By Nathan Gower
I love Wayne Turner, and so do you. Some of us even argue he is the best point guard in Kentucky’s storied history. Let’s get that out of the way up front.
I love him for many reasons. Some of those reasons come to mind easily as singular, definable moments (one of which will eventually be the centerpiece of this post). But as I clawed my way through my late-90s Kentucky memories, I’ve come to the realization that some of the reasons I love Turner are a little more difficult for me to articulate; and maybe that’s okay. Maybe Wayne Turner is the quintessential whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-his-parts kind of guy.
Still, those parts were pretty impressive, weren’t they? Here’s a guy who played on the consensus best college basketball team ever (well . . . consensus for Kentucky fans at least). He helped hang two national championship banners during his career, as well as an at-least-we-came-in-second-to-the-WILDCATS-from-Arizona banner. He was a McDonalds and Parade All-American when he first slipped on the blue and white, and he briefly held the all-time record for most NCAA games played. Outsiders might argue that he sometimes underachieved in the stat line, but Kentucky fans know how truly indispensable Turner was during Kentucky’s hay day of the 90’s.
In my mind, the moment that solidified Turner’s unquestionable legacy as a cat was a game that we all remember well: the 1998 regional final game vs. Duke. I know, I know – I’m not being very creative here, am I? That sure is an easy (and safe) game to reference. But no game better illustrates Turner’s impact as a Cat; and so on this occasion, I temper my creativity in favor of common sense.
Storylines for that game ooze in many directions, and we all have our favorite moments. Cameron Mills certainly had a defining moment in that game with his two late 3’s, and maybe that’s what most Kentucky fans remember. But in the “highlight reel” of our collective UK basketball mind, one can’t forget that Wayne Turner ran the show in 1998, and the Duke game was no exception. You need no proof, of course; but for the sake of argument, let’s all try to sift through the good memories of the Duke game and get back to the place where our stomachs were churning in anticipation of yet another defeat at the hands of the fighting Krzyzewskis. Allow me to get all present-tense up in this piece:
It’s the second half. We’re down by 17. Kentucky looks disorganized and timid. Duke is a machine behind the leadership of the national defensive player of the year, Steve Wojohoakehaoiehaiochieoahozliefo$88*&alehfeski. It looks like the Cats will be happy to settle for an elite eight showing after appearances in back-to-back national championship games. There is about to be a gaping win-over-Duke shaped hole in the hearts of Kentuckians everywhere.
But when all seemed lost, the Cats climbed on the back of their veteran point guard, and (Bruce) Wayne transformed into Catman. (Please forgive me. I know I should hit the “backspace” key right now to avoid humiliation from both the judges and the comments section . . . but I just can’t do it. I made myself laugh, and sometimes that’s all it takes. My sincerest apologies.) In all seriousness, you might remember that in the crucial 11 minute comeback stretch of the second half, Turner was unstoppable. When he didn’t score, he racked up assists. He finished the game with 16 points and 8 assists (while he averaged under 10 and 4 respectively). More impressively, he did so while humiliating Wojo, the NCAA’s supposed best defender. We all know the rest of the story (so I’ll leave the telling of it to Paul Harvey). While every member of that 1998 team played a role in the success of that game, the heroics of Wayne Turner are what avenged the most painful loss in the history of Kentucky basketball.
If the 1998 Duke victory alone isn’t enough to earn Turner a place in the hearts of Kentuckians everywhere, consider that he is currently doing something that many players promise, but few ever do: he is finishing his degree at the University of Kentucky. He is also on the current squad of the Bluegrass Stallions.
So, yes – I love Wayne Turner. With Calipari now at the helm, our expectations for the point guard position might change; we will no doubt see great point guard after great point guard don the blue and white; but if one looks through the “late 90s lens” of college basketball and the type of players it took to win at the highest level at that time, it is hard to argue that Turner is not one of the all time greats, and he will be viewed as such for the foreseeable future.
Steve Wojciechowski, on the other hand, still sucks.
In the fall of 1994, Jim Calhoon, Rick Pitino, and our own John Calipari were in a recruiting race to land a point guard from Boston by the name of Wayne Keon Turner. Calhoon and Calipari seemed to have the early leads to land Turner’s services, but out of nowhere came Rick Pitino to steal him away from Calipari. Pitino actually landing a player that Calipari wanted may seem like a foreign concept today, but it actually happened, and we’re glad it did!
When Pitino ousted Calipari to land Wayne Turner in Lexington, a coaching rivalry was born between the two Italian coaches. In this instance, we’re glad Pitino beat Calipari and brought to Lexington the winningest player in UK and NCAA history. Turner won 111 games as a Wildcat, played in two National Title games, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, won the 1998 East Regional Most Outstanding Player (one of only 9 UK players to ever earn that honor), and cut down the nets twice as a National Champion.
Turner remains the winningest player in NCAA history, but this past season a player surpassed him with the record of most games played. Another player tied this same record in 2008. The common denominator of those two players is that they broke Wayne Turner’s games played record by playing in NIT games. Deon Thompson claiming this record by playing in an NIT game in which his Tar Heels lost to Dayton last spring is about as ridiculous as the Tar Heels’ Athletic Department claiming Helms’ Titles as National Championships. The other player, Walter Hodge, claimed the “honor” in tying Turner’s record when his Florida Gators lost to UMass in the 2008 NIT. As far as I’m concerned, Turner still holds this record and an asterisk should be put beside the name of any player that reaches this feat by playing in NIT games.
My favorite memories of Turner are from the 1998 Duke game in which he led the Cats to come back from a 17 point deficit and advance to the Final Four, eventually winning the National Championship in Tubby Smith’s first season. It was Cameron Mills and Scott Padgett who made the big shots at the end to seal the victory, but Turner was the driving force of that comeback over Duke with 16 points, 8 assists, and 2 steals. Turner almost single handily brought the Cats back into the game while blitzing past ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Steve Wojciehowski over, and over, and over again.
Turner had a brief stint in the NBA with Pitino and the Boston Celtics and has played for a number of other professional teams in the states and overseas, including the Harlem Globetrotters. The thing that I love the most about Turner is that he’s kept his Kentucky ties strong. He’s currently in Lexington finishing
up his degree in Communications and Leadership Development at UK and actually still playing basketball with the ABA’s Bluegrass Stallions. I’d love to see him someday on UK’s staff. There has never been a player in the history of this storied program that knew how to win more than he did. He wasn’t one of the most talented players UK has had, but he had a “will to win” that was greater than anyone we’ve ever seen.
Turner is the ultimate winner, and no college player has won and played in more significant games in history than Wayne, but things never came easy for him. Ironically, the player who would eventually break the NCAA record for games played sat the bench for the entire duration of the 1996 National Championship game as a Freshman. He struggled with his outside shot and never averaged more than 10 points per game until his Senior year. But Turner was clutch when it mattered and without him, there would be no “Comeback Cats”, no revenge over Duke, and no seventh National Championship for Kentucky. It’s a travesty that his jersey is not hanging from the rafters of Rupp.
Wayne Turner’s last shot in a Kentucky uniform came in the 1999 NCAA Midwest Regional Final against Michigan State. With only seconds left, Turner hoisted an off-the-mark three pointer as Kentucky’s bid for a fourth straight Final Four appearance fell short, 73 — 66. Eleven years later, few fans remember Turner’s failed shot against the Spartans. After all, Turner had already defined his legacy by dismantling Duke’s Steve Wojciechowski in the Elite 8 just one year prior. What most at Kentucky have forgotten, or probably never realized in the first place, is that while Turner’s missed three against Michigan State was his last shot as a Wildcat, it was far from his last against Michigan State.
Wayne Turner enjoyed perhaps the most storied career of any player to don a Kentucky jersey. Turner played in three Final Fours, won NCAA championships in 1996 and 1998, and still holds the all time Kentucky record for steals in a career. Since his time in Lexington, though, Turner has appeared in more “Where Are They Now?” features than Robert Van Winkle. After the NBA’s Boston Celtics drafted Turner in 1999, Turner would find himself playing for various minor league teams in cities like Bismarck, North Dakota; Pikeville, Kentucky; and even Townsville, Australia. In 2000, Turner’s strangest stop came when he joined the Harlem Globetrotters.
For someone trying to make it in the basketball world professionally, the Globetrotters seemed an unlikely stepping stone. Instead of real basketball, the Globetrotters dumped buckets of confetti on opposing players, ran the weave to “Sweet Georgia Brown” and travelled more often than Perry Stevenson in a pick-up game on the Blue courts. While Turner’s jump shot might appear less out of place on the Globetrotters, his NBA ambitions certainly did not.
Signing Turner was meant to change this perception about the Globetrotters. At the time Turner joined this travelling basketball circus, Globetrotters owner and chairman Mannie Jackson was trying to revive the Globetrotter brand. According to Jackson (and anyone over the age of 6), “the Globetrotters were simply not relevant. They weren’t stylish, and they weren’t cool.” To make the Globetrotters relevant again, Jackson came up with two solutions: hire real players and play real games. Both solutions relied on Turner.
Jackson hoped that fans would recognize players “who were at Maryland or UCLA or Kentucky,” and Turner fit in perfectly. Until it was broken by UNC’s Deon Thompson, Wayne Turner held the NCAA record for most games played in a career with 151. An integral part of the most successful run of Kentucky basketball since the 1950’s, fans (and hopefully an NBA scout) would surely recognize Turner. No longer, too, would the Globetrotters repeatedly annihilate “stooge” teams like the Washington Generals, against whom the Globetrotters had amassed a 1,270 consecutive game winning streak. Now, the Globetrotters would play actual college teams.
Enter the defending NCAA champion Michigan State Spartans. Until now, the Globetrotters’ slow transition to competitive basketball had actually gone quite well. Turner’s Globetrotters convincingly beat Division II champ Metro State and defeated an NABC College All-Star team coached by Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. Michigan State, on the other hand, had lost both Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, but returned future NBA stars role players Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph (presumably before he went crazy).
On November 13th, 2000, the Globetrotters got their chance at relevancy and Turner got another shot at Michigan State. In the 1999 Elite 8, Turner turned in perhaps the worst NCAA tournament performance of his career. Despite contributing eight assists, Turner scored just five points, went 0-3 from the three point line and was generally outplayed by MSU guard Mateen Cleaves. A year later, no doubt fueled by this disappointment, Turner and the Globetrotters jumped out to a 35 — 29 halftime lead at MSU’s Breslin Center. Like Turner’s previous Kentucky teams, the Globetrotters forced turnovers with their press defense and kept the score close thanks to timely three point shooting. In the second half, Michigan State regained the lead (and its dignity). A put-back dunk by Jason Richardson made the score 64 — 51 with 3:55 left on the clock. But the Globetrotters would not go away. With just 39 seconds remaining, Globetrotter Donnie Bryce stole the ball and found, who else, but Wayne Turner streaking to the basket for a layup, cutting the deficit to 68 — 66.
That layup would, finally, be Turner’s last shot against Michigan State. Late free throws by Michigan State’s Charlie Bell sealed the win for the Spartans, but the loss earned the Globetrotters some respect and Turner a modicum of redemption. Kentucky fans will continue to remember Turner for his NCAA tournament heroics, but Turner’s shot against Michigan State created a very different legacy. Rather than a temporary stop en route to basketball obscurity, Wayne Turner was the focal point of an effort to legitimize the Harlem Globetrotters and prove that they weren’t “just clowns” playing basketball.
We’ll make this short and sweet. Overall, decent, but nothing spectacular. After reading them, my only suggestion would be that since you all mentioned how Wayne was back in Lexington playing for the Stallions and taking classes at UK, why not try to contact him and get some comments or try to get a story behind the story? Adam gets credit for finding something different and interesting and highlighting the obvious, but not dwelling on it. I’ll give him top ranking. If choosing between Wilmhoff and Gower, I’m going with Gower. If you asked me again in 10 minutes, I might have a different opinion. For now, Gower advances.