Derek Willis will play the last game of his career in Rupp Arena tonight. First let me say, I’m grateful for all three seniors’ resolute commitment to the game that means so much to the people of this state. With that said, Derek Willis’ career has been one that I’ve greatly valued for a multitude of different reasons. I feel as if I owe him this post to express my gratitude, as well as offer my apologies.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t believe in Derek. During his first couple seasons, I didn’t think he’d finish his college career wearing a Kentucky jersey. I know there were a lot of fans, whether they admit it or not, who would’ve agreed with me. Even though Dominique Hawkins was also a Kentucky native, Derek was the one fans looked to, to add to our state’s proud legacy of homegrown talent. Managing that kind of expectation, I’d imagine is extremely cumbersome, regardless of the individual. After Derek’s first few seasons didn’t quite go as planned, a sense of doubt started to loom over the fan base.
A very small percentage of people have ever been in the situation Willis was after his first two years. Being able to empathize with this certain situation is something virtually no one can do. Derek, the darling of BBN, was under the microscope of the largest college basketball fan base in the world. Imagine that for a second. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people, most of whom you’ve never met before. At the same instant, those people know details about your life as minuscule as your girlfriend’s first name. People that love you for your gift to play basketball. People that have high expectations for you. It’s human nature to not want to let those people down. Now imagine watching all those people slowly start to turn their back on you. Neglect on that scale is paralyzing and anyone’s immediate inclination would be to capitulate. Not Derek.
Joe Nichols has a country song titled, “If Nobody Believed in You.” The central message of the song deals with the emotional harm that can be done to individuals by the insensitivity of others. The song puts in perspective how fragile one’s will can be in the face of doubt. With that in mind, what Derek was able to do in the second half of his career is admirable. The easy way out would’ve been to quit or transfer, yet, he never despaired. Instead, he persisted and discovered a new level of self-discipline. He had the courage to admit he hadn’t committed himself to the game nearly to the degree he should have. That kind of self-honesty is not something that comes easily.
He finally silenced his critics, myself included, with his breakout game against UCLA in Pauley Pavillion. Despite suffering a loss, it was the start of a brand new chapter in a young player’s career. He proved the UCLA game was anything but a fluke as he went on to log five times as many minutes and six times as many points as he did in his first two seasons combined. He added a whole new, unexpected, dynamic to a team that desperately needed his abilities. His deadly accurate shot and length, allowed the passing lanes to widen and more scoring opportunities to present themselves. He quickly became a weapon, a player that teams scouted heavily and schemed against. It all happened so fast, we as fans could hardly believe it.
In just a year’s time, Willis went from what everyone thought was a lost cause to the most important player on the court. It’s easy to marginalize his success by saying he simply decided to stop being lazy, or he just got more playing time because of a thin roster. It is not fair to do such a thing. Derek earned his success by courageously conquering public skepticism and doubt. That kind of display of character is something we rarely see in daily society.
Derek, even during days of prosperity, faced public criticism. I refuse to acknowledge the blemishes he has had off the court, as that is a very shallow way of thinking, and because no living soul on Earth has lived a mistake-free life. Focusing on individual instances of good or bad in ones life, detracts from the view of the overall person. I do not know Derek personally, so therefore I am in no position to judge what kind of person he is. My goal with this post was not to prove Derek Willis is a good person. I do have a profound respect for what he’s done in a Kentucky uniform, that is why I felt this post was necessary.
Personally, I have a different layer of appreciation for what Derek has contributed to Kentucky basketball. I not only am appreciative for what he’s done on the court, but I am thankful for how good of a sport he has been through it all. With his improvement in play a year ago, came an explosion in popularity among UK fans, KSR fans in particular. The hot new joke became the “That’s So Bullitt County” movement.
I feel a certain level of responsibility and guilt in perpetuating that joke. I was behind the “Mt. Washington Derek” parody twitter account, that attributed Derek with a faux persona which played off the roughneck stereotypes that often get associated with Bullitt Co. I never intended any harm with the account, I just thought it might be something fun for UK fans to enjoy. They were only jokes, but admittedly I lost perspective on exactly what I was doing which was making a mockery of an innocent person’s name with false information. While there was never a shred of harm intended, I understand now the implications such things can lead to. So, to Derek and his family, I apologize.
Despite being the punchline to numerous jokes, Derek seemed to be a very good sport through it all. I can imagine how weird and confusing having a whole set of jokes revolve around you would be. It would be easy to lash out in anger in defense of yourself but the evidence shows Willis might have even embraced it which is a testament to his character.
Again, I have no less appreciation for the other two seniors than I do for Willis. They’ve all contributed way more than we realize to sculpting an exceptional basketball team which we get the privilege of watching. However, this subject was a personal one for me and I felt that I owed Derek respect, where respect was due, especially after counting him out as a player. He’s a player that we’ll remember forever and I think it’s important that he is aware of our unequivocal gratitude. I speak not only on my behalf but on the behalf of the entire Big Blue Nation when I say, “Thanks, Derek.”