If you’ve been to or watched a Kentucky Basketball game in the past two seasons, you’ve heard them: a pack of loud, proud women behind the basket in shirts and hats bearing the name and likeness of No. 5, Immanuel Quickley. Their trademark cheers ring through Rupp Arena, welcomed trills of joy in an often-dead environment.
“I like to wait until the crowd is silent and go, WHOOP, WHOOP!” Quickley’s grandmother Ellen Hamilton said.
“DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” Aunt Demetria Caldwell chanted.
“There are a lot of cheers,” his mother Nitrease said, laughing.
There are also a lot of shirts. Ellen made the first one when Quickley was in high school with iron-on letters and numbers. As his career advanced, so did the designs: Quickley’s face in rhinestones, the silhouette of his jump shot in Kentucky blue, the interlocking UK logo embedded in his name. As we waited for Quickley to join us in the upper concourse of Rupp Arena following Kentucky’s win over UAB on Nov. 29, the family tried to count up all the shirts they’ve made. Easily more than 20. At least five new ones this season.
Wherever Quickley goes, these women follow. They have traveled to the Bahamas, Spain, Italy, and even Egypt to watch him play. They’ve organized packs of family members to support him at games across the country, with over 30 in Atlanta for the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game and a few dozen in New York to see the Cats play Michigan State to start the season.
“It’s like having a homecourt advantage,” Quickley said once he joined us. “It’s great to have that kind of support, just knowing I’ve got to represent them well while I’m trying to represent myself well.”
After doling out hugs, Quickley introduced each woman. Nitrease insisted on going last, so he started with Caldwell, aka “Aunt Meechie,” a business analyst who works remotely and has never missed a game at Rupp. In her bright pink UK hat and “Aunt Squad” attire, she’s easy to spot in the crowd and plays “Good Cop” to Nitrease’s “Bad Cop.”
“She’s a bundle of energy,” Quickley said. “Always been positive, never negative. I guess if there was one thing you could criticize her on, she never is negative. Never. Always positive.”
“She doesn’t tell the truth sometimes,” Nitrease added, rolling her eyes at her sister.
“I tell the right truths,” Caldwell said. “Remember that.”
Caldwell is her nephew’s biggest cheerleader on social media. In addition to tweeting pictures from games and press clippings, she and Quickley have a lengthy “Snap Streak,” aka consecutive days they’ve sent each other a message on Snap Chat.
“I think we’ve got a Snap Streak of 235 days right now and it’s broken but it probably should be about a thousand now,” Quickley said.
Next up is little sister Shiloah, a miniature version of Quickley with long braids.
“Shiloah, the best sister in the world,” Quickley said of his younger sibling. “It’s good to have someone to look up to you like Shiloah does. I’ve always got to watch what I’m doing, make sure I’m a positive role model.”
Quickley calls Ellen “Precious” for the extra love she gives him.
“My grandmother, she’s the best, best grandmother in the whole world,” Quickley said. “So many memories. She always spoils me, even when I was little. I remember a story, she was cooking breakfast and gave me all the bacon, and when my mom got back, she was upset I ate all the bacon.”
“I just wanted a piece!” Nitrease said.
Nitrease is a high school teacher near Quickley’s hometown in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. She, Ellen, and Shiloah can’t be at every game like Caldwell, but make the trek whenever their schedule allows. Now her turn for praise, she teased her son to take his time.
“She always tells the truth, always keeps it honest with me. If I do something wrong, she tells me how it is. If I do something right, she encourages me because she has the perfect balance of being a great mother that tells me what I need to hear and being encouraging and things like that. She’s raised me up as best a mom could, in the Lord, helps me with the game of basketball, with schoolwork, she helps me. It’s the best I could ask for.”
“It’s really important to me,” Quickley said of having these women in the stands. “My whole life, they’ve supported me through ups and downs. It all started with basketball when I was four and now I’m 20, so it’s been a long 16 years. A long, good 16 years.”
Wildly enough, it was a journey that started against his mother’s wishes.
Nitrease Quickley did not want her baby boy to play basketball — not yet, at least. A former college basketball player herself, she wanted her son to have lots of interests and activities, not just the one she knew would eventually take over his life; however, one day, her sister took matters into her own hands. Caldwell coached a group of five and six-year-olds, and didn’t have enough players to field a team. Enter four-year-old Quickley, who had tagged along that day. Caldwell put a shirt on him and told him to go, “Shoot the ball!”
He did. And he made almost every shot.
“I knew I was better than everybody,” Quickley said. “And my mom wouldn’t let me play yet but when I got in I tried to shoot every time and pretty much scored every time and the older players kept giving me the ball.”
Caldwell and Quickley were thrilled, but Nitrease was not.
“He’s not supposed to play yet!” she exclaimed at her sister.
“But he took over!” Caldwell retorted. “He made every bucket!”
“She was like, ‘You put him in the game?!’” Quickley recalled. “‘What are you doing, he’s not supposed to play yet!’ But it ended up kind of getting me to where I am right now.”
“I knew once he started basketball everything else would probably stop and he’d fall in love with it,” Nitrease sighed.
Nitrease was half right. Quickley did fall in love with basketball, but that just made her more determined to keep his life balanced. The family kept Quickley off the travel circuit for as long as possible, coaching him in rec leagues themselves.
“The AAU coaches were kind of fighting for him at a young age. I was like, ‘No, we’re not going to do all of that.’ He’s very young. He doesn’t need to be traveling in hotels and stuff at the age of nine. So, he played rec. ball and we coached him there and did it that way.”
When Quickley was ten, he hit his first buzzer-beater. Afterwards, the announcers said, “Someone’s not going to be able to sleep tonight!” That wound up being Nitrease, not her son.
“We were coaching the team and we were down to seconds left and Immanuel hit a buzzer-beater three that won the game, so they take the ten-year-old and put him on their shoulders and parade him around the gym like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ You know, you have those games where can’t sleep that night or the next day. I think that happened for me when he was ten. How could you even sleep – he just won the championship for the nine and ten-year-olds!”
Music was also an important part of the equation. Piano lessons started at age six, but as a two-year-old, Quickley started banging around on pots and pans. It was only a matter of time before he took over the drum set at church.
“He would hope the drummer would be out of town or would be running late and he’d run to get on the drums,” Nitrease said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, please play on beat.’ And he got the beat and it’s just all in him now.”
At his mother’s request, Quickley continued to play the piano and also picked up the saxophone, but drums remain his favorite. As he grew older and basketball became more intense, his mother noticed he was spending more and more time at the church with “his sticks.”
“I think it’s a release for him. I’ve always encouraged him to find something other than basketball to let out of the frustration and the energy. There’s a lot of pressure playing basketball at the University of Kentucky so you have to find an outlet.”
The family found a church in Lexington where Quickley can play the drums whenever he likes. He visited frequently during the offseason.
“With the season going on, it’s rare [that I get to go play] but during the summer I was pretty much going at least once or twice every week just to play the drums and clear my mind and have fun with that. Just by myself. Maybe an hour, hour and thirty minutes [each visit].”
This past summer was one of transition for Quickley, who decided to return to Kentucky for a sophomore season on April 12. After averaging 5.2 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 18.5 minutes as a freshman, the NBA Draft wasn’t an immediate option, but instead of going through evaluations like some of his teammates, he elected to just get back in the gym and go to work.
“I knew what I wanted to do and as soon as I knew I wanted to come back, I made the decision right away. Got in the gym, worked on my game the whole summer. Traveled a little bit here and there getting better. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
“I think that was something he knew he wanted to do,” his mother echoed. “We’ve always encouraged him never to run from a challenge. Life is full of struggles and I think some of my family members have taken the struggle out of it –”
Cue a pointed glance in Good Cop’s direction.
“You don’t have to struggle, Manny Man!” Caldwell exclaimed.
“I’ve always encouraged him,” Nitrease continued. “Hey, do this yourself. Try this. Push yourself. Okay, figure out how to do it on your own. So, I think for him, he embraces challenge and he welcomes it.”
As the season approached, Quickley’s improvement became one of John Calipari’s favorite talking points. Calipari told reporters at Media Day that the sophomore guard was a totally different player than the year before. Now a seasoned veteran of the system herself (she even put Ls Down on the jumbotron Saturday night), Nitrease mostly chalked it up as “Cal-speak” – until she saw the transformation with her own eyes.
“When I first came back to visit and watch him play I didn’t know who he was. I had watched Coach Cal talk about him, like ‘He’s not even the same person,’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’ ‘His confidence is at a different level and he’s a leader on this team.’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’ But I come into the gym and I see him focused and he just has a new mentality that I think emerges after you have been here. And there’s a maturity that comes through being in Lexington for more than one year.”
Quickley credits the changes in his game not just to extra time in the gym, but also to extra time with his Bible. Daily devotionals have become as important a part of his routine as free throws and skill work.
“As a freshman, really I think it’s just mentally,” Quickley said of the changes he made over the summer. “I feel like I was pretty good from my freshman year to my sophomore year; there wasn’t that much difference physically, but mentally, I started reading my Bible more. Waking up, reading my Bible, [reading it again] before I go to sleep. Just mentally trying to get to a place where nothing could affect me. When I miss a shot I come down and shoot the same shot the next play. Just that mental aspect was real big for me this year.”
It’s showing. Through nine games (one of which he missed with a chest injury), Quickley is averaging 12.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in 26.5 minutes, an impressive increase from last season. He led Kentucky in scoring during the preseason and has become the team’s most reliable three-point shooter, connecting on 36.7% of his attempts. Those numbers are nice, but he’s also improved as a defender, which may please Calipari even more.
“I didn’t realize how well Immanuel Quickley played defense in [the Michigan State game] until I watched it for a second time,” Calipari said a month ago. “He was ridiculous.”
Calipari put Quickley back in the starting lineup vs. Georgia Tech and the sophomore responded, tying his career-high with 16 points. His performance furthered the case for a three-guard lineup, which Calipari admitted is Kentucky’s strongest right now, even if it means other players (Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney) have to take a step back.
“If those three deserve to play together, it is what it is,” Cal said of Quickley, Ashton Hagans, and Tyrese Maxey. “What, am I going to cheat one of those guys because I’m trying to get – no.”
“I think a lot of people are starting to see those changes,” Quickley said. “I’m really aggressive offensively and defensively and I’m just trying to do the best things to help my team out.”
Quickley’s time in Lexington hasn’t come without struggles. Like any Kentucky Basketball player, he’s had to adjust to the constant spotlight and sky-high expectations. As the family member around him the most, Caldwell picks up on the signs.
“I know when he thinks it’s been a struggle is when he leaves a game and goes straight to the gym. In his mind, even if I say, ‘You did this well, you did that well,’ he’ll be like, ‘I didn’t do well enough for me.’ And that’s when it becomes important because we know what his desire is for the next level and as long as he stays hungry and ambitious in that manner, he’ll be fine.”
When things are going well, it’s easy to get caught up in the rock star lifestyle of private jets, fancy dinners, and adoration, which Quickley admits is “really cool”; however, his mother makes sure he stays tethered to reality.
“I like to tell him, if he doesn’t wash, he’ll stink, just to kind of let him know that you have to stay humble and he knows it,” Nitrease said.
Little sister Shiloah is also great at reality checks, telling a story about how Quickley came home from school one day and put a Chick-Fil-A bag in the microwave – without realizing it was aluminum and had a staple in it. The bag caught on fire, creating an unforgettable smell.
“He’s just a normal person,” Shiloah said. “I’m not saying he’s not special because I think he’s special, but he’s a normal human being. Like, he’s not scary to talk to”
During a recent trip to Lexington, the Quickley family went to church and Caldwell noticed a little girl staring at her nephew, working up the courage to go talk to him.
“She went over there and hid behind her mom and wouldn’t speak and Immanuel’s words to her were, ‘I’m nobody. I’m excited to meet you. I’m nervous to meet you.’ I think he treats life like that. He encourages everyone and he wants to bring everybody together.”
When together, the group likes to play UNO, although, when I brought it up, it became clear the card game isn’t always a light-hearted affair.
“I don’t think there’s any debate that I’m the best player in the family,” Quickley proclaimed.
“I think there’s definitely a debate about being the best,” Caldwell shot back. “We are very competitive. Everybody is for themselves. Even [Shiloah]. As cute as she is, ‘Take ya L!’ We give them out.”
“Now, you know I’m the best UNO player,” Nitrease said.
From there, the group erupted with dissent, bringing up a recent game in which Nitrease got so frustrated she left the room and went back to watching basketball. According to her, it’s because the family changed the rules without telling her. According to them, it’s because she couldn’t handle the pressure.
“Tell the truth,” Quickley teased, mimicking his mother’s favorite phrase.
What will happen with Quickley and this Kentucky Basketball team remains to be seen, but his family is confident he has the tools to make the jump to the next level. When times get tough, his mother likes to remind him that when he was six-years old, he told her wanted to go to an elite private school that the family couldn’t afford. She told him he better work hard and pray hard to make it happen. He did.
“You know you wanted to achieve this? Guess what? You worked hard and it worked out. So, in the mindset of working hard and in the mindset of knowing where you came from and you’re no better than anybody else, you just have to put the work in.”
Where will this family be at the end of the season?
“That’s a good question,” Quickley said. “Time will tell.”
“Wherever he is,” Caldwell said.
“Around the table,” Precious added.
Hopefully playing UNO.