On Friday evening, a cast of Kentucky greats will be suiting up and competing in the Legends Game prior to the annual UK Alumni Game.
One of the former Wildcats competing in the event? Heshimu Evans, a key contributor on the 1998 National Championship team.
KSR sat down with Evans for an exclusive interview on growing up in New York, transferring to Kentucky and winning a title, his professional career, and life after basketball.
For Evans, growing up in the Bronx wasn’t easy. Instead of living the rough lifestyle you see in the movies, he wanted to make a name for himself the right way.
“I wanted to just be alive. I didn’t want to be persuaded to buy or sell drugs,” he said. “Seeing some of the guys with all of these nice things, the fast money, I figured I could get that stuff later on.”
While others in his community were out partying and getting into trouble, Evans was focused on basketball. After high school, he eventually decided to stay home and play at Manhattan College for former head coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla.
“I stayed home because Fran Fraschilla, one of the best ESPN analysts right now, he’s really an awesome coach. He convinced me that Manhattan was the place for me.”
In his first year at Manhattan, Evans won MAAC Rookie of the Year. He then followed it up with First Team All-MAAC honors as a sophomore in 1996.
After playing for two years under Fraschilla at Manhattan, however, Evans made the decision to transfer to Kentucky and compete for a national championship.
But why leave a star opportunity at Manhattan for a bench role at UK?
Fraschilla left for St. Johns, and the opportunity to play with the team that just won the title in 1996 was too enticing to pass up. He had been to Kentucky to work out following his freshman year at Manhattan, so the relationships were already established.
“After my freshman year, my coach thought that it would be great for me to go to Kentucky, work out with the strength coach and get better for my conference,” he said. “That enabled me to build that relationship with Rick, Jim O’Brien, and the players.”
Pitino offered Evans a scholarship, and the rest was history.
Due to transfer rules, the former Wildcat sat for one year and practiced with the team under Pitino. After the season, however, the head coach that gave him the opportunity to attend UK left for the Boston Celtics.
“Visualize that. I’m in a room with all of these All-Star players, Hall of Fame coach, great assistant coach in Frank Vogel, and Rick is going through and explaining to us that he’s leaving,” said Evans. “These guys may be really torn, but you just allowed me to come to this program and now you’re leaving.”
For Evans, however, he was just thankful to still have a scholarship.
“I’m like, “Thank you very much for allowing me to come here.” I just came from Manhattan College with a class size of 24 kids at most in the classroom to a 4,000 enrollment (at Kentucky.) I was thankful. I came from a great situation, but this is Kentucky. We know the magnitude of that.”
Pitino’s career in Boston was short-lived, and he returned back to Kentucky… 78 miles from Lexington. While many Wildcat fans resent the former UK coach for changing sidelines and going to the rival school, Evans supports his former coach wholeheartedly.
“I don’t see the ‘Oh he’s a Cardinal’ thing, he just has red on to me. I still see Rick Pitino, Hall of Fame coach that has done great things for the state of Kentucky. I thought it was great for the state.”
While Pitino was trying to make a name for himself in the professional ranks, Kentucky made the decision to hire former Tulsa and Georgia head coach Tubby Smith.
Though Smith inherited five players from the 1996 championship team and seven from the runner-up squad in 1997, Evans was adamant that it wasn’t as simple as rolling the ball out and winning games as some fans make it out to be.
“You have to look at the bigger picture here,” Evans said. “We have an African-American coach, the first time ever at the University of Kentucky. That’s a lot of pressure. At the end of the day, you have a group of kids and you have to put them together and make them work.”
He compared the process to John Calipari’s work every year, bringing in top talent and competing for a title year in and year out. To put it simply, it’s tough to make it work.
“Coach Cal takes a group of kids, a new bunch, and makes it work all the time. That’s very challenging as a coach. I have these great players, now how can I put them together to win a championship?”
And when Tubby Smith was able to put the puzzle pieces together in his first year at Kentucky, Evans became just one of eight title teams in the program’s history. In his eyes, that in itself is special.
“You don’t really understand the magnitude of that until you’re done,” Evans said. “What an honor to win a national championship in my first year playing here. That’s a blessing if you ask me. I like to call that a God wink.”
After graduating in 1999, Evans worked out for Rick Pitino and the Boston Celtics, but left training camp for an opportunity to sign immediately with a team in France. That led him to 14 different clubs in 14 years overseas, living and playing in six different countries.
When a player leaves the country to play overseas, however, fans rarely get the opportunity to follow them as closely. They become so distant that we don’t get to see their professional lifestyle like we do with players in the NBA.
In fact, we sometimes forget about the cultural differences, language barriers, and other major life changes these players go through that we take for granted.
Evans credits his ability to overcome some of those initial struggles to his time traveling around the world with his AAU basketball program in high school.
“Jamal Mashburn, Mark Jackson, John Salley, all these guys came from the New York City Gauchos AAU program. I came from there too,” Evans said. “It allowed us to travel to different countries at a very young age.”
With Evans, he just rolled with the punches and made the most of the opportunity.
“For France, I was there for one year. Japan, we had a translator, so that was a little difficult to pick that up. You pick up on some of the words and phrases you hear every day. So then you know how to use some of their words and they think you’re really cool. In Portugal, I was there so long that I actually picked up the language.”
He went on to win several titles playing overseas, including six alone in Portugal. His career was a massive success, playing all the way up until the age of 38 in 2013.
But for the former Wildcat, nothing compares to the ring he got at Kentucky in 1998.
“When it comes to winning in Europe or Africa or Asia, it’s a great experience, but it’s nothing like being an NCAA champion.”
After retiring from professional basketball, Evans packed his bags and headed home.
But after growing up in New York and living in six different countries over the span of 14 years, his heart was somewhere he had only lived for two years of his life. For Evans, home was the state of Kentucky.
After some brief discussions with local high schools about coaching, Evans decided it was in his best interest to start up his own brand, “Heshimu Hoop Skills,” where he could mentor and tutor kids of all talent levels with dreams of playing basketball.
He got the idea from working with kids at various camps in Mumbai, India, and decided he wanted to start spreading that same love of basketball to the local youth in Lexington.
“I had this idea that I wanted to create this mobile basketball academy,” Evans said. “So I come up with “Heshimu Hoop Skills,” where you get a chance to work on your hoops when you come to me. I like to mentor kids, make sure they have the proper nutrition, teach them life skills, fundamentals, and details.”
Tomorrow night, the former Wildcat will return to Rupp Arena and suit up in blue and white once again for the Legends game, where he will team up with guys like Goose Givens and Kyle Macy to take on the likes of Jarrod Polson, Julius Mays, and Ravi Moss.
At 42-years-old, Evans is ready to show the world what he has left in the tank.
“We’re expecting a nice reunion. I get to see all these guys that came through the program and left a mark, so that’s going to be fun,” said Evans. “I think I’m in great shape, but we’re going to see if I’m out there huffing and puffing.”
If you haven’t purchased your tickets yet, go to Ticketmaster and purchase them now to see the former Kentucky stars of all ages compete.
While you’re at it, head on over to HeshimuHoopSkills.com and get some personal instruction for your child (or yourself) from a national champion.
You can listen to our entire interview below:
Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR