Last night, not long after Marlana Vanhoose won the hearts of America, the Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA Championship over LeBron James and his band of misfits. It was the most watched series since Michael Jordan’s last stand in 1998 and it doubled the viewership of LeBron’s first Finals appearance in 2007. Not to mention, the storyline of league MVP versus under-manned LeBron in his homecoming made it one of the best NBA Finals ever. It was must-see basketball, even for all of the NBA haters.
About halfway through last night’s game, I received a text from a friend who was in a bar argument with a North Carolina fan over how many former Wildcats have won NBA titles. The UNC fan had the upperhand in the battle of the two schools — it’s tough to compete with Jordan, Worthy and all the other UNC greats — but he tried to argue Kentucky produced only two NBA champs. So I’m here tonight to correct him with a list of all of the Cats who went on to win NBA rings…
As a player: Los Angeles Lakers (1972)
As a head coach: Los Angeles Lakers (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988); Miami Heat (2006)
As an assistant: Los Angeles Lakers (1980)
As an executive: Miami Heat (2012, 2013)
Without question the most decorated NBA champion to come out of Kentucky, Pat Riley is one ring shy of a full hand. Though he won only one as a player, Riley is a nine-time NBA World Champion at various roles throughout his 40+ seasons in the NBA. He claimed his first ring in 1972 as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, coming off the bench and holding the incredibly difficult role of defending Jerry West in practice. He would later win another as an assistant in L.A. in 1980, before taking five more as the head coach of the Lakers from 1981-90. Riley picked up another as head coach of the Miami Heat, then two more as a GM when he brought LeBron James to South Beach.
Boston Celtics (1957, 1959, 1960-64)
The Wildcat with the most rings as a player, Frank Ramsey was a member of the Boston Celtics during the early part of the Celtics’ dynasty that took 11 of 13 NBA Championships in the 50s and 60s. Ramsey played a major role during that run, averaging over 13 points per game over his nine-year career. The pride of Madisonville, Ky, Ramsey was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981.
At the University of Kentucky, Ramsey was a three-time All-American in his three seasons in Lexington. He helped the Wildcats win the 1951 NCAA Championship and he currently sits at No. 27 on the school’s all-time scoring list. He was ranked fourth in points and first in rebounds when his time at UK ended.
Ramsey is often referred to as the NBA’s first sixth man, a role created by Celtics head coach Red Auerbach.
Boston Celtics (1957, 1959)
Along with Ramsey, his Boston teammate, Lou Tsioropoulos is the only other Wildcat with multiple titles as a player. Tsioropoulos was a member of Ramsey’s first two title teams with the Celtics, backing up Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn at small forward. He played three seasons in the NBA with appearances in 157 games with 5.8 points per contest.
Tsioropoulos left Kentucky for the NBA with Ramsey and Cliff Hagan in 1953, the year before the “death penalty” season.
He served as principal of Jefferson County High School in Louisville after his basketball career.
Rochester Royals (1951)
Noel was the first Wildcat to win a championship at the professional level when he and the Rochester Royals took the crown in 1951.
He played one season at Kentucky in 1942-43, but had to drop out to help on the family farm once his father became ill.
A native of Midway, Ky, Noel also served as mayor of Versailles in the 1980s.
St. Louis Hawks (1958)
One of the all-time greats to come out of UK, Cliff Hagan was a star on the St. Louis Hawks team that stole a title from the Celtics during the C’s unprecedented run. Originally drafted by Boston with Ramsey and Tsioropoulos, Hagan was traded to St. Louis for a man named Bill Russell. (Russell turned out to be pretty good.) The Hawks won that 1958 series, 4-2. Hagan and Bob Pettit were the leaders of that team.
Hagan currently ranks 17th on UK’s all-time scoring list.
Portland Trail Blazers (1977)
A two-time All-SEC selection at Kentucky, Larry Steele went on to play nine seasons in the NBA, all with the Portland Trail Blazers. Steele and the Blazers won the 1977 NBA World Championship, the only championship in the franchise’s 45-year history. The headliners of that series were Bill Walton, Steele’s Portland teammate, and Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Blazers retired Steele’s jersey in 1981.
Washington Bullets (1978)
Following Steele’s 1977 title was another Wildcat NBA champion, Kevin Grevey. Grevey was a two-time All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year for Kentucky in the early 70s and the 18th overall pick in the 1975 NBA Draft. He was selected by the Washington Bullets and he was a key member of the Bullets ’78 title team in his third year in the league. He started at shooting guard that season and averaged 15.5 points per game. It is the Bullets/Wizards’ only championship season.
Boston Celtics (1981)
Rick Robey won the title with the Boston Celtics in 1981 before a 20+ year drought without a Wildcat winning an NBA ring. Three years before winning Boston’s 14th championship, Robey helped guide Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA Championship. He scored 20 points in the ’78 title game, overshadowed by Goose Givens’ 41-point outburst.
Detroit Pistons (2004)
The first of the modern NBA champs from UK, Tayshaun Prince was a starter on the 2004 Detroit Pistons team that upset the heavy-favorited Los Angeles Lakers. The 2003-04 Lakers were the NBA’s first “super team,” led by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, but the Pistons did not back down from the four future Hall of Famers. Detroit won Game 1 in Los Angeles and took the series in five games. Prince was assigned to Kobe Bryant and his defense was a major factor in the upset win.
San Antonio Spurs (2005)
One season after Prince’s ring, another Wildcat lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy when Nazr Mohammed and the Spurs won the championship. Mohammed spent the first half of the season with the Knicks, but a midseason trade had him starting at center alongside Tim Duncan in San Antonio. The former two-time NCAA champ at UK averaged seven points and seven boards in that playoff run.
Antoine Walker and Derek Anderson
Miami Heat (2006)
Two of the stars of Kentucky’s 1996 championship squad teamed up to win one together in the NBA ten years later with the Miami Heat. Antoine Walker started at forward for that Heat team, while Derek Anderson backed up a young Dwyane Wade at shooting guard. That team also had Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton. Walker was Miami’s third-leading scorer in the playoffs.
Boston Celtics (2008)
And last but not least, we all remember Rajon Rondo and the Celtics in 2008. That team defeated the Lakers in six games to bring Boston its first title since 1986. Though Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the stars, Rondo’s play at point guard was just as important. His 16 assists in Game 2 were the most in a Finals game since Magic Johnson in 1991.
Many more to come, very soon…