Right now, the name "Kentucky" resonates throughout the sports world and is associated with the term greatness.
Undefeated, 36-0, perhaps the “greatest” college basketball team of all-time. But do you remember when Kentucky wasn’t so “great?” Of course not. Many who may be reading this article know that Coach John Calipari is the king and poster child for the one-and-done era, helping Kentucky create the NBA’s next legend in players like Anthony Davis while helping continue the success of a University that manufactured two national titles in three years back in 1996 and 1998. Or you could be a basketball lover who remembers that UK has been to the Final Four 16 times and played in 12 national championship games. But for those fans and sports connoisseurs who remember everything, Kentucky was black and blue in more ways than just their uniform colors.
Venture back to 1989 where one of the country’s most storied programs was under investigation for recruiting and academic rules violations. An investigation that resulted in a three-year probation sentence handed down by the NCAA also included a two-year ban on postseason play and a one-year ban on television appearances. Many consider UK to be lucky as it could have been justified to shutdown the program for regular-season play as well. With a calculated revenue loss upwards of over a million dollars (remember this is 1989), the most devastating portion of this would be the inability to persuade top talent to choose Kentucky as their school of choice. However, a recently fired coach from the famed New York Knicks had a plan on how to restore this once elite program back to its rightful place.
Enter Rick Pitino.
With an incredible uphill climb in front of him, Pitino decided that in order to build for the future he had to recruit with a set of blueprints for what was next as he couldn’t sell what was now. His key target was none other than a 6-foot-8 swingman out of New York City who knew all about him because of his stint with the Knicks. The pitch was complete as one of the nation's most sought after recruits, Jamal Mashburn, decided to take a chance on Pitino’s plan and “Big Blue”.
Mash would just about single-handedly alter the history of Kentucky basketball. After being the named a Parade All-American as well as Mr. Basketball in theState of New York, he would become the first blue chip player to sign with the dormant program, opening the door for other top recruits to know that it was more than ok to consider Kentucky as a destination of choice again. Jamal established himself as a force in college basketball, helping to lead his team out of exile all the way to the 1992 regional final in the Wildcats’ first year of eligibility to return to The Big Dance. In only three seasons Mash would end his junior season ranking sixth on the school’s career points list with 1,843. He would post averages of 18.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting over 51% from the floor for his career. He was rewarded with a First-Team All-American honor in his final season and went on to become the fourth overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft.
Back in 2013, Rick Pitino was asked who was the greatest player that he has ever coached. Without hesitation, “Mash” was his top choice and it has to be for more reasons than what was accomplished on the actual basketball court. The school and fans of Kentucky who are following this historic run to “greatness” should all take a second to remember that it had to start somewhere. Sure there could have been another player to fulfill this opportunity at some point, but it takes a special kind of PERSON to take a chance when everyone else is telling them it is a deathtrap. Pitino and Mashburn established a new Blue-print and now Calipari is using it to rewrite history.
Nothing but #RESPECT.