Kentucky core talent leads back to Texas and Kenny Troutt
DALLAS -- Behind Kenny Troutt's 17,000 square-foot mansion, there is a basketball gym, its sidelines lined with oversized beanbags and big leather couches. There's a workout room in back, a full kitchen and glass doors that showcase a garden and pool. That's all an addendum to the house itself.
To understand how Kentucky arrived in the national championship game opposite Connecticut, start here, in Texas, with the team -- and the gym -- that Troutt built. Troutt is not the coach of the Texas Titans. He has three of those, along with a general manager, a physical therapist, a skills instructor, a videographer, a photographer and a statistician. He is more like the owner -- of perhaps America's most opulent youth basketball program. His gym cost more than $1 million and took eight months to build. His players -- and their parents -- travel on private planes and stay in luxury hotels, in adjoining rooms. As the Titans practiced Saturday, security patrolled the grounds -- former Dallas SWAT team members, Troutt said.
Julius Randle, the most lauded of Kentucky's ballyhooed freshman class and a likely NBA lottery pick in the June draft, starred for Troutt. Randle is part of the Wildcats' all-freshman starting lineup, three-fifths of which the Lone Star State produced. Those three -- Randle, along with Houston-area natives Aaron and Andrew Harrison -- turned Kentucky from preseason bust to title game favorite the last three weeks.
"You're seeing Texas basketball now," Troutt said Saturday, inside the gym's kitchen, as sneakers squeaked on the court nearby. "You're seeing two major things: organizations that have been built and good coaches in place. Texas is one of the highest-recruited places in basketball right now. But what Julius and those guys are doing is big.
"They're going to be rock stars."
Texas remains a football state, of course, home of the Dallas Cowboys, America's team; its owner, the bombastic Jerry Jones; and his palatial spaceship of a stadium, sponsored by AT&T but better known as Jerry's World. The national championship game on Monday night will take place there, and perhaps Jones will again host the celebrity quarterback Johnny Manziel (naturally a Texas product) in his suite as he did for the national semifinals.
But while football will always occupy the core of the Texas sports fan's soul, basketball, which has always been good here but has rarely been better, is making a play for a slice. In this land of $60 million high school football stadiums, 10 McDonald's All-Americans in the past two years came from or played some high school basketball in Texas. Baylor and the University of Texas made the NCAA tournament. So did Oklahoma State, its roster laden with Texans, including star guard Marcus Smart. Southern Methodist advanced to the NIT finals.
Kentucky, though, behind its trio of natives that turned Lone Star into a misnomer, spotlighted this Texas basketball upswing. Someone even asked Aaron Harrison on Sunday if he figured people would name their kids after him. He laughed.
"Just being in Texas is great," he said.
On Friday, relatives of Kentucky players gathered at Jeff Webster's house, down the road from Allen High, site of the $60 million stadium. Webster is one of the Titans' coaches and Randle's closest mentor. Aaron Harrison Sr. was there, too, and as he and Webster tore through decidedly Texan fare -- ribs, brisket, everything barbecued -- they kicked around reasons for the basketball uptick in their home state.
Harrison Sr. founded his own AAU program, the Houston Defenders, a team so skilled that Under Armour sponsored it. That accounted for part of the growth, he said, more teams and more coaches and more resources invested. The coaches also said that head injuries in football played a role, pushing more of the best athletes into other sports. That, combined with the sheer volume of available athletes, with the success of college programs and three NBA teams, boosted participation.
"Don't sleep on Texas basketball," Webster said. "It's better than you think." As he said that, his two children shot baskets on a half-court lit under lights that he installed. A toddler with pink shoes and pink hair ribbons dribbled nearby. A sand volleyball pit sat unused. Here was a basketball oasis in football country.
Troutt built his gym mainly so his children could train there. He had played football at Southern Illinois in college, and his kids showed an interest in baseball first. He built them a baseball field, but they quit before construction was even finished. When they started in basketball, a sport he knew little about, he shifted plans, started two teams, named both the Titans.
Before basketball, Trout founded Excel Communications in 1988. He sold the company 10 years later for more than $3 billion and retired. Now, he owns WinStar, a thoroughbred farm about 15 miles from Kentucky's campus.
The idea to build a team came from Rick Pitino, the coach at Louisville who knows Troutt from the horse world. Pitino made an off-hand remark about Troutt's resources and how he should have his own team. Something clicked.
Troutt concedes that others are likely to view his endeavor in a negative light, to see his methods as excessive. He disagrees with that assessment. His first team sent seven players to college on basketball scholarships (an eighth, his son, also plays at Penn). This team is expected to do the same. "You look at kids today, and I don't care where they are, they're kind of spoiled," he said. "They have an entitlement attitude. Our kids listen to speakers every Tuesday. They go to school. They work."
At that moment, Avery Johnson, the former NBA coach and former NBA player, walked into the kitchen. His son plays for Troutt's team. Troutt gave Johnson tickets, for an NCAA tournament played in Texas, to watch a team that features three starters from the Lone Star state. It was a handoff, but a basketball one. There seem to be more of those these days.