Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky is the ultimate team player and has the Badgers on the cusp of a national title.
INDIANAPOLIS—On the occasion of his 22nd birthday on Saturday, Frank Kaminsky got what he wanted: A sack of caramel corn. It is one of his stepmother’s specialties and one of his absolute favorites; family members delivered it to him during an hour-long visit to his room at the Omni Severin Hotel in Indy. They brought birthday cards and other assorted gifts, too, but the goodie bag was the highlight, the only present Kaminsky bothered to note when asked about his haul the next day.
For Wisconsin’s All-America forward, this figured: Not long before the most momentous game of his basketball life, a Final Four clash with undefeated Kentucky, one of the most important players in the country was acting precisely like a kid in a candy store. First, receive confection. Then attack perfection.
Frankie is always the same,” his father, Frank Sr., said Sunday. “He doesn’t really change. He’s just Frankie.”
Immersed as we are in the ephemeral freshman star era of college basketball, let us take a moment to appreciate the rare senior who is a different kind of one-and-done. We will watch Kaminsky play his final game for Wisconsin on Monday night, and there likely will not be another like him. Who could imagine another faintly recruited prospect enduring two generally anonymous years at a power conference school, staying the course to become a national player of the year, all while demonstrating no discernible self-awareness as he danced and strapped GoPro cameras to his chest and defended his skills in FIFA 14 Soccer.
There is but one Frank the Tank, a singular college hoops character following as exceptional a path as any. And Monday will be his final act.
“Sometimes I look back and think, how is it possible that he is the national player of the year and how good he is, just by the way he acts and the way he used to be,” Wisconsin senior guard Josh Gasser said. “It’s crazy. The great thing about him is, he’s always stayed himself. He’s gotten a lot of media attention, everywhere you go people are trying to get pictures and autographs. But he’s still stayed himself, stayed relaxed and had fun.”
It appears he will to the very end. Kaminsky is averaging 22.2 points per game during the Badgers’ run to a title game showdown with Duke, the highest rate in the tournament. He collected three national player of the year honors (Naismith, AP and USBWA) over the last week. No one would have expected this when Kaminsky was but a wiry forward from Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill., wielding all of three major-conference scholarship offers. The contrast prompted a question Sunday: If Kaminsky as he has said never felt like The Man back then, a reporter asked, does he feel like The Man now?
Kaminsky, momentarily stunned, looked to his teammates on the right.
“Uh, I don’t know,” he replied after a pause. “I wasn’t prepared for a question of this magnitude.”
He could be forgiven. The dynamic is hard to comprehend in the context of college basketball as we know it. “I can’t really think of many guys who have done what he’s done,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. Scheyer, a Chicago-area native, recalls seeing Kaminsky play during a holiday tournament a few years ago, but he didn’t leave the gym wondering if someone would unearth this gem from his backyard.
Likewise, Blue Devils assistant Jeff Capel never once saw Kaminsky as a high school prospect, and only came to know him during the forward’s breakout junior year. “And all of a sudden he’s the national player of the year,” Capel said. “It shows that that kid grew up not entitled, he understood about waiting his turn and wanting to be part of something bigger. He’s as unique of a player in college as I’ve seen in a while.”
This is true on every front. Few 7-footers are as slippery and slithery as Kaminsky, with nimble footwork and nifty finishing ability around the rim, while also representing a threat at the arc. (He’s hit 6 of 11 three-pointers during the NCAA tournament.) And fewer still of these players appear out of thin air as college juniors. And still fewer stick around once affixed with first-round draft pick grade no one would have applied to them just months earlier.
But no one thinks or acts quite like Frank Kaminsky, either.
“This last year in college has been worth more than any dollar amount,” he said Sunday. “I mean, if you put like $10 billion in front of me, I obviously wouldn’t say that. But just (compared to) an NBA contract, waiting another year, this has been way more than worth it. This has been one of the best years of my life and you can’t trade that for anything.”
Consider this as well: The player who in two seasons went from a nobody to meeting Will Ferrell couldn’t be more reticent about the klieg lights he can’t escape. “We always joke that he hates people,” Gasser said. No one on the Badgers, save perhaps Wisconsin native Sam Dekker, endures more claustrophobia in public. And no one disdains it more, which of course only exacerbates the problem. “We always want to see how he handles it,” forward Duje Dukan said, “so we have him go first through the media piles or through the fans, just because he doesn’t like it.”
His personality acts as a shield in these cases, his father believes; Kaminsky grew up tall and had to find a way to fit in. And his parents encouraged a strong-minded approach to doing so. “We raised our kids to be independent and think on their feet,” Frank Sr. said. Essentially, his son’s antics and hijinks are a way to wander about the world on his own terms.
“I don’t know how to act any other way,” Kaminsky said. “I’ve been a goofball my entire life. I don’t see that changing for a very long time.”
On the other side Monday night will be another Chicagoan likely playing his final college game, though he arrived there via a vastly different track. Jahlil Okafor was the prodigy, the recruit impossible to miss, the prospect coveted by everyone. The 6’11” freshman will likely be at Duke for one year and then move along to an NBA career. His time on campus has not been insignificant, but it is more a footnote than a story in itself.
But the most decorated performer on the floor will be the one for whom nothing was as preordained. In that, one unique star can appreciate another. “I have the utmost respect for Frank,” Okafor said. “I’ve said it over and over, what he’s done for college basketball is amazing.”
In a sincere moment Sunday, Kaminsky mused that he is most proud of how he grew up at Wisconsin. He was immature when he arrived, he said, lacking a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish. It sounded amusing coming from the ringleader of the Badgers’ merry band of pranksters. But it was on those fringes for two years in Madison that Kaminsky formulated his own expectations, his own goals, because no outsiders bothered to set any for him.
It was then that he charted a course that defied probability, if not belief, a path no one should be expected to take again soon.
“Basketball has been my life, pretty much,” Kaminsky said. “I’ve never worked harder at something than I have at basketball. You just want to have that reward at the end. A national title would be one way to do it.”
There is only one Frank Kaminsky. After Monday, one way or another, he’s done, swinging his arms as he dances into the next room. A goof-off to the end.