Early in the summer of 2009, mostly at night, the Johns played the 'Bama boys two-on-two. It was the simplest way to divide the four of them, a quartet of incoming top 100 recruits for the Kentucky Wildcats: Alabama natives Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins on one side, and the two guys with basically the same name, John Wall and Jon Hood, on the other. Wall and Bledsoe would go back and forth, locking each other up, playing as well as you would expect future first-round NBA draft picks to play. Because Hood stood 6-foot-7, he would take on Cousins, who, like Wall, would become a first-team AP All-America that season. Though this was a match-up in only the sense that one of them was standing next to the other.
“If he played serious, there was no way I could guard him,” said Hood. “When he was joking around, he'd shoot jumpers and they'd mess around and lose, because he didn't know when to take it serious or not.”
Feet up in corner of Kentucky's locker room during the Midwest Regional last weekend, Hood tossed a small black ball from hand to hand as he talked. This was the one story he plucked from memory, one of his favorites. He has many others, because he has many friends who are former teammates that have gone on to the NBA while he remained for a five-year career. By Hood's count, he has 17 numbers in his phone for former Wildcats now in the pros, with whom he at least semi-regularly connects. A good deal of them are the one-and-doners and the early departers, who took leave of Lexington not long after they took a college class for the first time. Hood stayed, the only player on the current Final Four roster remaining from the 2009-10 season, John Calipari's first in Lexington.
“I just love the kid,” Calipari said. “He's come so far. He came from a deer in the headlights, scared to death, to an angry, 'What is this?', to a great teammate, to a loving part of our family. I wish I had all kids for four or five years to see this. I'm not going to convince a young man that should go chase his dreams to come back for me and win games. I'm not doing that. But I wish I had him more, because I can't tell you how much enjoyment I get from that.”
Hood starred at North Hopkins High School in Madisonville, Ky., earning the state's Mr. Basketball honors in 2009 after averaging 29.4 points and 12.9 rebounds as a senior. He was the No. 40 recruit in the nation, a four-star prospect in a breathtaking five-man freshman class that featured Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. Hood played 74 minutes in that first year for a 35-3 team that bowed out in the Elite Eight. All four of his fellow recruits entered the draft, only to be replaced by a class that included Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. Hood played 158 minutes that season, none of them in the Final Four, where Kentucky lost to Connecticut in the national semifinals. He then tore his ACL during summer workouts in 2011 and redshirted the following season, when the Wildcats won the national championship behind one-and-done stars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Hood returned to the court last year and played just 146 minutes in 23 games while a new batch of stars like Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin took center stage for a single season.
He has added just 47 minutes to the ledger this year, crowded out of a backcourt that features freshmen stars Aaron and Andrew Harrison and James Young. Before Kentucky's senior night on March 4, Hood was asked how the knee injury affected his career. “Made me stay here longer,” he cracked. It also made him reevaluate how he and the game would coexist from that point forward. “It made me look at things a different way, look at the relationships I had with people, helped me develop my sense for basketball, my love for basketball in a different way and a new light,” Hood said.
It perhaps was not evident at the time of the tear, or even until this final season. But this was the genesis of the teammate known as Coach Hoodie.
Now five years into his career, Hood may not know Calipari's system better than the coaches installing it, but he surely knows it better than the fledgling young stars populating the Kentucky roster on an annual basis. In this, his contribution to a third Final Four run during his career cannot be underestimated: He can coach players in their own vernacular, basically serving as a translator for a staff that implements an offensive or defensive set and doesn't expect to repeat the directions too often.
“When I first got here, I didn't really know much,” Wildcats freshman guard James Young said. “He was a coach on the floor. He really just guided me. When I didn't know a certain play I was supposed to know, I'd go to Jon right there in the corner, because he played the same position. He'd tell me what I had to do.”
Said freshman guard Aaron Harrison: “He knows everything. He knows what coach expects and he knows what he wants. So he helps us live up to coach's expectation.”
Now, to hear Calipari tell it, Hood may be helping the coach live up to the coach's expectation. Neither Hood nor Calipari could remember the exact game – Hood thought it was one against LSU – but a team settled into a zone defense against Kentucky. At some point in the first half, Hood deduced that the lob was readily available for the Wildcats. So he told Calipari. The lob never came, so Hood screamed reminders and eventually walked down to the head coach in the middle of the game and reiterated it: The lob is there.
At a timeout in the second half, Calipari finally said, The lob is there. So Kentucky threw the lob.
It resulted in a dunk, and Calipari walked down to Hood at the end of the bench. “He gave me a high-five and just kind of shook his head and laughed at me and went back to the other end,” Hood said.
Likewise, in the regional final against Michigan, the Wolverines were at the free-throw line in a late-game situation when Calipari received a tap on the shoulder. It was Hood, wondering what Calipari planned to do if freshman center Dakari Johnson rebounded a miss, as Michigan immediately would foul a 44.9 percent shooter from the stripe.
“He came up to me – not an assistant,” Calipari said. “I said, 'Aaron, Andrew (Harrison), if Dakari rebounds, you call an immediate timeout, right away.' That's what he's done.”
At the beginning of his final season at Kentucky, Hood had no intention of coaching. Then he realized, he said, that some guys have a knack for it and some don't. He figures he has the knack, if high-fives from a national title-winning coach mean anything.
“At the end of the day, who wants to go sit at a desk when you can be around basketball 24-7?” Hood said. “It's the greatest game in the world, so why end your career when you can go into coaching?”
The greatest game in the world probably hasn't given back to Hood in the way he'd hoped it would when he signed a letter of intent with Kentucky. He hit a three-pointer on senior night and Rupp Arena exploded, but it accounted for one-fifth of his total points scored on the season (15). Instead, the game gave him some famous friends and some indelible memories, including some he and the Wildcats are still in the process of making.
He catches his former teammates on television when he can, shooting them a Good game or a Nice numbers or Way to cross him over text. “It's nuts to see that I have 17 numbers in my phone that are NBA players, or that are NBA players down in the D-league waiting for a chnce to get back up,” Hood said. “To have 17 brothers like that, it's a blessing. You learn so much from them, not just on the basketball court. Because what they can teach you on the basketball court, just playing with them, is monumental. But when you get off the court and you're around those guys that everybody thinks are bad guys or thugs or whatever, and they're great human beings, it's far more exciting to me. It means more to me to see them that way.”
In the giddy Kentucky locker room following the win over Michigan last Sunday that cinched a Final Four spot, Hood sat by his locker stall with the regional championship trophy cradled in his right arm. He had seen Darius Miller do the same with the national title trophy in 2012, a senior literally never letting go of the accomplishment, and decided it was his right to do the same. He'd seen enough and been around long enough. Just let someone try to take it from him.
No one did. On Monday morning, Hood walked into Calipari's office. He still had the trophy.
“Where do you want me to put it?” Hood asked.
“You can keep it,” Calipari said.
“I've had it all night,” Hood replied. “It's been in bed with me.”
The John Calipari recruit that stayed five years was ready to give back again. He'd made another memory. Or maybe he was just making room for another trophy his newest friends might bring home in a week.
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