Bluegrass Revival

A pair of New Yorkers, coach Rick Pitino and forward Jamal Mashburn, have raised Kentucky up from the depths of scandal
November 23, 1992

All things considered, Kentuckians would probably prefer that their Wildcats have been resurrected by an All-America who grew up shooting baskets at a tire rim in some Appalachian hollow. They would most likely rather have been led back from NCAA probation by a coach who speaks in courtly tones and stains the postgame stat sheet with his bourbon glass. Instead, a couple of guys from the core of the Big Apple took the Wildcats to within a buzzer-beating shot of the Final Four last spring in Kentucky's first season out of the hoosegow, and have now brought them to the top of SI's preseason rankings. And that, Kentuckians agree, is quite O.K.... all things considered.

Jamal Mashburn, the Wildcats' 6'8", 240-pound forward, didn't merely learn the game in New York City. He learned it in an environment archetypally opposite from every Kentucky hoop-shootin' scene you've ever imagined—Harlem's legendary Holcombe Rucker Memorial Playground, only a block from the housing project Mashburn grew up in. As for Rick Pitino, who came to Lexington in 1989 after two seasons with the New York Knicks, the Kentucky coach sometimes wonders if he shouldn't conduct postgame press conferences through an interpreter. "If I'm talking with someone down here, 90 percent of the conversation consists of us saying 'Excuse me?' to each other," he says. "I can't understand them, and they can't understand me back."

Mashburn has the same problem. "Especially," he says, "when they put that stuff in their mouths. You know, when they spit in their cups?"

In the Bluegrass it's widely feared that Pitino is forever one job offer away from skipping town, even as he pledges to serve out the four years left on his contract. Mashburn, as both player and coach acknowledge, is likely to be off to the NBA after this, his junior season. Call them carpetbaggers, but make that very welcome carpetbaggers after the Overnight-Envelope Hell that the Big Blue faithful have suffered. That nightmare began in 1988 when former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton's assistant, Dwane Casey, was accused of sending $1,000 by Emery Air Freight to recruit Chris Mills. In the NCAA investigations that followed, the dark side of basketball in the commonwealth was uncovered—including an accusation that boosters had made illegal gifts to players and that 01 player had cheated on his ACT test. In the aftermath, Sutton resigned in disgrace, Mills transferred to Arizona, and Kentucky ended up on NCAA probation for three years.

Mashburn and Pitino have turned all that around. They work well in tandem because Mashburn, despite his foreboding surname and reluctance to Hash a smile, is as easygoing and deferential as Pitino is brash and in-your-face. Yet even more then Kentucky needed them, they needed each other. Mashburn views Pitino as the man who transformed him from an indolent vessel of possibilities into a probable No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. Pitino considers Mashburn the recruit who changed the perception of Kentucky as a program in purgatory to that of one on the come. "After Jamal signed," he says, "other recruits started to say, 'If he can go there, I can too.' "

If names are destiny—if McGovern was bound to enter politics and Winfield couldn't help but be a World Series hero—then Mashburn was fated to be precisely the kind of ballplayer he is. He can mash you near the basket or burn you from outside. His footwork in the lane is part of the legacy of Bobby Mashburn, his father, a New York City cop who was once a promising heavyweight with a left hook, the Mash Smash, that served him well during a ring career that featured bouts with Larry Holmes, Ken Norton and Oscar Bonavena and a stretch as a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali. In the open floor, where Mashburn is as deft as most guards, his talents recall those of his mother, Helen, a high school sprinter with whom Jamal has lived since his parents split up, eight years ago. "His hands are awesome, and his lower body's so strong," says Pitino. "From coaching Charles Oakley and Bernard King and watching Karl Malone and Kevin McHale, I know about NBA moves, and Jamal has all of theirs. He has a ball-fake-and-go-by-you. A baseline turnaround. And a great up-and-under."

Mashburn's most surprising skill may be a simple square-and-let-it-air. He threw in five three-point shots against South Carolina last season, but only after Pitino pulled him from the game to chew him out for passing up several wide-open chances. Even as the Gamecocks laid off him, tantalizingly, Mashburn, it seems, didn't want to come off as a ball hog. In short, Mashburn is an imported update of Wildcat great Dan Issel: quiet, relentless, a scoring threat both inside and out, and a stoic who gets his teammates going on the fast break with his work on the boards.

He hasn't always cut such a figure. Pitino recalls the testimony of Tom Murray, Mashburn's coach at Cardinal Hayes High in the Bronx, that "Jamal was totally lazy and wouldn't fit into our system of pressing and running." From Lou d'Almeida, the Jaguar-driving, Argentine-born real estate baron who runs the New York Gauchos, the AAU team Mashburn began playing for as a 12-year-old, Pitino heard a slightly less discouraging line. Noting that Mashburn would be only 17 upon graduating from high school (indeed, he won't turn 20 until Nov. 29), d'Almeida suggested that Jamal simply hadn't grown up yet.

All doubts had evaporated by the end of Mashburn's senior season. New York City's 32-team Catholic High School Athletic Association featured seven promising Division I prospects in its class of 1990, including such players as Christ the King High's Khalid Reeves and Derrick Phelps (they went to Arizona and North Carolina, respectively) and Tolentine High's Brian Reese and Adrian Autry (now at North Carolina and Syracuse, respectively). Mashburn was less celebrated, in part because Murray, a self-described "hard-nosed Irishman who can be a pain in the ass sometimes," had shackled his star near the basket.

Says Queens, N.Y.-based high school scout Tom Konchalski, who publishes the recruiting newsletter HSBI Report, Mashburn had "the body of a blacksmith and the touch of a surgeon. He just didn't have the disposition to dominate. But at the end of the season Tom Murray stopped lighting him. He realized Jamal was the best ball handler on the team and let him go out on the floor. Cardinal Hayes won the city championship, and Jamal invented a new position. You might call it 'point center.' "

By then Mashburn had already chosen Kentucky, for reasons that suggest advanced self-awareness. For a time he had flirted with Syracuse, a program that was attractive to him because of its loosey-goosey style, its tradition of signing New York City stars like Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, even its iridescent orange uniforms. "We let you be your own person," the Syracuse recruiting pitch went. But that's when it occurred to Mashburn that his own person was exactly what he didn't want to be. "I knew the kind of person I was," he says. "I'm laid-back. Let me be my own person, and I'm going to be a laid-back ballplayer."

Upon hearing that a player who had so clearly left his potential unplumbed was going to play for a coach who is known for converting the very last measure of potential into achievement, one coach in the Catholic league instantly sensed what would happen. "I said at the time it was like giving an atomic bomb to a terrorist," says Christ the King coach Bob Oliva. "Jamal and Rick have made me a prophet."

Mashburn hadn't been named to the McDonald's or Dapper Dan high school all-star games, so it was hardly a jaded young man who came to play basketball for Kentucky. He didn't have boundless self-esteem, either. When Pitino administered a battery of psychological tests to his team that fall, Mashburn scored lowest in those categories relating to confidence. Mystified, Pitino confronted his freshman, who confessed that, no, he probably didn't have a disposition to dominate. "It's bizarre, because you see this man's man," says his coach. "But when we got him a summer job delivering sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, he hated it. If you watch him cross the street, it takes him 10 minutes."

Now the player who chose Kentucky in part because it was on probation—"I saw it as a positive, because I could just play and make my mistakes," he says—is ready to step boldly off the curb. His new assertiveness comes in part from a sense of unfinished business about the way Kentucky's season ended last March, when a fouled-out Mashburn watched Christian Laettner's buzzer shot send Duke to the Final Four. And it has been reinforced by a productive summer, which included a turn on USA Basketball's Select Team—the scout team that helped prep the Olympic Dream Team. Chris Mullin and Charles Barkley gave him diet tips and other life-style advice, leaving Mashburn with a newfound appreciation for the responsibility of being a star. "His first year he was saying, it's [then senior] Reggie Hanson's team,' " says Pitino. "Last year he was saying, it's the seniors" team.' Now he knows it's his team."

In three years Pitino—he is "Coach Patina" in the local inflection, a felicitous pronunciation in light of the aura he has helped restore in Lexington—has healed the long-strained relations between Kentucky and New York. After a point-shaving scandal was discovered at Kentucky in 1951, former Wildcat coach Adolph Rupp blamed the wise guys who hung around the old Madison Square Garden for corrupting his players. Turning on Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan, who prosecuted the case, and judge Saul Streit, who wrote a scathing opinion holding Rupp accountable for the program's sins, the Baron vowed that Kentucky would never go back to the city. And it didn't until the 1976 NIT, which the Wildcats won a year before Rupp's death.

So there's irony in a New Yorker's restoring the up-tempo essence of basketball on which Rupp raised several generations of Kentuckians. "One thing this program needed was a sense of basketball as entertainment," says Pitino, whose two immediate predecessors, Sutton and Joe B. Hall, insisted on squeezing only the safest shot out of each possession. "When Kentucky won in the past, the feeling was too much one of 'Oh, we escaped.' Our games aren't life and death anymore. We get the fans to put their hands up when someone shoots a three-pointer. We choreograph chaos. Our style doesn't give our players time to think negative thoughts. And we try not to give the fans time, either. Joe B. Hall was a wonderful coach and is a wonderful man. But he probably doesn't like the pregame music we play."

Among Pitino's first public utterances upon taking the job was a comment that while he loved Kentucky, it would be heaven if he could only get some good Italian food. Soon thereafter he opened a restaurant just steps from Rupp Arena, called Bravo Pitino. While many old-timers would have a hard time imagining the Baron running a joint called How 'Bout That Adolph, Pitino at least has a leavening sense of humor that neither Sutton nor Hall had. More common is grumbling that Pitino doesn't genuflect to the sacred symbols of Kentucky's past. In Full-Court Pressure, his autobiographical account of last season, Pitino notes that when Mashburn verbally committed to the school, he said only that he wanted to play for the Knicks' coach. "So much for the glorious Kentucky tradition," Pitino writes. Sportswriter Dave Kindred, in a review for the Lexington Herald-Leader, was on him in a New York minute: "The overriding sense of this book is that Pitino came to poor ol' good for nothin' Kentucky and by the power of his talent changed lead into gold."

In fact, Pitino has scrubbed away an awful lot of tarnish awfully quickly, and most of the faithful freely credit him for doing so. The more serious risk Pitino runs may be found in a passage from the Bible that Rupp liked to cite as his guiding principle in recruiting: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help." Pitino is an apostle of a radically different testament. He pledges to try to sign one player a year from the New York area. Tapping into a network of contacts that only a Manhattan-born, Queens-raised, Long Island-schooled coach could have, Pitino has been good to his word, starting with Mashburn. He followed that up last year by signing 6'9" Andre Riddick, a sophomore from Bishop Loughlin High in Brooklyn, and this year by getting 6'6" Rodrick Rhodes, a freshman from St. Anthony High in Jersey City. Yet last spring Big Blue fans saw Pitino come within a tick's tooth of the Final Four with three eastern Kentuckians, John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus. "Write it down," says one longtime Kentucky sportswriter. "Pitino is going to be criticized for recruiting the top prospects in the nation, especially those in the New York area, instead of going after the Pelphreys, Farmers and Feldhauses of tomorrow. That won't go down well with all those who looked at last year's team and felt as if they were back in the '40s and '50s, with Adolph winning with teams built around good ol' white boys from the Kentucky hills."

Pitino responds just as you would expect a New Yorker to: directly but shrewdly. "We'll always have a few Kentucky players as well as a few New York players," he says. "But my feeling is, if a Kentucky player isn't good enough to play here, let him go somewhere he can—because Kentucky kids love the game too much."

If Pitino hadn't added that last sentence, you might soon detect some of that Kentucky passion curdling into resentment in places like Pikeville and Pineville and Prestonsburg. But the coach understands that basketball is one thing that can cause the jaws of yawning cultural difference to close shut. As Mashburn says, "Basketball means just about the same thing in New York and Kentucky. It's just that back home there are lots of other things, and down here it's the only thing."

Pitino coaches the game and Mashburn plays it, just as it was conceived by Rupp and achieved by Issel. And that has made the 700 miles between Lexington and Lexington Avenue, in hoops terms, a gimme. Given that tough times have been commonplace in the commonwealth of late, there's no passing up a gimme.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOWith the prodding of Pitino (above, with mike), Mashburn has gone from diffident to dominant. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOFans of revived Kentucky lined up early... PHOTODAVID E. get a Nov. 1 Midnight Madness glimpse of the Wildcats. TWO PHOTOSDAVID E. KLUTHOLocals Pelphrey (34) and Farmer made last season's Wildcats a Kentuckian's delight. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHORhodes is Pitino's latest prized import from the New York area.