March 23, 2015
THEY TRAVELED in rented station wagons, long-legged men crammed in together with their luggage stowed up top, caravanning between college towns, logging thousands of miles for road games that never counted. Their team never had a shot at the NCAA tournament, yet it had hundreds of November wins over Division I schools in the 1980s and '90s. Marathon Oil is what everyone called that era's preeminent exhibition-game barnstormers, even though the team lost its petro-sponsorship in '84 and tried to rebrand as Marathon Basketball. On a Venn diagram for pro ballers, Marathoners would fall in the sector where talent does not overlap with recognition or riches. In the winter they'd either head overseas or return to regular jobs.
One of Marathon's point guards, Stevie King, had been a standout at NAIA Wisconsin-Parkside, and he liked to penetrate and kick to a 6'10" center with a specialty that was ahead of its time: hitting long jumpers. "He was a stretch four before they even thought of stretch fours," King says of Frank Kaminsky Jr., who was an honorable-mention NAIA All-America at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., in 1976 and '77, a decade before the arrival of a three-point line that might have made him more of a hot commodity. Kaminsky used his vacation days from his sales job at Phillip Morris to go and score 20-plus points against Georgia or Penn State, or grab 14 rebounds in a win over 12th-ranked Auburn in '86. The grueling car trips never bothered him. "For a basketball junkie like me," he says, "it was heaven." This afterlife lasted until Nov. 25, 1995, when he hung up his hightops after scoring 13 points in a win over a Ball State team that featured Bonzi Wells. Kaminsky's achievement never got the heroic headline it deserved: MAN FINDS WAY TO PLAY IN COLLEGE GAMES UNTIL HE'S 40.
In this light it should not seem so anomalous that Francis Stanley Kaminsky III, that man's 7-foot, 242-pound son and SI's choice for national player of the year—aka Frank the Tank—has stretched his career at Wisconsin as far as it can go. Today, 21-year-old senior is the new 40-year-old lingerer, and it's appropriate that a fourth-year star's nickname is borrowed from a 2003 Will Ferrell character who pledges a fraternity as part of a midlife crisis.
Incremental progressions such as Kaminsky's rarely happen anymore. Over four seasons he has gone from back-of-rotation nobody, to backup, to good enough to seriously consider the NBA draft, to the best player in the country—one whose game, unlike his father's, is very much of the moment. Kaminsky's senior-year shot chart is an exemplar for big men in the analytics age. The majority of his 18.2 points per game come from either his three-point hot spots (right wing and top of the key) or from within eight feet of the rim, set up by off-the-dribble basket attacks or post-ups. His versatility is the key to the spacing of Wisconsin's offense, which ranks No. 1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. Badgers coach Bo Ryan is a Hall of Fame finalist in large part because of his ability to optimize his offensive options and play to percentages, so when he says of Kaminsky, "He's mastered the art of shot selection," this is no small praise. Bo Ryan's declaring that you've mastered shot selection is akin to Phil Jackson's saying you've reached the fourth stage of enlightenment. Neither can be attained overnight.
THIS HAS been the season of Kentucky and the season of Frank. The Wildcats and the Badgers parted ways last April 5 in the Final Four, after Aaron Harrison's dagger three sent Kentucky into the title game. As Kaminsky was on his way out of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, he yelled, "On Wisconsin!" into a quiet press room, and 25 days later he published a heartfelt, 1,219-word essay on his personal blog entitled "My Decision to Stay," citing his love of college and his unfulfilled goals of winning both the Big Ten title—he checked that off on Sunday with an 80--69 overtime win over Michigan State—and the national championship.
After a practice in October, Kaminsky was sporting a few days' worth of stubble, exhibiting the contentedness of someone who's exactly where he wants to be and thinking about how much his career contrasted with that of the youthful juggernaut that has since gone 34--0: "It's weird saying this, having made it to a Final Four, and being a decent player on a good team, but I don't think I ever would have made it at Kentucky," he said. "Because of the demands there to perform right away as a freshman, I'd have been out before I even started. I was an unheralded kid coming out of high school [at Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill.]. I had to work my way up at Wisconsin to the point where I could get minutes. I needed a few years to get my feet wet."
The freshman version of Kaminsky averaged just 7.7 minutes and 1.8 points. "I was scared to even go in the lane," Kaminsky says now. "If you saw me there, it's because I got lost." His first shot, against Kennesaw (Ga.) State on Nov. 12, 2011, was a missed three, and he attempted more treys (35) than twos (21) that season, a ratio that has been reversed for the rest of his career. As a sophomore reserve, Kaminsky had neither style (wearing a headband-and-rec-specs combo that he now concedes was terrible) nor the confidence of his coach. Fellow senior Duje Dukan recalls a practice early in the '12--13 season in which Ryan became fed up with Kaminsky's long-range launches and told him, "I don't want you shooting unless it's late in the shot clock." On that day and many others, Kaminsky sat silently in the locker room after practice, overcome with frustration. "I've never worked as hard on anything as I have on basketball," he says. "It's always been what I loved. And it was a scary feeling, getting to a place where you wanted to be and then not being able to figure out how you fit in."
Struggling to fit in was the story of Kaminsky's young life. He was mocked for being an awkwardly tall kid and was rarely invited for elementary school play dates. He idolized Shaquille O'Neal but was so soft as a player that he was cut from his AAU team's travel roster the summer after his freshman year of high school. Kaminsky clowned around to try to endear himself to classmates. When he failed to win a Benet Academy student-government election—not for class president but rather director of intramurals—Kaminsky settled for a position as head of the Grilling Society, flipping burgers at football and baseball tailgates. And while he was at Madison, his mother, Mary Kaminsky, a former volleyball player at Northwestern, could sense that her boy was trying to fit in on the court, rather than imposing his will on games.
They had a conversation in November of his junior year, Mary says, "about the difference between watching the game evolve and making things happen." It was less than a week later that Kaminsky had the performance that lifted him out of anonymity, scoring a Badgers-record 43 points in a 103--85 win over North Dakota. That same season Ryan chided Kaminsky for a defensive miscue in practice and asked if he was going to be like Keaton Nankivil, a former Wisconsin forward who was talented offensively but never took charges, Kaminsky bristled at the comparison. "He looked me right in the eye," Ryan says, "and told me, 'I'm not Keaton Nankivil. I'm Frank Kaminsky!"
There would have been no shame in just having a place in Wisconsin's long procession of skilled big men, many of whom have gone on to careers in the NBA or abroad. But Kaminsky was developing his skill set and mind-set for something more: a senior year in which he's the only major-conference player leading his team in points, rebounds (8.0), assists (2.7), blocks (1.6) and steals (0.9)—arguably the greatest season in Badgers' history. Kaminsky never did find a way to fit in. He found he was better off standing out.
THIS IS not to suggest that Kaminsky has acquired infinite wisdom. He's still a college student, prone to making college-student mistakes. In mid-February he went to a pet store in Madison, fell in love and became the new owner of a beagle--Boston terrier mix puppy. Roommate Jordan Smith, a Badgers guard, contributed to the purchase, and they settled on the name Khali, which is short for Khaleesi, the mother of dragons in one of their favorite shows, Game of Thrones.
Smith says that Kaminsky was so hot and cold as a dog owner—cuddling with Khali one minute, then losing it over some act of mischief the next—"that our friends were putting the over/under on how long it would last at two weeks." It was a push. Realizing the logistical impossibility of puppy training on a schedule that still had two early-March road games, the Big Ten tournament in Chicago and potentially three weeks of the NCAA tournament, Kaminsky called his mother and admitted, "This wasn't such a good idea." Mary, who'd tried to talk him out of it in the first place, did the saintly thing and agreed to take care of Khali at their home in Lisle. The plan is to reevaluate the situation when Kaminsky's availability improves.
His current schedule has been cleared of nearly everything other than basketball. Kaminsky completed all requirements for his degree in life science communications in December, his progress aided by a dearth of invites to elite sneaker camps or USA Basketball events that would have kept him out of summer school. Thus Frank the Tank is riding out his final semester at Wisconsin on academic autopilot, his lone class an independent study in website design. Kaminsky's final project involves coding a personal site that he can use during his pro career. He was dismayed to discover, however, that someone had already bought the domain name FrankKaminsky.com and is trying to auction it for $1,000, roughly 100 times its base price. Research by this reporter revealed that the domain was purchased by a California speculator named Leonard Lee on Nov. 21, 2013, two days after seeing ESPN mention Kaminsky's 43-point game against North Dakota. "I was surprised it was available," says Lee, who has no plans to develop the domain. "He's still in the news a lot, right? It's good to see the guy doing well." It was an investment that would eventually make Kaminsky a victim of the long-term stock rating he deserved when he came to Madison: buy and hold.
"I was scared to even go in the lane," Kaminsky says of his freshman season at Madison. "If you saw me in there, it's because I got lost."
KAMINSKY BY THE NUMBERS
Blocks for Kaminsky this season, giving him 148 for his career, which broke the school record held by Jared Berggren (144).
Player in a major conference (Kaminsky) who leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.