Perhaps the greatest achievement of Coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats was his ability to put one of the greatest teams in the history of college basketball on the court that is grounded in discipline, humility, and class. There is no trash talking from these Wildcats, no show boating, no taunts of opponents, and no headlines from ridiculous claims of superiority.
They coolly and methodically go about the business of proving they are the greatest team in the nation, and perhaps for all time. Standing seven foot tall in his third year at Kentucky is perhaps the heart and soul of that magic act by Calipari, one Willie Cauley-Stein.
Stein said he went to Kentucky to compete at the highest level of competition. In his three years he had done just that with a Final Four appearance every year, one national championship, and a chance to get two during his career in college.
On court he simply over-powers opponents. He is first team All American. Off court, this imposing force is one of the most beloved of all Wildcats in the eyes of, believe it or not, the news media. Now college jocks have never been particularly astute at handling the media but Willie is one of their favorite interviews and he has no problem doing them.
He respects his opponents, can joke and bring sportsmanship to the table, and never makes stupid statements. In fact, he is so far removed from the stereotype of a money hungry college superstar he is a breath of fresh air in the world of big bucks and high pressure.
Most of all, he just keeps winning, helping the coach teach the young freshman like a senior statesman, sharing his experiences with them, using humor to keep the pressure down, and doing things that blow his image as the Monster Mash of Kentucky basketball, a title once held by legendary UK star Jamal Mashburn.
Just this last Monday of the most important week of his life, Final Four week, Willie took time to ask out a fan for lunch and what resulted is vintage Willie Cauley-Stein.
Even during what must be one of the biggest weeks of his life,
The Final Four-bound Wildcats are awaiting Saturday night's game against
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Our hearts are full today! We are so proud and excited to let you all know why the UK Wildcat visited CDCB on Monday! He came to deliver an invitation to our Olivia.... Willie Cauley-Stein requested her presence for a lunch date!
Yesterday Olivia got to have spaghetti with Willie at the Wildcat Lodge. She was SO charming and he made her feel SO special. Very happy for our little girl, and very proud to be a part of #BBN
.... that a player of Willie's caliber would take time out of his day on perhaps the most pressure-filled and anticipatory week of his college career speaks volumes about the outstanding character of Kentucky's Basketball team.
Now if that does not soften your impression of the mighty Kentucky basketball machine, the following article will. How often does a member of the news media bemoan the fact a jock will no longer be so accessible to the press. Well a reporter for the prestigious Washington Post did just that in this most unusual tribute to Willie.
By Chuck Culpepper April1
Willie Cauley-Stein, and he’s certainly worth a listen Kentucky
A brief mourning period will follow this soaring
season. It will have nothing to do with Kentucky
fans or any Kentucky
outcome, although a finicky tournament that banishes people for one mere defeat
can always wind up in mourning. No, this odd bereavement will come to a
smallish group of Kentucky
They’re the writers and broadcasters who cover
Kentucky basketball, and
they will face a unique void come springtime. The 7-foot human Willie
Cauley-Stein will make off for the NBA after three seasons at Kentucky, and no longer may they stand at
his locker and listen to him routinely. They tend to sigh about that.
“I’ll miss covering him tremendously, and this is the rare instance when I think I can speak for everybody on the beat,” said Brett Dawson of rivals.com. “I’ve never covered anyone quite like him anywhere, and I doubt anyone’s ever covered anyone like him at Kentucky,” after which Dawson referred to Cauley-Stein as “a true individual,” “genuinely funny,” “thoughtful” with “no place” for cliches, a player who “rarely, if ever, fails to consider a question carefully before he answers it.”
He begins almost every answer with, “Ommm,” and flows from there.
As a third-year wise man in a sport of starry freshmen, he manages to be blunt without being abrasive, helpful without being fawning, candid without being derisive. Mostly, he’s respectful of seemingly every type of question, often with long answers. He’ll describe the sport seriously, describe
noted fans semi-seriously, or go off the script unseriously.
Just last week in
imagining West Virginia’s
vaunted press, he went on a long description of the importance of how a
cornered animal might react.
Reporter: “What animal are you guys?”
Cauley-Stein (pausing to think): “Have you seen a raccoon?”
With laughter all around at the unexpected nature of it, reporter: “I was thinking lion.”
Cauley-Stein: “Lions don’t get cornered.”
Then: “Raccoons are feisty. They’re not gonna just roll over.”
On other occasions, he said it would thrill him if his team ever got a mention from anchorman Tom Tucker on “Family Guy;” spoke of
as “not the villains” and said the black hat he once wore was only “my John
Wayne;” professed to prefer Batman over other superheroes because he
accomplishes his feats without superpowers. He once drew laughs by saying he
could tweet about “hot dogs” and get deluged with responses about how he wasn’t
working on his game. Speaking of a Cincinnati player over whom Cauley-Stein dunked ferociously in the
round of 32, he said, “I was already on the way down dunking it and the
dude slid over . . . I mean, I just remember seeing his head, like that
[underneath], ‘What is this guy doing?’ It was more confusing. Normally I know
what I’m doing. I didn’t really know what he was doing for real.
I’m looking down at his hair, like, ‘Dude, you really jumped on this.’ ”
Cauley-Stein scholars speak of him as a basketball player who wants very much to participate in the general college experience. With Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, he discussed his wish to open his own “shoe and clothing store, designing my own stuff and putting it in there,” and said, “One of the best ways to express yourself is the way you dress.” So in the inverted world of college sports, he has fielded questions about his basketball seriousness. “I mean, that’s been the question since I got here: If I love the game,” he said at tournament’s outset. “If I didn’t love the game, why would I play at the
? Why would I
ever come here? It’s a serious program. All the success they had, all that.
That bugs me when people ask me that. ‘You don’t love the game.’ This is the
most serious place to play. (Laughs.) I’m dumbfounded when people ask that.
Like I really get upset. University
“‘What? How is that a question, just because I’m interested in other things?’ You got to be interested in other things. If you focus on one thing, you’re going to eventually like – you’re going to get bored with it or you’re going to get burned out on it. My grandparents have taught me that since I was younger, just to be involved in a whole bunch of different things so you don’t get burnt out and you know what you like to do and what you don’t like to do. I couldn’t imagine not playing this game.”
He spoke as the chatter builds on where he might go in the NBA draft come June — the consensus tilts toward early — and on his rarefied, manifold defensive skills, last seen in the frantic final seconds of the Midwest Region final. That’s when Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5 guard Jerian Grant took his court-length dribble in the nagging company of Cauley-Stein’s evolutionary, revolutionary speed and quickness and length, and the whole chase wound up in the hopeless corner. Cauley-Stein didn’t come to
as a McDonald’s all-American, and he did experience Kentucky at a nadir, the (shudder) NIT
season of 2012-13. Of that, he said, “If you accept [the criticism], if you
indulge the weight, it’s only gonna make you stronger.” From that, Kentucky ascended from a
No. 8 seeding to the 2014 national championship game, but sans Cauley-Stein,
who broke his ankle in the Sweet 16. Since the trip back to the hotel that
night, he has said repeatedly, he has looked forward to all of this — even to
all of these questions.
He’s established enough to point out, gently, that when the coaches took him out after a missed left-handed hook, the ensuing discussion never would have occurred had the shot merely gone in as it nearly did. During a thick, physical match with
he saw also “probably one of the better refereeing groups we’ve had.” Of the various
ploys teams have tried, he said he understands: “You can’t just let us catch it
and let us do whatever we want.” And having learned some of life through sports
fans, he said, “Like last year, I dyed my hair blonde. A quarter of them were
like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then there’s another whatever percent like, ‘Yo,
that’s awesome. Like, keep up with that.’ It’s anything you do. There’s going
to be a side that doesn’t mess with it, there’s going to be a side that likes
In that same mass conversation, he made the point that with all its nine-deep talent and its 38-0,
still isn’t particularly showy. “I feel like if we were out there after every
dunk beating your chest or every three doing something or every play you was
doing something crazy, people are just gonna hate you more,” he said. “We’re
already hated doing classy things. If we was doing rude things to people, the
whole world would hate us.”
Then again, it seems the only people who could hate Cauley-Stein are those who haven’t listened, and that’s according to those who have.