They were stories breaking on different sides of the country. One involved professional basketball, the other, college. At the center of each was one of the most storied teams in the history of their respective strains of the sport. They were similar and yet, each couldn’t have been more different. And “we” – members of the Big Blue Sports Network – had front-row seats.
By now you all know of the UK logjam that occurred during Thanksgiving Week, the convergence of games that spread our network crews as thinly as they’ve ever been. The women’s basketball team was playing in the Courtyard LaGuardia Turkey Classic in New York City; the men’s team was involved in the Las Vegas Invitational, and the football team was in Knoxville to take on Tennessee.
Tom Leach stayed with football; Neil Price shifted from women’s to men’s basketball and yours truly stepped in for Neil.
The women won their first-round game on Friday, beating Yale. The men came back to beat Kansas State.
On Saturday, as we piled aboard the bus that would take us from our hotel on the lower west side of Manhattan to the morning shoot-around at the game site in Brooklyn, word spread quickly that DeAndre’ Liggins had refused to enter the game during the second half of the men’s victory over KSU the night before. A quick text message exchange with Steve Moss, WKYT’s executive sports producer who was covering the game, confirmed it.
“He’s done,” I thought to myself. “See ya.”
That same weekend, before Giants receiver Plaxico Burress’s errant gunshot blew a hole in his leg and moved to the top of the headlines, Knicks guard Stephon Marbury had become a similar topic of conversation.
The UK women arrived in New York on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week and that night, attended a Knicks game, arriving at fabled Madison Square Garden early in the afternoon.
Marbury attended the shoot-around in practice clothes, getting up a few shots, breaking a sweat. Then he changed into his suit and took his spot on the Knicks bench, watching his team fall to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.
First-year head coach Mike D’Antoni made it clear early after his arrival that Marbury fit into neither his system nor his plans. The team wants to reach a buy-out settlement with Marbury, who acts as his own agent and has advised his client to collect every dollar the club owes him – all 21 million of them. So it’s a nasty situation. And it got worse.
The same weekend Liggins conducted his sit-down strike, the Knicks saw their roster dwindling. During the loss to the Cavs, guard Nate Robinson went down with a strained groin. Cutino Mobley, acquired in a trade with Golden State, still hasn’t been cleared to play medically, because of a heart ailment. Other injuries had reduced the Knicks to nine players. They needed a guard, heading into their game in Detroit.
Hey, they reasoned, there’s one on our bench. D’Antoni asked Marbury to play. Marbury refused.
At least, that’s the story that hit the New York media. Marbury later denied that he’d been “asked to play,” in those words. Whatever the exchange, Marbury sat. And he’s still sitting, to the infuriation of his teammates, including Quentin Richardson, who’s been at odds with Marbury for the past three years.
“I don’t look at him as a teammate,” Richardson told the New York Daily News. “He hasn't played with us all year. Regardless of what you have going on with the organization or what you have going on with your coach or whatever. You're not going to allow your teammates to be left out there the way we were basically being left out there.
“This is directed at us, regardless if you're trying to stick it to whoever you're trying to stick it to. At the end of the day we're shorthanded, people are hurt. Once again, I don't pay attention to (Stephon) because I don't look at him as a teammate anyway."
It played out differently in Las Vegas, as life often does.
Liggins’ teammates, according to head coach Billy Gillispie, vowed to not make it an issue during and after the KSU game. And he did something a majority of college coaches likely would not have done: He overlooked Liggins’ move as a mistake, born of youth and inexperience.
“I think you need to give a young person the benefit of the doubt in making a mistake,” Gillispie told a regularly-scheduled news conference Monday. “College is a time of growth and we all make mistakes, especially young people. If young people didn’t make mistakes, they definitely wouldn’t need (coaches).
“His teammates understood. I understand and we’ve moved on.”
Of course, the cynic in most of us would say Gillispie, whose team handles the ball as though it’s made of turkey giblets, desperately needs a point guard. Liggins has presented himself as the best of several shaky candidates.
But during an interview with Gillispie I conducted prior to the season, he made a similar point, about how much he loves being around young people, watching them grow and learn from their mistakes. And I’ve seen firsthand how he fosters an atmosphere within his team that invokes the word “family” quickly, and easily.
That’s why I’m not surprised Liggins’ teammates voted to overlook the youngster’s indiscretion. I’m still somewhat amazed Gillispie didn’t go the route of Rick Pitino, who told the Louisville Courier-Journal that in a similar situation, his player would be vapor – immediately. Gone.
“It would have been easy as a coach to say, ‘You can’t play.’ But… you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” Gillispie said. “His guys, his teammates, said they wanted him to play in the regular rotation to give us the best chance to win, so that’s what we did.
“I think it shows a great deal about our team, about how much they care about every individual.”
No arguments here. Again, I’ve been a witness. What I have a hard time wrapping my mind around is the notion that Liggins’ coming back to play against West Virginia was somehow virtuous.
“The easiest thing to do was for him to not play on Saturday,” Gillispie said. “I would say 90 percent of the population would have too much pride to admit a mistake by playing. I think that showed a great deal of toughness, a great deal of caring, a great deal of remorse by playing. It would have been easy for him to say, ‘I’m not playing today.’ But he didn’t, and I give him great credit for that.”
From where I sit, Liggins got off light. His teammates needed him in the second half of the KSU game, but he put his own ego first. And then he got to play on Saturday, and he played well.
“I give his teammates great credit for the way they handled it,” Gillispie said. “We didn’t let it become an issue, it won’t become an issue, it hasn’t been an issue, so let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt.”
It would have been easier, no doubt, for Gillispie to make a power play, sending a message both to his players and the fans. He had to subjugate his own ego and for that, I give him credit – loads of it. I’m not sure I could have done the same.
Yes, he needs a point guard. But he had no problem benching Liggins for most of the first half of the KSU game, when his team was spraying the ball all over the Vegas strip. Other players have felt the sting of Gillispie’s wrath, and settled in for long stretches on the bench. And you have to wonder about, and almost hope there will be, repercussions.
“I’m not trying to make DeAndre’ out to be a hero for that, because what he did on Friday night was wrong,” Gillispie said. “But he’s a young person; let’s treat him as such. And let’s give a guy the benefit of the doubt because he’s a young person who made a mistake. “
Meanwhile, the Knicks’ $21 million man, Stephon Marbury, sits, not caring if his teammates are winning, losing or gasping for breath. One wonders about the lessons he’s learning. Or if he cares about anything other than his bank account. Perhaps he could learn from the guys in Lexington, Kentucky, who would love to be where he is.
Of course, if any of them make it there, odds are, they’ll be better equipped to handle it.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)