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From the Sidelines - John Wall

Humor me.

Take this brief, one-question quiz and see if you know where UK basketball stands right now in this information age.

The recent headlines, whispers and gossip concerning freshman phenom John Wall’s state of mind prompted the following multiple-choice query:

UK basketball hasn’t undergone this much intense scrutiny since

1. The 26-game winning streak during the 2002-03 season
2. The run to the NCAA championship in 1996
3. The NCAA investigation in 1988-89
4. Never

If you chose “D,” you’re walking on my side of the street.

I realize the NCAA mess brought a lot of attention, almost overwhelmingly negative. I was one of the reporters who worked that story for WKYT-TV. But there were so many long periods of speculation as investigators went about their work, there was plenty of time to think about just basketball.

The winning string in ’02-’03 was fun, but it came not long after the season turned in by Team Turmoil, so it took a few extra weeks for Wildcat fans to embrace the squad that ran the table in the SEC. Then Dwyane Wade and Marquette spoiled the party en route to the Final Four.

The NCAA title in ’96 seemed almost inevitable, and it was the first for UK since 1978. But even that juggernaut didn’t attract the white-hot spotlight that’s followed John Calipari and his players, from the day they met.

Why? Because of the same medium that delivered these scribblings to you.

Back then, nobody texted or Twittered, or befriended strangers on Facebook, or staked their ground on MySpace. Reporters didn’t have to hold their mini-recorders in front of their interview subject with one hand, while simultaneously posting a paragraph with their cell phone in the other (sounds too ambitious to be true, doesn’t it? But it happens – I’ve seen it).

Thanks to the world wide web, information-sharing is quicker than ever. Video stories can be e-mailed from TV station to TV station, not to mention posted on YouTube in less time than it’s taken to type these few paragraphs. Who needs a satellite uplink?

And then, of course, there are the message boards.

That’s where facts sometimes go to die. A shred of info, a nugget, gets tossed and turned more than laundry in a dryer. And it shrinks even more. Several times, I’ve followed discussion of a story I’ve worked through a series of message-board posts. By the time the string ended, opinion had scarred the facts so profoundly, even I had no idea what they were talking about. This is how rumors are born. If you see it in print, even on the inter-web, there must be some truth to it.

Wall’s relative Lack of Happyness found its way, of course, to the national stage. That’s what happens when UK basketball is relevant again – especially when the head coach is a good soundbite. The national folks want you.

When Eddie Sutton had it going at Kentucky, he got more face time on CBS than any other Division I coach in the country. This was back before ESPN had become the giant of college basketball that it is. The folks at CBS Sports liked to grab interviews from coaches all over the country about various topics. Because his first few UK teams were successful (and appeared on the network a lot), Eddie popped up in the rotation several times.

And when another coach at the last minute would bail, or refuse to cooperate (which happened quite a few times), we would get a frantic call from CBS. Could we get Eddie to answer a few questions on videotape for tomorrow’s halftime show? Like Calipari, he was always willing – and, as they used to say in the newspaper biz, “great copy.”

When UK was ineligible for the NCAA tournament in the early ‘90s, Rick Pitino took at turn at the ESPN anchor desk.

The same thing is happening now. Not only has Calipari landed a national TV commercial (for Direct TV), you’re seeing him on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” as much or more than other coaches.

Within three weeks, Wall graced the covers both of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. I no longer subscribe to Basketball Times or Basketball Weekly; heck, I don’t even know if they exist as anything more than internet sites now; but if they do, they’ve no doubt given him the star treatment as well.

During the past 48 hours, Wall got the “digital” treatment. His comments went viral, but of course, they were clipped (nobody ran them in their entirety), dissected, examined, discussed and then, interpreted and mis-interpreted.

On Monday, I received a text message asking if I knew anything about the story on Wall and Calipari, that they’re “at each other’s throats,” and that Wall was ready to leave the program. Immediately.

I had to laugh, because I got it as I was walking down the hall of the Joe Craft Center, having just left a smiling John Wall. Five minutes prior, he had told us of his conversation with Calipari, and the lessons the player had learned, about dealing with his frustrations and about how to become a better basketball player. Five minutes later, the coach gave us his side of the story, which completely corroborated Wall’s.

Story over. Period. Happy ending (at least for now). Player smiling, coach smiling, who’s got next?

Only, it’s not over. “PTI” ran the incident as its second story on Monday. Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon in their discussion gave it as much balance as they could, and took the proper perspective – that overly-coddled young players sometimes can have a hard time coping with criticism, much less coaching.

But when they wrapped up their remarks, there was no mention of the Monday conversation between player and coach, only the comments Wall made following the Vanderbilt game Saturday afternoon. The program is taped late in the afternoon; the update from Lexington was posted on line by at least one reporter as earlier as 3 p.m. It’ll be interesting to see if they re-visit the topic Tuesday night.

There’s no telling how far the story went. I appeared on a sports talk radio show in Seattle Tuesday morning. Host Mitch Levy had done his homework and knew the “spat,” as he called it, was over. But one of his questions to me was, Can we trust these players will put it behind them and roll on into the Final Four?

My answer: Not until we see how they handle the next bout with adversity. Another loss prior to post-season play, it says here, is inevitable – maybe more than one. Will anybody else go public with his pouting? Will John Wall keep smiling?

Whatever happens, we’ll all find out – instantly.


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