June 28th, 2012, was a night I will never forget.
My father and I traveled north to New York City — about 13 hours by car — a few days prior in anticipation of the NBA Draft. I had never gone in person, but regularly referred to it as “Draft-mas,” throwing a party annually for those closest to me who also enjoy the event. Growing up a diehard in Louisville, there isn’t a lot of accessible NBA action, so attending the draft presented the perfect marriage of the college and professional worlds for a brief moment.
New Orleans having the opportunity to select Anthony Davis first overall was always going to make the 2012 Draft special. However, when the organization went ahead and doubled down on University of Kentucky alumni by selecting Darius Miller — someone who I was even more personally familiar with, it made the night all the more memorable.
(For some quick background information, Miller helped the Mason County Royals, led by former University of Tennessee three-point flamethrower Chris Lofton, knock my high school team and me out of the Kentucky State Tournament in 2004.)
Dell Demps had effectively drafted the best UK player ever and a local legend from the same state in one night. He didn’t know it at the time, but the GM had started an important trend which would position New Orleans as a location that the Kentucky faithful would have an affinity for as long as big name Wildcats called it home.
Calipari’s Familial Bond
The outsized impact of the college game in the state of Kentucky is something one must experience to understand. Both the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville’s basketball programs dominate headlines throughout the year. The annual rivalry game draws millions of viewers from inside and outside of the state.
Since the arrival of John Calipari, however, the Kentucky Wildcats shadow has loomed dramatically over the Cardinals, the state and most of college basketball. Calipari’s much maligned “one and done” system came in like a tidal wave as John Wall and former Pelican DeMarcus Cousins took Big Blue Nation on a whirlwind run in 2010-11 — but they unceremoniously crashed back to earth during the NCAA Tournament.
After five players from the team were drafted in the first round, it was clear that this first Calipari Wildcats team began a unique bond with its fanbase that has been able to transfer year to year for nearly the last decade despite faces changing all too quickly. The 2010-11 team could have been more captivating, but prized recruit Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible due to his participation in professional leagues overseas. No matter though because Anthony Davis and his wrecking crew showed up soon thereafter.
Capturing the 2012 NCAA Championship — with only two losses on their resume, that Davis-led team cemented Calipari and the Wildcats as the top program in the country and ensured they’d land more blue chip prospects over the coming seasons. Having produced an astonishing 12 NBA players in just three seasons, Calipari set the stage for a parade of elite recruits to spend their brief time being adored at Rupp Arena before entering the professional ranks, but with that familial bond to Cal and UK to connect them.
One needs to only watch Cal’s induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame and witness the armada of talent at his back to realize the sheer scale of his recruiting efforts in his time at Kentucky alone.
Big Blue New Orleans
During the summer of 2017, the Pelicans signed the polarizing veteran Rajon Rondo. He was a McDonald’s All-American point guard who had committed to the University of Louisville, only to renege when it was clear Rick Pitino would prioritize high profile New York point guard Sebastian Telfair — somehow this would not to be one of Pitino’s worst mistakes. Yet Rondo’s age difference and lack of Calipari connection did not dampen his profile amongst the UK contingent. If anything, it simply showed how embracing former Wildcats are of each other.
Since drafting Davis, the New Orleans franchise has featured eight different Wildcats on the roster, seven of whom played for Coach Cal: Anthony Davis, Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, Archie Goodwin, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Liggins and Julius Randle. Not to mention, New Orleans’ first official draft pick under the Pelicans moniker was Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, who was subsequently traded as part of a package for Jrue Holiday. The team has, at times, truly been a version of Lexington South.
This offseason, Rondo bolted to the Lakers, Randle came to the Crescent City, and of course, Boogie joined the Warriors’ Death Star. This summer’s biggest moves happened in a flash, and lost on many in the new Golden State hysteria was Jim Eichenhofer’s report regarding Anthony Davis’s hand in playing Calipari-like role for the Pelicans.
Randle reached out to Anthony Davis to glean more information about #Pelicans as he weighed decision on where to sign. Randle said Davis called him three times after that to try to cement Randle's decision to sign in New Orleans— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) July 13, 2018
There are a variety of reasons to be excited about Davis’s recruitment of Randle, but focusing on the collegiate connection between the two is obvious. Davis is a forerunner of the modern Kentucky brotherhood, and its unquestioned best player. 31 of Cal’s Cats have played in the NBA, with 23 still active. The Pelicans new frontcourt duo is expected to be a problem for the rest of the league, but they can also be a terror off of it by targeting more Wildcats to bring into the fold.
Players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willie Cauley-Stein, Tyler Ulis, Skal Labissiere or even Nerlens Noel are all in less than ideal situations that could fit well within the structure Demps and Alvin Gentry have built. None should be considered reclamation projects as much as they are in need of a change of scenery. Each player mentioned could slide into the roster in certain circumstances and blossom among a supportive, stable and hard working group featuring Davis’s newfound leadership. With each successive addition, the franchise would gain additional interest and enthusiasm from a region the adores basketball and treats its ex-players like royalty.
When Dell drafted Anthony Davis and Darius Miller in 2012, he entrenched a connective tissue between Lexington and New Orleans that has grown only stronger the past few seasons. Each year, more Wildcats come into the league and yet the bond remains. Veteran Wildcats make their way back to campus to train or engage with the current team. A sense of belonging, tradition and family keeps it all intact and leaves an impression that lingers with the next batch of prospects yearning for NBA careers.
What the New Orleans Pelicans’ franchise lacks in well known history or tradition, they may be able to import from the talent and kinship that continues to grow each year inside Rupp Arena — that’s not a bad thing!