When I was growing up in rural Virginia, I initially became a UK fan by default because my father Richard was one. I can still remember being depressed when we were on probation and no Kentucky games were going to be on TV the next year. It meant it would be hard for me to follow the team other than on SportsCenter and the occasional AM reception broadcast, of course aided by tin foil, paper clips, and an open window.
In 1992 when the Unforgettables were on the precipice of their banner-worthy efforts, I was 14 years old and my love for basketball was burgeoning. During the summers, I would break into the local middle school to get up some shots and work on my game. The following year a guy named Travis Ford took over the point guard role for the departed Sean Woods and I was a freshman in high school. I could not believe what I was seeing; here was a guy that stood the same height as me at 5'9" (Ford) and he was the floor general for what had become my obsession — UK basketball.
It only stood to reason that seeing Ford drop a running one hander down the lane, effortlessly draining a 25 footer, or making no look passes to Jamal Mashburn inspired me to think that I could make it to Lexington one day and do the same. Obviously that did not happen; I did not have the ability to overcome my physical shortcomings.
My point in telling you this is that being "short" at every level of basketball I played and living in a town of 1,300 meant about 1,297 of those folks made it no secret that I could not make it, I was too short!
- I was too small to dribble among the trees
- I should only play intramurals because I will not make the official teams
- I should consider going to the small high school because I cannot compete at the bigger one
- I should learn in Junior Varsity cause I will not make the Varsity
- I will never play meaningful minutes
- I will never be a starter
- I will never be one of the leaders of my team
While I proved them wrong on a smaller scale, my basketball achievements stopped after high school. Having said that, I NEVER would have been able to do what I did without those voices and judgments motivating me. I wanted so badly to prove everyone wrong that I would go to open gym after football practice in the fall and I would go to open gym after baseball practice in the spring. I carried a chip on my shoulder everywhere I went and while I did not have near the abilities of Tyler Ulis... I know exactly where he is coming from and why he is going to be special.
So how did this 5'9", 145-pound dynamo come to be a future member of Big Blue Nation? Tyler Ulis grew up in Lima, Ohio and after his 8th grade year, he made the decision to move to Chicago with his Dad. He was heralded in Ohio and had earned respect as a player who could lead a team, but as is the case with anyone out to beat the world, he wanted more. Moving to Chicago would put him in a spotlight and Ulis knew it would either make him or break him as a major basketball player; but he had to know.
Ulis was a 5'3" freshman that started from day one and while he did not realize success immediately, he kept doing what he did best; proving people wrong.
"For all the smaller guys, you can do it," Ulis said. "You have to work, but don't let anyone tell you what you cannot do. I never saw my size as a problem. Our whole team was not that big, but we went out and hustled, got rebounds, played good defense."
Because Ulis did not experience immediate success, there were whispers of him needing to transfer and the decision to step out of his comfort zone of the Ohio success was weighing on him.
"My freshman year I thought about (transferring) a lot," Ulis said. "A lot of people talked to me about transferring. I felt like if I left my team and friends, that would be a coward way."
Ulis would stick it out and go on to even more success at Marian, culminating in a final two years for the record books that would put him on the national recruiting map. In his final two seasons Ulis would be the McDipper Tournament MVP and the Times player of the year. The only other players to ever earn that honor were all NBA alums: Eddy Curry, Julian Wright, and Melvin Ely.
Ulis finished his senior season averaging 23.3 Points per game, 6.8 assists per game, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. Ulis essentially put Marian Catholic on the map in his final two seasons according to head coach Mike Taylor:
"He definitely did (put the program on the map)," Marian coach Mike Taylor said of Ulis. "We had the chance to play all over and some big events in Chicago. People know about our program and more importantly, it gets the word out about our school and people will take notice about what we have to offer academically and athletically."
Coach Taylor would go on to describe some of the more outstanding traits of Ulis:
"The thing that stands out with Tyler is his desire to win," Taylor said. "He didn't care about points or assists, but he did care about winning and he can manage the game, run the floor real well. He got everyone involved and that was a big plus because you had to guard everyone on our team."
Ultimately, Ulis has lived a life of being the underdog, and I am guessing he has been the butt of jokes until he stepped on the court. This has done nothing but fuel his competitive fire and eliminate any sense of entitlement. Now, I am not diminishing the guys who are considered "can't miss recruits" from their 8th grade years until graduation. I am simply pointing out that a guy like Tyler Ulis, who has been told he cannot do it for so many years, develop a callused shield that takes the negativity and turns it into fuel.
The criticism of those who have been told "Yes" from day one of their basketball lives is that they do not know how to initially handle adversity. This is not a knock on the person, but an indictment of the flaw of the system. Gregg Doyel wrote one of the best articles I have read in a long time titled "System works for Harrison Twins, media projections were way off." The truth of the matter is some players develop later than others. Many of Coach Cal's uber recruits have not run up against players as talented as they were, and the adjustment period is evident.
Ulis has broken through and become a major recruit, headed to Lexington to play for point guard guru John Calipari. At this place in anyone's career, to have Coach Cal want you to play for him means you have made it and it is only a matter of time before you are signing an NBA contract. However, Ulis will continue working as hard as he possibly can to get better and to better the Wildcats. Ulis' desire to win and to disprove the naysayers are going to help produce something special in Lexington for the next several years. Enjoy it, Big Blue Nation. I know I will on a personal level.