On the weekend before Santa Claus comes to town, Kentucky freshman Tyler Ulis returns to Chicago. It’s a homecoming, of course, but more. It’s also a signpost of how far the-little-point-guard-that-could has come and, perhaps, how much farther he can go.
“Just another step along this journey he’s on, which is pretty incredible,” said Mike Taylor, who coached Ulis at Marian Catholic High in Chicago Heights.
When asked what he meant by Ulis’ journey, Taylor said, “What we’ve said from the very beginning is that there’s no limits on him. I think it’s unlimited. He’s got the desire and the work ethic and the skill to take this as far as he wants to take it.”
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Ulis’ struggle for acceptance as a top-drawer player is well known. A marquee college basketball game like Kentucky-UCLA in the United Center on Saturday provides additional evidence that Ulis is a player, not a novelty.
“I know he wants to play in the NBA,” Taylor said. “And I think each day there becomes fewer and fewer non-believers. He’s got the vision, not only on the floor, but in his life, and I think he’s headed that way.”
Among the longtime believers is James Ulis, Tyler’s father. In the summer before his son’s freshman year of high school, he convinced him to leave his mother and the familiar surroundings of Lima, Ohio, and move to Chicago. And it took some convincing, as it did for Ulis’ close friend and UK teammate Devin Booker, who left Grand Rapids, Michigan to join his father in Moss Point, Mississippi.
“It’s hard when you think of the love,” James Ulis said of his son leaving Lima.
Besides strengthening the bond with his father, Chicago represented a premier testing ground. Its incredibly rich high school basketball history (George Mikan, Isiah Thomas, Quinn Buckner, Doc Rivers, Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and such former UK players as Anthony Davis, Antoine Walker and Nazr Mohammed, to name only a few) held an I-can-make-it-anywhere allure.
“The best opportunity to showcase his talent,” the elder Ulis said.
Ulis had visited his father many times, so he had a sense of the challenge ahead.
“He watched the intensity of the games and how tough it was,” James Ulis said. “The atmosphere [and] the energy was off the charts. He wanted to play in that.”
— Mike Taylor, Ulis’ HS coach
Ulis excelled. He is Marian Catholic’s career leader in points (2,335), assists (578) and steals (283). But competition made him sweat. “He didn’t have many games in high school he could just breeze through,” his father said.
Taylor Bell, who has covered high school basketball in Illinois since the late 1960s, said that Ulis slowly and steadily made converts.
“At one time, none of the big-time colleges gave him any respect because of his size when he was going into his junior year,” Bell said.
Ulis commanded attention because of how well he played as a high school junior and then in the summer before his senior season. Kentucky’s recruiting interest surprised followers of Chicago high school basketball only because of UK Coach John Calipari’s history of signing only the truly elite.
“I don’t think people thought with Kentucky he was in over his head,” Bell said of Ulis. “Maybe there was a surprise that Kentucky came for him because Kentucky can virtually have anybody they want.”
Earlier this season, Calipari likened Ulis to two Chicagoans he had coached: Rose and Davis. What prompted that comment was how Ulis, like Rose and Davis before him, changed the tenor of a game.
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg suggested that Ulis could supply the X factor energy that had been supplied by Alex Poythress, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last Thursday.
“They’re going to miss his energy plays,” Greenberg said of Poythress. “They’re going to miss his running the guy down. They’re going to miss his flying in from the weak side and making the plays he made in the NCAA Tournament last year.
“Now, they’re going to get those plays out of Tyler Ulis. I think he’s more of their energy bunny guy.”
For Taylor, Ulis represents the essence of Chicago, on the basketball court and otherwise, in how he will not be deterred.
“How determined people are and how hard they’ll work,” the high school coach said of Chicagoans. “They’re not afraid of getting their hands dirty or go in there and work. You don’t consider Tyler or Anthony or Derrick prima donnas. They work for what they get.”
After UK beat North Carolina last weekend, Ulis said he could use “30-plus” tickets on Saturday. He added that he will use his allotted four tickets for his father and mother and their spouses.
“I have four parents,” he said of his family’s support.
Earlier this season, James Ulis received a text from a relative. Uncle David noted how Tyler seemed comfortable and productive as a Kentucky player.
“I told David, you’re right, he was made for this,” James Ulis said. “I think that’s why he’s having a lot of success.”