On March 7 — senior day in Lexington, Kentucky — three players heard the Rupp Arena public address announcer bellow their names over music and the sound of 24,428 fans in full throat for the first time.
They felt the spotlight beat down on them in the otherwise dark arena for the first time. They stood at center court when the referee tossed the jump ball for the first time.
It would also be the last time. The three seniors — Sam Malone, Tod Lanter and Brian Long — would only play a minute each as Kentucky sought to keep its perfect season alive against Florida. Their presence — that minute — was merely ceremonial, a thank you for all of the hours spent enduring practices knowing they would stay affixed to the bench during games, cheering for teammates bound for NBA riches.
For the trio, who have cumulatively scored four points and grabbed three rebounds through 35 minutes of playing time this season, one minute was enough.
“To be in front of 20,000-plus…” Long said, almost a month removed from that standing ovation, still struggling to find the words that capture what that moment meant.
None of Kentucky’s three seniors stands above 6-foot-2; none weighs more than 190 pounds. They could have played at smaller Division I schools or made names for themselves as standouts in Division II or Division III, but their reason for converging on Lexington and for turning down scholarship opportunities at lower levels is the same.
To a man, they say they couldn’t turn down the opportunity to set foot on the biggest stage possible, even if that meant only standing in the spotlight for those few fleeting seconds on senior day.
“I know I did the right thing,” Lanter said. “I do miss playing. I miss the feeling of being in a significant game and feeling like I’m a bigger contributor than I am on this team. But I also know what it took to get me here and it’s been a decision I’ve never regretted.”
Lanter is a Lexington native who grew up dreaming of seeing “Kentucky” printed across his chest in bold blue letters. He played two seasons at a community college in Florida, then was confronted with a difficult decision.
|2015 Men’s Basketball Final Four|
|Lopresti: Indy, the intersection of Final Four history|
|Burnsed: Izzo doesn’t own March, the Spartans do|
|Lopresti: Laid-back Wis. has charmed the tournament|
|Kroll: Coach K eyes perfect 3-for-3 in Indy Final Fours|
Scholarship offers emerged: Mid-major Division I programs coveted his services; he could have gone to an elite Division II program and played a significant role; or he could go home as a walk-on.
He had no delusions about what going home would entail. He understood the implications of his choice. He understood that he would be ceding the chance to ever play a meaningful minute ever again despite spending hours practicing and training alongside some of the nation’s top athletes.
But any doubts, he said, were squashed the first time he walked into the locker room and saw his name on the back of that blue-and-white jersey he had adored since he was a child.
The toughest part of being one of Kentucky’s 14th, 15th and 16th men, Lanter said, is competing against a slew of future first round picks every day in practice. It’s a privilege, he said, but grappling with the 7-foot, 240-pound Willie Cauley-Stein in the lane during a drill comes with consequences.
“I’ve taken a lot of beatings,” Lanter said.
The seniors are more than mere punching bags, though. They are tasked with mastering an upcoming opponent’s playbook in a matter of days. Malone serves as a de facto member of the scout team, synthesizing a new offensive system a few times every week so that Kentucky’s starters can acclimate to the sets they will face on game day.
And though he knows he won’t play, he studies hard thanks to a coach, John Calipari, who treats him like any other player.
“Coach Cal is not a very patient person,” Malone quipped. “So you really have to focus.”
Like Lanter, Malone had opportunities to play for smaller programs, but passed. He came to Kentucky all the way from Scituate, Massachusetts because he had attended Calipari’s basketball camps throughout his youth.
When Calipari offered a walk-on spot to Malone as he worked to rehab a knee injury after high school, he couldn’t pass it up, even if he knew he would perpetually be stuck behind a stream of top recruits who would call Lexington home for one or two years at a time.
Despite playing so infrequently, he can call himself a national champion — he was a freshman at Kentucky when the Wildcats captured the title in 2011 — and this year marks his third trip to the Final Four. He misses playing in games, but says being part of a team that has reached the pinnacle so often makes the sacrifice worthwhile.
“I’d rather be on the end of the bench here than starting at most DI schools. It’s an experience that most people don’t get,” Malone said. “Some days you really miss it … When you get in the game you don’t want it to end.”
The trio’s younger teammates, though on different trajectories, appreciate having the seniors on the team. Seconds before freshman guard Tyler Ulis buried a crucial three-pointer against Notre Dame last weekend, he says the arena went quite save for Long’s voice in the background compelling him to shoot.
“We’re all here for each other and they’re family too,” Ulis said of his less-heralded teammates.
Long landed at Kentucky because his father, a high school basketball coach, had been a longtime friend of Calipari’s. When Calipari offered Long a walk-on spot on the team, he accepted it without hesitation — he didn’t apply to any other schools.
The lengthy days balancing practice and class have been the toughest part of playing for Kentucky, he said, but they have been worth it because he will get to tell his children he was a part of a team that made three Final Fours and, perhaps, one that finished an unprecedented 40-0 should Kentucky emerge from Indianapolis unscathed.
That, the three seniors agree, would be well worth college careers spent on the periphery of the spotlight.
“We don’t want it to end,” Long said.
If you’re the last guy on the bench of a Final Four team, this is your view at Lucas Oil Stadium. pic.twitter.com/LT0IJfQc3Q
— George Schroeder (@GeorgeSchroeder) April 2, 2015