By LARRY VAUGHT
Twenty years ago many Kentucky basketball fans were clamoring for then UK coach Tubby Smith to dramatically cut senior Allen Edwards’ playing time.
What fans and media members didn’t know at the time was that Edwards’ mother in Miami was battling breast cancer and would lose that battle before the Southeastern Conference season ended.
Tom Leach of the UK Radio Network remembers the pleas to cut Edwards’ playing time. He noted that from Jan. 13 through the end of the regular season, Edwards averaged 5.7 points per game, shot only 42 percent from the field and went 4-for-20 from 3-point range. He had one double figure scoring game during that six-week stretch.
“I remember the call-in shows hammering Tubby for continuing to play him,” Leach recalled because he was hosting many of those shows when fans hammered Smith over Edwards.
However, Smith never caved and continued to play Edwards, who responded with seven straight double-figure scoring games in postseason play and helped UK win the national championship.
Edwards’ plight reminds me a lot of what freshman Hamidou Diallo and coach John Calipari are enduring right now. Before he got 11 points in Saturday’s win over Missouri, Diallo was averaging 7.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 23 minutes per game in 16 SEC games. That’s not what was expected from the player many felt was UK’s best player/athlete going into the season. He had made just five of 27 3-pointers in SEC play and had 23 turnovers to 11 assists.
Yet Calipari continued to start him. He put P.J. Washington on the bench. He kept Quade Green coming off the bench. But Diallo kept his starting spot much like Edwards did as a sign from the head coaches that they were not giving up on them.
Calipari had been pleading with Diallo to “lose yourself in the team” for weeks because he knew that “athletically he can make plays normal guys can’t make.” Calipari knows his defense and athleticism could be keys for March success just like Smith knew UK needed Edwards to win the title it eventually did.
But get this — Edwards’ teammate Cameron Mills didn’t remember Edwards struggling. At first, that surprised me. Once I thought more about it, though, I realized I should not have been surprised. First, the players knew about Edwards’ mother. Second, teammates are far more supportive than fans and/or media members.
Diallo’s teammates have been the same way. There’s been no finger pointing at Diallo. There’s been no public outbursts over his up and down play.
After his play Saturday when he went 3-for-3 from 3-point range and did not have a turnover in 25 minutes, Calipari gave him a hug in the locker room. Teammates gave him a standing ovation.
“It just shows I got a great group of guys around me,” Diallo said about the ovation from his teammates. “They helped me through a tough time, trying to buoy me. Knowing what I was going through, knowing I got the coaching staff fighting for me, it’s just a blessing.”
Kentucky fans were just as helpful — and Calipari noticed.
“I love the fact that our fans gave Hami a standing ovation. That's what fans should do. Instead of being down on a kid, that's someone's son. That's someone's child. And if it were their child, how would you want them to be treated? And you should see the smile on his face in there. And the players love it. They knew he was struggling,” Calipari said.
Kentucky fans probably would have done the same for Edwards, the head coach at Wyoming now, if they had known about his mother, Laura Mae. She passed just before Kentucky clinched the SEC title with a win over Auburn on Feb. 25. Smith drove Edwards to the airport so he could attend his mother’s wake in Miami and told him to stay home until he was ready to come back.
Edwards returned for the SEC Tournament and had six points in a win over Alabama. He returned home for the funeral and then got back in time for the SEC championship game and had 15 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals to help offset the loss of eventual Final Four MVP Jeff Sheppard who could not play because of a sprained ankle.
Smith resisted pleas to reshape his team and put Edwards on the bench. He preferred to tinker to make his team better — and it worked. Calipari has done the same with Diallo. He said he would not “kick him to the curb” and he didn’t.
“He’s back to being Hami now,” freshman guard Quade Green said after the Missouri win. “He’s out of the rabbit hole he was in.”
Diallo said his “ups and downs” had taken a toll on him but Calipari said he often was in the gym working late at night.
“This path is all about a roller coaster. You’re not going to come in and have a great game every game. What I went through was a bunch of bad games this year, but seeing things go the way they did tonight was really big for me,” Diallo said Saturday. “The whole last month has been tough for me. Hopefully it’s just up from here, God willing.”
Calipari tried to balance helping Diallo with winning games just like Smith did with Edwards. One common thread — both players didn’t let poor game results impact their work ethic and that makes it easier for coaches to stick with those players.
“If they are trying and doing everything right, they deserve to keep getting opportunities because I've done this 35 years. They will breakthrough. It just takes time and it's torturous,” Calipari said.
But it was also very rewarding for Smith and Edwards 20 years ago and maybe Saturday was the start of the same type ending for Calipari and Diallo.
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