By Laura Coulter
When Jeff Sheppard was in sixth grade, he was given a writing assignment: if he could switch places with anyone in the world, who would it be? Sheppard wrote that he wanted to switch places with Larry Bird and play for the Boston Celtics, but first he wanted to play basketball at the University of Kentucky.
The latter part of Sheppard’s dream came true in a fantastic way when the Georgia native was recruited to play for the Wildcats. He was on the team from 1993-1998, redshirting the ’96-‘97 season. He was coached by Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith. Sheppard is perhaps best remembered for his role as a leader on the ’97-‘98 “Comeback Cats” championship team—the last time Kentucky managed to earn the elusive NCAA tournament title. Sheppard was also part of the 1996 championship team—one hailed by many as one of the top college basketball teams of all time.
Sheppard said his time playing ball for Kentucky was “awesome.” And most Cats fans would agree. In his four years of eligibility, UK won 124 out of their 142 games and went 16-2 in the NCAA Tournament. Sheppard himself scored 43 points (with a career high of 27 against Stanford) in the two 1998 Final Four games and was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player in that tournament.
“Both championship runs are definitely memories that stick out because they ended so well,” Sheppard said. “So many college athletes don’t get to end with a win; they normally end with a loss. I ended both my junior and senior seasons with a win. You’re remembered differently when you end your career with a win.”
Sheppard also remembers fondly the bond the team had off the court. Hanging out at the Wildcat Lodge, playing cards, going bowling and playing laser tag are a few of the ways the team spent time together. Sheppard said their camaraderie off the court “brought the team together and allowed [them] to win the championships [they] were able to win.”
Sheppard still keeps in contact with his former Kentucky teammates, many of whom are now coaches. He said it is fun to see them coach and be successful.
After college, Sheppard spent one season playing professionally for the Atlanta Hawks and three years playing in Italy. Almost 14 years since he last put on a Kentucky uniform, Sheppard now lives in London, Ky., with his wife Stacey (herself a former UK basketball player) and their two children, Madison, 11, and Reed, 7. He enjoys spending time with his kids and helping coach them in basketball and soccer.
“God’s just really been good to me and my family,” Sheppard said. “My wife and I have been married since 1998. Every day is not perfect by any means, but every day is full of challenges and new excitement and joy.”
Sheppard and his wife own and run 15inc (15 was Sheppard’s jersey number in college and the pros), a custom apparel company based in London that sells T-shirts and other promotional products. He spends much of his time at the company working with customers.
Sheppard and his family are still big fans of Kentucky basketball. They watch the games on TV as much as they can. Last year they were able to go to the SEC tournament. Sheppard worked with last season’s senior big man and fan favorite Josh Harrellson, setting up appearances and autograph sessions for Harrellson’s “Jorts Tour” last year.
Sheppard is also behind the Big Blue All-Stars, a team made up of former UK stars, including Harrellson, Brandon Knight, and Jodie Meeks, just to name a few. In October 2011, the All-Stars played five games against top NAIA college teams and one against a team of “Villains” such as Corey Brewer, Shelvin Mack, and Coach Christian Laettner. The games raised money for The V Foundation for Cancer Research. He hopes to hold future Big Blue All-Stars events in the future, and he said more information will be available at BigBlueAllStars.com as it becomes available.
Public speaking is a big part of Sheppard’s life now, as well. He appears at schools, businesses, and churches across the state. He spoke at Big Hill Christian Church in Richmond on Thursday night, February 23, to raise money for Richmond-based Bluegrass Christian School. He shared some of his story and encouraged listeners to have a positive impact on their families and communities, and to pursue their dreams and God’s purposes for their lives.
Kentucky basketball had a huge impact on Sheppard’s life. “First of all,” he said, “I live in Kentucky. Being a former basketball player, it influences every day of your life because Kentucky basketball is so big.”
Sheppard enjoys traveling around the state, meeting fans, and getting the opportunity to be a positive influence in people’s lives. “It’s a real blessing to live here in this state and work with and meet the people of Kentucky on a daily basis… Basketball has given me a really neat platform in the community—I get to do speaking events, basketball camps and games. I look forward to doing that for years to come.”
Sheppard strongly believes in taking what he’s learned in basketball and applying it to his life. He said teamwork is an important part of everything he does—from being at home with his family to working with employees and customers.
“Basketball is a lot like life,” Sheppard said. “You can try to perform individually, but you can’t win championships individually in basketball. You can’t do that in life either. It takes a good team and only when you understand that can you really succeed individually as well.”
As for his thoughts on this year’s Wildcats, Sheppard thinks they have a real chance of going all the way. “That’s the goal every single year at Kentucky—to put a team out on the floor that will win the national championship,” he said.
“They have the parts and the talent and the coach that can make a run at the tournament. They just have to do it. They need to improve, peak at the right time, stay healthy. It’s easy to talk about… but hard to do. They understand that. Some of them have some key tournament experience. That’s very important. When you look at that, it all adds up to them having a chance to win the national championship this year and that’s what we’re hoping for.”