UK fans unveil a banner in the eRupption Zone. (Photo from UK Athletics)
When UK redshirt sophomore guard Ryan Harrow first found out his team would be the subject of a new ESPN All-Access television series, he had his doubts.
According to a news release, the program, All-Access Kentucky, will provide a “never-before-seen perspective of the Wildcats preparation for the basketball season.” That perspective includes looks at players’ lives off the court, and their practices on it.
It was the look at the on-the-court action that initially concerned Harrow.
“We’re going to get yelled at,” he said. “I’m probably going to get yelled at the most.”
Being around the camera crews for several days now has assuaged some of Harrow’s fears.
“I wasn’t a big fan of it at first, but I think it’s pretty cool we’ll be on ESPN, a lot of people will get to know who we are on and off the court and see what we actually have to go through,” he said.
Harrow wasn’t the only Wildcat who needed convincing that the show would be worth the trouble.
When the school was first approached by ESPN with the idea, head coach John Calipari’s answer was simple: no.
The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” initially tried to sell UK on the idea by noting the boost to exposure and recruiting the show would provide.
“I said I don’t think we need help,” Calipari said with a smile at UK’s media day Thursday. “I think we’re okay.”
After about a month, UK finally agreed to ESPNs proposal for at least the preseason. Whether the program will continue after games start remains to be seen. For now, three episodes are scheduled to air at 7 p.m. on Oct. 17, 24 and 31.
“We decided, you know what, let them come in for awhile and see how it plays out,” Calipari said.
In addition to filming workouts and practice-type activities, the ESPN crews have already started following some players off the court.
The cameras visited an English class with freshmen Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein this week.
“Luckily we didn’t have to do anything,” Poythress said. “We didn’t have to say any speeches or anything.”
The experience has been a little different for graduate student Julius Mays.
“They don’t want to sit in my two-and-a-half hour classes,” he joked.
Upon announcing the show, ESPN promised “a trip inside the lives of Coach Cal, his staff and the players, the fight for playing time, what happens in the weight room, the inside jokes and pranks.”
A look inside Harrow’s life off the court this week left him in somewhat of an awkward situation.
“They were just in my room yesterday watching me play PS3,” he said. “I was just playing the game, and they were just watching me play. It’s cool, but it’s kind of weird that you’ve got a camera behind you while you’re playing the game and you’ve got to watch what you say.”
Goodwin said no cameras have been invited into his room.
“When I’m in my room, nobody else is in there,” he said. “I close the door and go to sleep. That’s the only time I’m in my room. If they were trying to be in my room, all they would see is me sleeping. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to see that.”
While UK players are no strangers to the media spotlight, several said it took a few days to get used to the ESPN crew being around.
Now they don’t even think twice about it.
“Now it’s just kind of like they’re part of the family,” said freshman Nerlens Noel. “They’re just hanging out with us, just cracking jokes and everything. You just see them, and it’s just like go about your day.”
“At the beginning, you kind of noticed they were there,” said sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. “Now it’s just kind of like it’s in the background. We’re focused so much on becoming a better basketball team, it’s just kind of you forget about it.”
Calipari said he has no concerns about other coaches or fans gleaning any inside information for viewing practice footage or what might otherwise be private moments between him and his team.
“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. “I’m not embarrassed about how we do our jobs. I’m not embarrassed about our kids or how we coach.”
He’s informed ESPN that the show can’t be about him. Instead, he wants viewers to gain a better understanding of how his team is able to blend egos of highly touted recruits into a winning team.
“What I hope comes across is that this is a good group of kids,” he said. “They come together. They shared sacrifice. They know they’re going to give up stuff. They work hard. They go to class. They do what they’re supposed to do.”
Calipari acknowledged the chance to needle some detractors might also have played a role in the decision to let the cameras in.
“Did I do it just because of that to aggravate people? Might have,” he said. “I may have said that: Let’s aggravate everybody and do this.”
Harrow has his own goal for the show.
“A lot of people think you come to Kentucky and it’s sweet. It’s really not,” he said. “It’s really hard, but that’s what you signed up for when you chose to come to a university like this and you’ve got to play in front of all these people and you’re on TV every night. You can’t be bad.”
Now players are just as eager as fans to see what the show will look like.
“I have no idea,” Cauley-Stein said of his expectations for the show. “I’m anxious to watch it though.”
And what about those initial concerns?
Their faith in Calipari has allowed players to put those trepidations aside.
“It’s something he feels is good for us as a whole, so if he says it’s good for us then it is,” Goodwin said. “It’s Coach Cal, it’s a monarchy.”