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The first question directed at UK head coach John Calipari after he won his first national championship in March was if he would admit winning a title meant more to him than he had previously let on.
He didn’t take the bait.
“I told my wife, I’m glad it’s done,” he responded. “Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be.”
Six months later has Calipari followed through on his promise that winning a championship wouldn’t change him?
The two UK basketball players who have known him the longest think he has.
“You see two different sides of him as far as knowing him then seeing him coach,” said sophomore Brian Long in a preseason interview with KyForward. “Even this year for the small two or three weeks that we’ve been on campus, he’s been the same person as far as coaching and meetings and things at his house.”
“I don’t think so. Maybe he’s a little bit more upbeat, but he’s focused on this year,” said sophomore Sam Malone in an interview with KyForward. “There’s no backing off. He’s still going to coach us just like he did last year.”
It was an adjustment for both players to get used to the difference between Calipari on the court and the man they knew off it.
“There was a little bit of an adjustment, but I’ve always known he wants what’s best for his players,” Malone said. “When you have that in the back of your mind, you know what to do. You’re not afraid of him as a coach or anything like that.”
“If he feels a certain way, he’s going to let you know about it. I kind of knew that coming in,” Long said. “I had my certain expectations of what it was going to be like. It’s different, but you just get a feel of how passionate he is and how good of a coach he really is. Seeing all that is really fun.”
For his part, Calipari only acknowledges one moment this summer where he took the time to reflect after winning his first title.
“There was a video done about the last three years. I watched that video because (UK Associate Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy) gave it to me,” he said. “I watched that video and it kind of touched me, like, wow. You think back, and you’re like, ‘Man.” And then I said, ‘Alright, what’s next?’
Gaining a new perspective on Calipari as a coach was just one experience for Long and Malone in their first year at UK.
Long, a 5-foot-9 guard from Dumont, N. J., appeared in 12 games on the season, totaling two points on free throws.
Malone, a 5-foot-11 guard from Scituate, Mass., played in six games, totaling six points, before missing the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Both players were along for the ride during UK’s national championship run.
“Just being a part of it was unbelievable,” Long said. “It was surreal.”
“It was a great experience to both be part of the team and be in uniform then be on the bench in street clothes, taking a step back and really taking the whole thing in,” Malone said. “You really see everything. It was a great experience, and it was a great end.”
Most of the duo’s contribution to the team came as extra players in practice.
“There’s no pressure on me to perform,” Malone said. “Only in practice. That’s where I want to do well. If I’m successful in games, if I get to play in games, then that’s great.”
When either player got in a game last season it was a memorable event, especially at Rupp Arena.
Frequently late in blowout wins, UK fans will begin to chant the names of the players on the end of the bench who don’t see the court often, hoping to urge Calipari to put them in the lineup.
Then when they do enter the game, the players can be sure to hear plenty of pleas to “shoot” every time they touch the ball.
“When I’m in the game, I don’t really even notice it because I’m so focused on the game,” Malone said. “After, it’s definitely a thrill. It’s indescribable really.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Long said of the feeling when fans chant his name. “You kind of just smile and laugh. It’s a different feeling I guess. Being able to step out on the court in front of 24,000 people cheering for you is unbelievable.”
If the 2012-13 Wildcats accomplish their team goals this season, there will undoubtedly be plenty of opportunities for the two smallest players on the roster to get a chance in games.
For Long and Malone, those opportunities are a bonus.
“I’m just trying to work as hard as I can to make myself better and my teammates better,” Long said. “Whether it’s workouts or practice or academics or whatever it may be, I’m just trying to do whatever I can to make sure I help my teammates out.”
In the two weeks before Big Blue Madness, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be previewing the 2012-13 UK men’s basketball series with a profile of each of the 12 Wildcats as well as other features to get you ready for the team’s attempt to repeat as National Champions. Previous profiles in the series have focused on Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Ryan Harrow. On the KyForward UK Sports Tumblr you can read more from the one-on-one interviews with Brian Long and Sam Malone. Tomorrow’s profile looks at Kyle Wiltjer.