Being directly connected with a 118-year old family tree of Basketball, through his University of Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp, many would expect the longtime Miami Heat President Pat Riley to have a special bond with all those UK products coming into the NBA. Over the last decade alone, John Calipari’s UK One and Done system have produced an unbelievable total of 37 NBA draft picks! A couple of those represent the Miami Heat in the ongoing 2020 NBA finals – Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
“Well, we have to have a few Kentucky guys on our team because of my boss. That’s like a prerequisite. Somehow, someway we’ve got to get somebody from his alma mater on our roster.”Erik Spoelstra, USA Today
Even though the 2020 NBA finals feature six former Kentucky Wildcats, as players or coaches, a look into the history books reveals that the Heat was often a ‘safe haven’ for all those UK phenoms.
Riley’s road to glory went through the mid-1960s University of Kentucky squad coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp. The team led by its All-American star 6’4” guard, peaked in 1966 by reaching the NCAA final. The epic game in which the UK eventually lost to UTEP had been revived in the 2006 basketball movie Glory Road.
Riley began his tenure in Miami a quarter of a century ago, in the early September of 1995. That first year he tried out the handful of players to find the matching teammates for the team’s new core – Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Among numerous players who went through Miami for the 1995-96 season were the UK products SG Rex Chapman and PF LeRon Ellis.
In the process of finding the right combination for winning the Eastern Conference, Riley found one of the suitable matches in high-scoring forward Jamaal Mashburn, the most publicized UK product of the 1990s. Monster Mash came in Miami in February of 1997, immediately helping the team clinch the Atlantic Division title with a 61-21 record, before falling to the Chicago Bulls by 1-4 in the Eastern Conference finals.
After dissolving that special late 1990s squad, it took Riley one decade to assemble the next championship-caliber team, around superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. The Heat won its first-ever NBA championship title back in 2006. But for Riles, it was never Irishman’s luck. That particular group of players featured the largest number of UK players at the Heat roster ever – Derek Anderson, Gerald Fitch, and Antoine Walker.
“We love Kentucky players because you’re there to get better, to be pushed, to understand what it means to play for a team, play a role, and to train to become a pro at this level. You’re going to face good competition in practice. You’re going to be expected to work. It’s an environment that, as much as it possibly can, prepares you for the pros, even though it’s at the collegiate level.”Erik Spoelstra, USA Today
Except for Adebayo and Herro, only three other UK players played for the Miami Heat over the last decade – C Jamaal Magloire (2008-11), C Josh Harrellson (2012-13), and SG DeAndre Liggins (2013-14). Kind of surprising bearing in mind Riley’s background, instructions, and a bold fact that an incredible total of 37 UK players has been selected in the NBA draft over the last ten years.
Having prolonged the incredible 2020 postseason run to the NBA finals, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are providing new, substantial evidence that the presence of UK players is an appreciated roster dimension for Pat Riley’s team.