Thursday, March 18, 1999

Padgett living his dream

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Scott Padgett gets a hug from coach Tubby Smith after beating Kansas.
| ZOOM |
        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Scott Padgett will tell you his dreams are to play in the National Basketball Association and be a professional wrestler.

        But as he says this, Kentucky's senior basketball star is regaling the media with quips, greeting young fans and signing autographs. One can easily envision a leap from Rupp Arena to the political arena.

        “That's my nickname for him: "Senator,'” says Bill Keightley, UK's equipment manager the past 37 years. “He's shaking hands, kissing babies. He'll even give you a little speech if necessary.”

        As Kentucky continues defense of its NCAA championship, next meeting Miami University in a Sweet 16 game Friday in St. Louis, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward ranks as the team leader in nearly every category: Points. Rebounds. Game-winning shots. Motivational speeches. And, yes, even personal comebacks.

        It's a riches-to-rags and back-to-riches story.

        Kentucky kid grows up idolizing UK. Signs with Wildcats. Flunks out. Juggles three jobs, hates them. Comes back, makes academic all-star team. Hits big shots to beat Duke last year and rescue team against Kansas Sunday.

        The humble hero often shares his cautionary tale with reporters. It's a down-to-earth dialogue:

        “I've been on opposite ends of the spectrum. I've been cleaning people's gutters, putting mulch down and bagging leaves in the same five-year period I became a good college basketball player. So I know what it can be like being on the other side.”

        Ultimately, that's what makes his play so inspired.

        Those who saw him Sunday, sinking the game-tying three-pointer with 18.7 seconds left in regulation and totaling a career-high 29 points in an overtime victory, know Padgett won't let this team go quietly. He has grown up watching his heros wear Wildcat jerseys, and it's his turn to make magic.

        “He's a home-grown boy who lived out his dream playing for Kentucky,” UK coach Tubby Smith says. “It's a real human-interest story about him, showing you can overcome adversity and achieve.”

        As millions do, Padgett became a UK fan from his father. Wilbur Padgett would root for the Wildcats on TV, and Scott would join in. Though he was a four-sport athlete, he threw himself into basketball by the time he reached St. Xavier High School in Louisville.

        Though he made the all-state team his senior year, he wasn't considered a blue-chip recruit. When then-UK coach Rick Pitino called the summer before his senior year, Scott was stunned.

        “We're interested in you,” Mr. Pitino said. “How interested are you in Kentucky?”

        “Well, let's just say if you were to offer me a scholarship,” Padgett replied, “I would take it.”

        “Well, we'll definitely be offering you a scholarship.”

        “OK. I'll take it.”

        The struggles began immediately. He drew a suspension from his high school coach, Joe Bergamini, and then -- in his only high school game in Cincinnati -- broke his wrist when fouled at the buzzer in a victory over Newport Central Catholic at Shoemaker Center.

        He missed more than half of his senior season, then arrived at UK to whispers about his recruitment. Wilbur has said his son heard, “You'll sit the bench. Kentucky signed you because you're a white boy from Kentucky.”

        Padgett was eager to prove his critics wrong, but UK's lineup was loaded. His freshman year, he was playing behind future NBA draftees Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty.

        He played in just 14 games, averaging 2.0 points. He wasn't even able to practice against the regulars.

        “There were so many people that were better than me,” Padgett says. “I gave up on basketball and academics as well. It was, like, "What's the point?' That really wasn't the right attitude.”

        He jokes that he can't tell the stories from that season but admits he earned a label of “party animal.” Coming from an all-boys high school, college life seemed decidely up-tempo.

        “I didn't miss too many happy hours,” he says. His description of a typical day then: “Sleep, then individual (workouts), sleep, class — every now and then — practice, sleep, stay up until about 3 a.m., sleep, and then more partying.”

        He flunked out.

        “When you get up to UK — the girls, basketball, you're a star — school can fall down to the bottom of the list,” Bergamini says. “That's immaturity. Obviously, it woke him up.”

        Although he was out of school, Padgett had still qualified to make the team's trip to Italy after his freshman season. With Jared Prickett recovering from knee surgery, Padgett got to play, and he played well enough to draw a comment from Pitino that he might one day allow him to return to the team.

        Padgett went home for his academic suspension and worked three jobs: landscaping; selling toasters, radios and blenders on the phone; and delivering treadmills and stationary bicycles.

        “Cleaning out gutters and stuff, that was not one of your real pleasant jobs,” he says. “And yeah, I did some phone solicitations — the same people I hang up on now.

        “After doing that, I realized I'd much rather be doing something in basketball than anything like that. The only way I was going to do anything in basketball was get back here (to UK) and take care of business on the court.”

        When the Wildcats won the 1996 national championship, he was watching on TV at his girlfriend's apartment.

        “To sit out and miss all that, that was tough,” he says. “I was nervous. I didn't know exactly what was going to happen.”

        Padgett had his backers. Several coaches knew he remained a raw talent, and others thought he hadn't gotten a fair shake.

        “I probably stuck with him when others thought he couldn't make it,” Keightley said. “I kept bending Rick's ear about this kid. When he came back, he had to prove himself.”

        Finally, Pitino agreed to let him rejoin the team, but only if he got a 3.0 grade-point average. Padgett says he thinks Pitino agreed to it because UK was losing Antoine Walker, who left for the NBA after his sophomore season.

        “I don't think he thought I'd ever be back,” Padgett says. “He didn't think I could do it. But I wanted to do my best to put it back in his face, really.”

        In his first game back after 21 months, Padgett scored 12 points at Georgia Tech — nearly half the total of his freshman year. He would become invaluable for his versatility, being able to score and rebound inside, shoot from the perimeter, or pass off to open teammates.

        He would go on to average 9.6 points and 5.1 rebounds that season, nearly winning UK the championship with 15 second-half points in the NCAA title-game loss to Arizona.

        He further blossomed last season, making second team all-Southeastern Conference and the league's 20-member academic honor roll with a 3.44 GPA. He led UK to the championship by downing Duke with a last-minute three-pointer and scoring a game-high 17 points in the NCAA final against Utah.

        Now he's averaging team highs of 12.5 points and 6.0 rebounds, and stepping up production as his career closes. He earned MVP honors in the SEC Tournament two weeks ago and peaked with that career night against Kansas.

        “I'm probably surprising a few people with how I've turned out,” Padgett says. “But I always believed I could succeed at this level. I'm grateful for the second chance I got. I've just tried to make the most of it.”

        He credits wrestling and college basketball — both of which he watches religiously on TV — for providing outlets for his free time. “I don't get out much,” he says, “but that's fine.”

        The social work major had a perfect 4.0 GPA last semester. He is engaged to marry Cynthia Dozier, a former UK volleyball player, on Aug. 7.

        “Honest to God, I could care less what happens to Scott on the court,” Bergamini says. “Just the fact that he's doing well, he's engaged now, he's doing well in school — it looks like he's set.

        “If Coach Pitino and Coach Smith have helped him grow up, that's what it's all about.”