In a candid interview with Lex, Buds, & Pick ‘n Roll, Kenny Walker discusses the need for John Calipari to make a Final Four this season, Shaedon Sharpe, and how he helped get Rick Pitino to UK.
Posted by: Tyler Bentley
Kenny “Sky” Walker. The slam dunk champ. The number 2 all-time leading scorer in Kentucky history. And personally, my favorite nickname ever associated with a UK player. We learned a lot from our recent interview with Kenny on Episode 91 of the Lex, Buds, & Pick ‘n Roll podcast, including: an incredible story involving Larry Bird, how he helped get Rick Pitino to Kentucky, the current state of the basketball program, and of course everyone’s favorite topic, Shaedon Sharpe. Kenny was an open-book for the nearly two hours we spoke to him, and if you love UK basketball I would strongly encourage you to listen to the full interview wherever you get your podcasts (links at the end of the article).
But if you’re the type who always read the Cliff Notes before a test instead of actually reading the book, we’ve summed up all of the important stuff you’ll want to check out below. Warning, there are some hot takes!
Kenny Walker on John Calipari continuing to tout the number of UK players who get drafted each year:
“We don’t care how many guys you send to the NBA.”
“People are not impressed anymore with guys just coming to Kentucky and going to the NBA…They don’t give out a trophy for how many guys that play in the NBA.”
“Calipari’s got to be more real with himself.”
Contrary to the belief of John Calipari, NBA Draft night is not the most important night of the year for Kentucky fans. When UK is going to Final Fours and cutting down nets, it can be the icing on the cake to a spectacular season. But when we don’t have success in March, still bragging about how many guys we send to the league just doesn’t quite sit as well. Kenny says that he tells this to Coach Cal all the time: “We don’t care how many guys you send to the NBA. The only thing we care about is winning a championship. If we win a championship if one guy goes or the whole team goes we don’t care. But you’ve got to win the championship and it’s been a long time since we’ve had an opportunity.”
“People are not impressed anymore with guys just coming to Kentucky and going to the NBA. They don’t give out a trophy for how many guys that play in the NBA. We would win it (if they did). But last I checked they don’t give out awards for that.” Walker explained that for Calipari’s system to work, as it did when he had massive success in his early days at Kentucky, he has to recruit the most elite talent.
“Calipari’s got to be more real with himself. He knows that kids are coming to Kentucky and are using Kentucky as a stepping stone to get to the NBA. The only problem is, he’s not dominating recruiting like he did the first 7 years.”
Kenny Walker on the state of the Kentucky basketball program and Final Four Drought:
“Something’s got to change now.”
“It doesn’t make any difference what they do in the regular season…I think they need to make a Final Four run.”
After suffering the worst regular season in program history and the worst NCAA Tournament loss in program history, Kenny admitted that “something’s got to change now” when it comes to the state of the program. It has been 7 years since the Cats made a Final Four, which for most places would be OK, but as Walker stated, “in Kentucky basketball, that’s a long time.” He believes that the disappointment of the last few years means there is going to be a lot more pressure for the team going into the 2023 season, but that Calipari has built a roster capable of having a great year. For years Calipari has said that the college basketball season is all about March. However, after having a run of stellar regular seasons that didn’t corelate to success in the tournament, he seems to have backtracked on that and said after the St. Peter’s loss that he didn’t want that to take away from what a great season they had. According to Walker, that can’t be the case this year: “The St. Peter’s loss left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. It doesn’t make any difference what they do in the regular season (this year), all eyes are going to be focused on what they’re going to do in the tournament. In my opinion I think they need to make a Final Four run, but anything short of an Elite 8 is going to be a disappointment for our fans.” It’s hard to disagree with this. Kentucky fans need a Final Four to not only forget St. Peter’s, but also the devastating tournament losses in past years to North Carolina and Wisconsin. We need a Final Four like we need our next breath.
Kenny Walker on Shaedon Sharpe:
“I think these kids pay too much attention to their draft stock.”
“If I had a couple of teammates that were down and couldn’t play…I would have had a tough time not playing.”
“If they would have known that he wasn’t going to play, they shouldn’t have even brought him to campus to have him around the team.”
If you want to stir up a good debate in the Commonwealth, you can talk about 3 things: politics, religion, and Shaedon Sharpe. Since everyone seems to have strong opinions about Sharpe not playing and how it was handled by UK, we had to get the perspective of a former player on the subject. It was fascinating to hear his thoughts, because Kenny could literally see this from every angle. Kenny said that he does not necessarily believe Sharpe when he recently said that it was his decision not to play at Kentucky. “He’s just an 18-year-old kid and was probably being advised by someone. I can understand that,” Walker said.
What didn’t sit well with many fans is that Sharpe refused to play despite devastating injuries suffered to Kellan Grady, TyTy Washington, and Sahvir Wheeler. The team was limping to the finish line of the season and needed the talent Shaedon could have provided. We asked Kenny to put himself in Sharpe’s shoes, to which he said, “I think these kids pay too much attention to their draft stock. I wanted to play. I didn’t care where I got drafted. I wanted to be out on that court and if I had a couple of my teammates that were down and couldn’t play, and knowing that I could step in and play, I would have had a tough time not playing.”
No matter who you blame in the Sharpe debacle: the kid, his mentor (Dwayne Washington), Calipari; Walker seemed to agree with everyone that it was “poorly handled by UK.” “If they would have known that he wasn’t going to play they shouldn’t have even brought him on campus to have him around the team. The thing became, ‘when is he going to play?’ and they said there was a possibility (he would play last year).” Despite not liking how the situation was handled, Walker respected the decision and summed it up by saying, “I’m disappointed but at the same time Kentucky offered a scholarship and you can’t fault the kid for taking it.”
As you can see, the Sky Walker brought a lot of different viewpoints to this situation. We told him he would be a great politician, because in this discussion he said something that everyone would agree with.
Kenny “Sky” Walker on who was his Darth Vader:
“OK Kenny Walker, my name is Larry Bird. I can’t wait until you get to the NBA so I can bust your ass.”
We talked with Kenny quite a bit about his NBA career and winning the Slam Dunk Contest. But a fascinating story came out when we asked him who was the toughest opponent he ever played against. His answer: Larry Bird. It was not the answer we expected since Kenny seemed to have much more athleticism than Bird who always seemed slow and didn’t have anywhere near the vertical jump. To which Walker responded, “It’s the damnedest thing guys, I said the same thing watching him on TV. But when you get out there and play against Larry Bird, he thinks the game before things happen. He’s always in the right place, he can pass or shoot with either hand, and has a fadeaway that you can’t stop no matter how high you can jump.”
Walker then talked about a hilarious interaction the first time he met Bird, which was while he was still at Kentucky. During the summer between his Junior and Senior year, Walker was out with a few teammates at a nightclub when several members of the Boston Celtics walked in (including former Kentucky player Rick Robey). Bird walked up with Robey to Walker to shake his hand and said, “OK Kenny Walker, my name is Larry Bird. I can’t wait until you get to the NBA so I can bust your ass.” Then proceeded to start laughing. But the story doesn’t end there, before the crew of Celtics left, Bird made sure to stop and say one last thing to Kenny: “Remember what I told you, when you come to the NBA I’m going to bust your ass.”
Flash forward to Kenny’s rookie season in the NBA and his NY Knicks are playing at the Boston Garden against the Celtics. During pre-game warmups, Bird spots Walker and greets him cordially by saying that he had watched Kentucky games and he knew Kenny would be in the NBA someday. But then Bird ended the conversation with, “but you remember what I told you.”
The game starts, Boston gets the tip, and Bird drains a 3 on Walker on the first play (with a smirk on his face). On the next possession, Bird hits another 3, right in Walker’s face. Larry runs by Knicks coach Hubie Brown and says, “Hubie, you better get this rookie off of me or I’m going to score 50.”
Later in their careers, Bird told Walker he was a hell of a player and appreciated how he didn’t get into any trash talking when they played. To which Kenny responded, “What am I going to say? I’ll just take my punishment and go on.”
Kenny Walker on talking to Rick Pitino about coming to Kentucky:
“I’m flattered, tell your people at Kentucky thanks, but I’m going to stay here with the Knicks.”—Rick Pitino
“They hate me.”—Rick Pitino
Kenny Walker had the unique opportunity to play for three different Kentucky coaches: Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, and Rick Pitino (while playing for the Knicks). Pitino was hired as the Knicks coach in 1987, and during his 2nd season, Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton began calling to gauge his interest in taking the job at UK. Since the coach had a former Kentucky player on his bench, Pitino decided to talk to Sky Walker about it. Initially Rick told Kenny, “I’m flattered, tell your people at Kentucky thanks, but I’m going to stay here with the Knicks.” However, a few months later when New York’s front office made some trades the coach disagreed with, Pitino approached Walker again and asked if he would mind to sit down with he and his wife Joanne to talk about Kentucky, the good and the bad. Walker said it was “the toughest and most awkward thing that I did.” After talking to them for a while, Walker realized the meeting was more to convince Joanne that she would be happy in Lexington. “Joanne was very leery about Kentucky. They had 3 kids, had never lived outside of Boston or New York, she didn’t think there was anything to do (in Lexington).” After convincing her that it is a great place to raise children, and is close enough to other major cities, Walker concluded the meeting saying “Rick will be a king, they’ll love him there, and you’ll be the queen of UK basketball.”
That certainly turned out to be true, for a while. Pitino quickly revived the program with a trip to the Final Four in 1993 and a national championship in 1996. Pitino was beloved during his run in the 90s, and may have created one of the greatest dynasties in college sports had he not decided to leave for the Boston Celtics job.
Walker said it was a “big mistake leaving UK when they did.” And as we all know, Pitino became our biggest villain when he took the job at Louisville. Kenny actually got to talk to Rick before the first UK-UL game after his return to the bluegrass state, at which point Rick asked “Are you going to be mad at me just like everybody else for coming to Louisville? They hate me!” Kenny said he would still support his former coach the other 364 days in the year, but not on gamedays against the Cats. “They should (hate you), Rick! You know you shouldn’t have gone to Louisville!”
While we all give credit to Rick for his role in saving the Kentucky basketball program, perhaps we should give all of the credit to Kenny Walker. Because who knows what happens if he isn’t able to convince Joanne Pitino that she would be happy living in Lexington. We all know the mantra ‘happy wife, happy life’. If Joanne had put her foot down to stay in New York, maybe Rick doesn’t come and our rebuilding efforts at UK may be much more difficult. I think we actually owe Kenny Walker a debt of gratitude for changing the course of Kentucky basketball history.
To listen to the full audio of our interview with Kenny Walker check out one of these links: