They’re the writers and broadcasters who cover Kentucky basketball, and they will face a unique void come springtime. The 7-foot human Willie Cauley-Stein will make off for the NBA after three seasons at Kentucky, and no longer may they stand at his locker and listen to him routinely. They tend to sigh about that.
“I’ll miss covering him tremendously, and this is the rare instance when I think I can speak for everybody on the beat,” said Brett Dawson of rivals.com. “I’ve never covered anyone quite like him anywhere, and I doubt anyone’s ever covered anyone like him at Kentucky,” after which Dawson referred to Cauley-Stein as “a true individual,” “genuinely funny,” “thoughtful” with “no place” for cliches, a player who “rarely, if ever, fails to consider a question carefully before he answers it.”
Kentucky’s passage to the Final Four at 38-0 has brought a bale of regular sights, not least the usual blob of souls and cameras around Cauley-Stein as he sits at his locker (or a table in a side room). He speaks in tones mostly calm. Everyone leans in. Inevitably there comes some burst of laughter.
He begins almost every answer with, “Ommm,” and flows from there.
As a third-year wise man in a sport of starry freshmen, he manages to be blunt without being abrasive, helpful without being fawning, candid without being derisive. Mostly, he’s respectful of seemingly every type of question, often with long answers. He’ll describe the sport seriously, describe Kentucky’s noted fans semi-seriously, or go off the script unseriously.
Just last week in Cleveland, imagining West Virginia’s vaunted press, he went on a long description of the importance of how a cornered animal might react.
Reporter: “What animal are you guys?”
Cauley-Stein (pausing to think): “Have you seen a raccoon?”
With laughter all around at the unexpected nature of it, reporter: “I was thinking lion.”
Cauley-Stein: “Lions don’t get cornered.”
Then: “Raccoons are feisty. They’re not gonna just roll over.”
On other occasions, he said it would thrill him if his team ever got a mention from anchorman Tom Tucker on “Family Guy;” spoke of Kentucky as “not the villains” and said the black hat he once wore was only “my John Wayne;” professed to prefer Batman over other superheroes because he accomplishes his feats without superpowers. He once drew laughs by saying he could tweet about “hot dogs” and get deluged with responses about how he wasn’t working on his game. Speaking of a Cincinnati player over whom Cauley-Stein dunked ferociously in the round of 32, he said, “I was already on the way down dunking it and the dude slid over . . . I mean, I just remember seeing his head, like that [underneath], ‘What is this guy doing?’ It was more confusing. Normally I know what I’m doing. I didn’t really know what he was doing for real. I’m looking down at his hair, like, ‘Dude, you really jumped on this.’ ”
Cauley-Stein scholars speak of him as a basketball player who wants very much to participate in the general college experience. With Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, he discussed his wish to open his own “shoe and clothing store, designing my own stuff and putting it in there,” and said, “One of the best ways to express yourself is the way you dress.” So in the inverted world of college sports, he has fielded questions about his basketball seriousness. “I mean, that’s been the question since I got here: If I love the game,” he said at tournament’s outset. “If I didn’t love the game, why would I play at the University of Kentucky? Why would I ever come here? It’s a serious program. All the success they had, all that. That bugs me when people ask me that. ‘You don’t love the game.’ This is the most serious place to play. (Laughs.) I’m dumbfounded when people ask that. Like I really get upset.
“‘What? How is that a question, just because I’m interested in other things?’ You got to be interested in other things. If you focus on one thing, you’re going to eventually like – you’re going to get bored with it or you’re going to get burned out on it. My grandparents have taught me that since I was younger, just to be involved in a whole bunch of different things so you don’t get burnt out and you know what you like to do and what you don’t like to do. I couldn’t imagine not playing this game.”
He spoke as the chatter builds on where he might go in the NBA draft come June — the consensus tilts toward early — and on his rarefied, manifold defensive skills, last seen in the frantic final seconds of the Midwest Region final. That’s when Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5 guard Jerian Grant took his court-length dribble in the nagging company of Cauley-Stein’s evolutionary, revolutionary speed and quickness and length, and the whole chase wound up in the hopeless corner. Cauley-Stein didn’t come to Kentucky as a McDonald’s all-American, and he did experience Kentucky at a nadir, the (shudder) NIT season of 2012-13. Of that, he said, “If you accept [the criticism], if you indulge the weight, it’s only gonna make you stronger.” From that, Kentucky ascended from a No. 8 seeding to the 2014 national championship game, but sans Cauley-Stein, who broke his ankle in the Sweet 16. Since the trip back to the hotel that night, he has said repeatedly, he has looked forward to all of this — even to all of these questions.
He’s established enough to point out, gently, that when the coaches took him out after a missed left-handed hook, the ensuing discussion never would have occurred had the shot merely gone in as it nearly did. During a thick, physical match with Cincinnati, he saw also “probably one of the better refereeing groups we’ve had.” Of the various ploys teams have tried, he said he understands: “You can’t just let us catch it and let us do whatever we want.” And having learned some of life through sports fans, he said, “Like last year, I dyed my hair blonde. A quarter of them were like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then there’s another whatever percent like, ‘Yo, that’s awesome. Like, keep up with that.’ It’s anything you do. There’s going to be a side that doesn’t mess with it, there’s going to be a side that likes it.”
In that same mass conversation, he made the point that with all its nine-deep talent and its 38-0, Kentucky still isn’t particularly showy. “I feel like if we were out there after every dunk beating your chest or every three doing something or every play you was doing something crazy, people are just gonna hate you more,” he said. “We’re already hated doing classy things. If we was doing rude things to people, the whole world would hate us.”
Then again, it seems the only people who could hate Cauley-Stein are those who haven’t listened, and that’s according to those who have.