I caught up with Nerlens Noel to talk about playing under John Calipari, Big Blue Nation, and more.
Nerlens Noel was the top ranked player coming out of high school and went to the University of Kentucky…stop me if you have heard that before.
Coming out of The Tilton School in Everett, Massachusetts, the springy, 6’10” center had his choice of where to play his college ball. But like many recruits of his caliber, it was John Calipari and the lure of Kentucky basketball that made Lexington, Kentucky his next home.
But the first time Noel met Calipari was not in a basketball gym or restaurant, it was inside of the Noel household.
"“He came to my house with Ken Payne. Met my mom and everybody. That was our first official meet. It went great. We talked about all the real things that makes him such a prestigious coach,” Noel said when I asked him when he first met Calipari."
Much is debated and talked about in regards to Calipari’s recruiting as the former Memphis coach has put the University of Kentucky back on the map since he’s taken over. From multiple Final Four appearances to a National Championship, Calipari has Kentucky near the top every year, but none of that would be possible without his ability to recruit the top high school players in the country.
Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall are just a few names of players that have come through Kentucky in Caliper’s time in Lexington. So does Calipari recruit any different from other programs to land the top talent every year?
"“Nah, he has same way for every kid. It’s simple, if you want to be the best you come play with the best and get coached from the best,” Noel said. “He will push yourself and if you don’t, you go somewhere else. He keeps it real, which is why I felt so inclined to go there and have him to push me everyday.”"
As far as how the practices went at Kentucky, they weren’t light to say the least. “Practices were crazy and he would never take the gas off the pedal. He would always want more from you even if you thought you were giving your all. He just pushed me to reach new levels,” Noel said.
So is Calipari really a players coach like a lot of people like to describe him?
“He’s more than a players coach, he’s a life coach. He shows you what it takes on and off the court. He puts you in a position where you will grow fast. Quick startup into your career.”
For many, that is the exact reason why Lexington is the next step for their careers; the quick startup. Top recruits know the history and pedigree that Calipari has in turning one year college players into players in the NBA.
Not every one-and-done under Calipari is guaranteed success at the next level. But for every Dakari Johnson and Daniel Orton, there is a Devin Booker and Anthony Davis.
So what about one of the craziest, most die-hard fan bases in all of sports? What was it like playing for Big Blue Nation?
"“Crazy man. You go anywhere in that state, they so in love. They take care of you and the way they go about things is a culture. Only thing down there is Kentucky basketball. We are rockstars…the love they show is crazy,” Noel said."
Noel is right when he says it’s the “only thing down there in Kentucky.”
Growing up in Kentucky, being a fan of a professional sports franchise was something quite difficult. With no professional sports franchise in any of the major sports leagues, college basketball is all that people have.
It’s almost like a religion for some.
“Louisville is a little more boujee of a fan base. Kentucky is real hard and die-hard. I’m definitely lucky to be on the good side of that” -Noel
For myself, I have my personal list of crazy fan stories from people who I know who were Kentucky basketball fans growing up, but when I asked Noel if he had one, there was a particular autograph he did that stuck out the most.
“Signing a girls nub on her arm. Her arm nub. That was something new to me. I signed it right on the skin on her arm. That was something,” Noel said as we both shared a laugh.
What about the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville rivalry? Where does that rank in terms of rivalries?
“Definitely top 3. That and Duke/Carolina. Those are heated. In state and about 50 minutes up the road. Really die-hard on both sides. I think Kentucky overwhelms the state a little more. Louisville is a little more boujee of a fan base. Kentucky is real hard and die-hard. I’m definitely lucky to be on the good side of that.”
Our conversation took a turn when I asked him about leaving Kentucky.
The 2012-13 season for the Kentucky Wildcats was a disappointing one to say the least as the team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris.
For Noel, he played in just 24 games for the Wildcats before tearing his ACL in his freshman season.
After the injury and disappointing season for the Wildcats, some speculated that Noel would return for a sophomore season. But after medical homework from Noel and his team, he decided it was best to make the jump to the NBA.
“Just knowing my work ethic and seeing what the ACL reconstruction is now days with modern medicine. Knowing I would be able to bounce back stronger than before…Dr. Andrews, I had the best doctors lined up,” Noel said when I asked him what went into that decision to leave early.
Even though Noel felt confident in his medical homework, it was still a hard decision for Noel.
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“Yeah it was, I definitely missed my whole Kentucky experience when I did leave. College goes by so fast when you are there for one year. It was a tough decision but I knew what was best for me,” Noel said.
We shared a good laugh together when I shared with Noel that I was a manager of a sporting goods store outside of Louisville, Kentucky when he was in Lexington. One of my best-selling shirts read “Fear the Flat Top” with a picture of Noel’s hair on the shirt.
When I asked him who had the better flat top between him and Iman Shumpert, he said his was obviously better.
“Definitely me because I had it first,” Noel said. As far as bringing the flat top back, Noel said he doesn’t see it happening.
Noel went from Philadelphia to Dallas this season in a move that could be the turning point in his career, but its his Kentucky roots that was the foundation of it all.