All things considered, Kentuckians would probably prefer that their Wildcats have been resurrected by an All-America who grew up shooting baskets at a tire rim in some Appalachian hollow. They would most likely rather have been led back from NCAA probation by a coach who speaks in courtly tones and stains the postgame stat sheet with his bourbon glass. Instead, a couple of guys from the core of the Big Apple took the Wildcats to within a buzzer-beating shot of the Final Four last spring in Kentucky's first season out of the hoosegow, and have now brought them to the top of SI's preseason rankings. And that, Kentuckians agree, is quite O.K.... all things considered.
Jamal Mashburn, the Wildcats' 6'8", 240-pound forward, didn't merely learn the game in New York City. He learned it in an environment archetypally opposite from every Kentucky hoop-shootin' scene you've ever imagined—Harlem's legendary Holcombe Rucker Memorial Playground, only a block from the housing project Mashburn grew up in. As for Rick Pitino, who came to Lexington in 1989 after two seasons with the New York Knicks, the Kentucky coach sometimes wonders if he shouldn't conduct postgame press conferences through an interpreter. "If I'm talking with someone down here, 90 percent of the conversation consists of us saying 'Excuse me?' to each other," he says. "I can't understand them, and they can't understand me back."
Mashburn has the same problem. "Especially," he says, "when they put that stuff in their mouths. You know, when they spit in their cups?"
In the Bluegrass it's widely feared that Pitino is forever one job offer away from skipping town, even as he pledges to serve out the four years left on his contract. Mashburn, as both player and coach acknowledge, is likely to be off to the NBA after this, his junior season. Call them carpetbaggers, but make that very welcome carpetbaggers after the Overnight-Envelope Hell that the Big Blue faithful have suffered. That nightmare began in 1988 when former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton's assistant, Dwane Casey, was accused of sending $1,000 by Emery Air Freight to recruit Chris Mills. In the NCAA investigations that followed, the dark side of basketball in the commonwealth was uncovered—including an accusation that boosters had made illegal gifts to players and that 01 player had cheated on his ACT test. In the aftermath, Sutton resigned in disgrace, Mills transferred to Arizona, and Kentucky ended up on NCAA probation for three years.
Mashburn and Pitino have turned all that around. They work well in tandem because Mashburn, despite his foreboding surname and reluctance to Hash a smile, is as easygoing and deferential as Pitino is brash and in-your-face. Yet even more then Kentucky needed them, they needed each other. Mashburn views Pitino as the man who transformed him from an indolent vessel of possibilities into a probable No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. Pitino considers Mashburn the recruit who changed the perception of Kentucky as a program in purgatory to that of one on the come. "After Jamal signed," he says, "other recruits started to say, 'If he can go there, I can too.' "
If names are destiny—if McGovern was bound to enter politics and Winfield couldn't help but be a World Series hero—then Mashburn was fated to be precisely the kind of ballplayer he is. He can mash you near the basket or burn you from outside. His footwork in the lane is part of the legacy of Bobby Mashburn, his father, a New York City cop who was once a promising heavyweight with a left hook, the Mash Smash, that served him well during a ring career that featured bouts with Larry Holmes, Ken Norton and Oscar Bonavena and a stretch as a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali. In the open floor, where Mashburn is as deft as most guards, his talents recall those of his mother, Helen, a high school sprinter with whom Jamal has lived since his parents split up, eight years ago. "His hands are awesome, and his lower body's so strong," says Pitino. "From coaching Charles Oakley and Bernard King and watching Karl Malone and Kevin McHale, I know about NBA moves, and Jamal has all of theirs. He has a ball-fake-and-go-by-you. A baseline turnaround. And a great up-and-under."
Mashburn's most surprising skill may be a simple square-and-let-it-air. He threw in five three-point shots against South Carolina last season, but only after Pitino pulled him from the game to chew him out for passing up several wide-open chances. Even as the Gamecocks laid off him, tantalizingly, Mashburn, it seems, didn't want to come off as a ball hog. In short, Mashburn is an imported update of Wildcat great Dan Issel: quiet, relentless, a scoring threat both inside and out, and a stoic who gets his teammates going on the fast break with his work on the boards.
He hasn't always cut such a figure. Pitino recalls the testimony of Tom Murray, Mashburn's coach at Cardinal Hayes High in the Bronx, that "Jamal was totally lazy and wouldn't fit into our system of pressing and running." From Lou d'Almeida, the Jaguar-driving, Argentine-born real estate baron who runs the New York Gauchos, the AAU team Mashburn began playing for as a 12-year-old, Pitino heard a slightly less discouraging line. Noting that Mashburn would be only 17 upon graduating from high school (indeed, he won't turn 20 until Nov. 29), d'Almeida suggested that Jamal simply hadn't grown up yet.
All doubts had evaporated by the end of Mashburn's senior season. New York City's 32-team Catholic High School Athletic Association featured seven promising Division I prospects in its class of 1990, including such players as Christ the King High's Khalid Reeves and Derrick Phelps (they went to Arizona and North Carolina, respectively) and Tolentine High's Brian Reese and Adrian Autry (now at North Carolina and Syracuse, respectively). Mashburn was less celebrated, in part because Murray, a self-described "hard-nosed Irishman who can be a pain in the ass sometimes," had shackled his star near the basket.
Says Queens, N.Y.-based high school scout Tom Konchalski, who publishes the recruiting newsletter HSBI Report, Mashburn had "the body of a blacksmith and the touch of a surgeon. He just didn't have the disposition to dominate. But at the end of the season Tom Murray stopped lighting him. He realized Jamal was the best ball handler on the team and let him go out on the floor. Cardinal Hayes won the city championship, and Jamal invented a new position. You might call it 'point center.' "