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By ASHLEY SCOBY
Willie Cauley-Stein is an artist. His 7-foot-tall frame can make “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” come to life on a basketball court. One second he is stealing the ball and darting down the court like an oversized guard, the next he is slamming the ball down on some poor center’s head. If movement can be an art, then he has it down.
But Willie Cauley-Stein is also an artist – the kind that draws on his school papers and has his body filled with intricate tattoos. The kind of guy who asked for coloring books from his grandma all the way into the fifth and sixth grades. The kind of guy who chooses an art studio major over popular picks for athletes such as kiniesology or communications.
“When I was younger, that’s what I enjoyed doing – doodling,” he said. “I would doodle on all my papers. Then I finally got a chance to take an art class in junior high and I just loved it. I fell in love with being able to express yourself in ways with the ink, with the paint, with pens, anything really.”
Coupled with tweets like “If I get my hands on some colored pants RIP to other people’s swag,” Cauley-Stein’s artistic ability only adds to the legend. There is a stereotypical athlete, and then there is Cauley-Stein, breaking norms left and right.
“I live by a different standard. I live by different rules,” he said. “I don’t take things serious unless it’s serious, you know what I’m saying? I live day to day. I don’t worry about tomorrow’s worries. I just try to survive today and see what I learn from today to live tomorrow. It’s just a different way of living or a different way of looking at life. I just live life. I mean, everybody lives life but you see some people who just hate life or they hate their job. Well, get a different job then. Change your life. That’s the way I see it.”
Cauley-Stein may not take everything seriously, but basketball is not a joke to him. He has a dedication to the game that will be called upon more than ever now that he has returned to Lexington after turning down NBA riches for at least one more year.
Named to the Freshman All-SEC team, Cauley-Stein was called into action when teammate Nerlens Noel went down with a torn ACL. That kind of experience will only further the leadership he can offer this year.
“Now, when Nerlens was there, he (Cauley-Stein) looked really good cause when he didn’t look good I could take him out and put Nerlens back in,” coach John Calipari said. “I could play them together a little bit … Then Nerlens went down and what happened? Now he’s got to play 35 minutes, and you see every wart, every kink, everything. And, we needed him to do more and he wasn’t capable of doing it yet. Yet. Now he’s on a team, and he can basically be who he is. Now the question is, ‘Will he be challenged enough to take his stuff and not just defer to all these guys?’”
Part of taking on that load requires not just physical adjustments, but a mental overhaul.
“I went to the Nike Skills Academy and got to see the next guys in the nation that are considered the same talent level as you,” Cauley-Stein said. “To see where you kind of are to them at that point and then after that, you change your whole way of approaching the game … I feel like I can play with anybody in the country now.”
Pair that attitude with an appreciation for team unity, and Cauley-Stein has the leadership qualities necessary for what could be another championship season in Lexington. After the 2011-12 title team only lost twice, last year’s squad fell on hard times. During Cauley-Stein’s first year, the Cats went 21-12, ending a frustrating season with a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris.
That ending left a “bad taste” in Cauley-Stein’s mouth – enough so to keep him in college another year, even though he was projected as a first-round draft pick. This time around, he is expecting things to be different.
“Just the way people act. The way people carry themselves,” he said. “I don’t think the mentality to do that was there last year. Some people had it. Other didn’t. Others didn’t care for it. Others thought they knew everything, thought they were going to be good regardless of what happened. If you’re not together, it doesn’t work like that.”
Cauley-Stein said he already sees the right kind of attitude in this year’s team and that this season could be the chance he’s been waiting for. He didn’t just come back to Lexington to have fun for a year and then go grab an NBA paycheck. He came back to fix what he did wrong last year and alleviate that “empty” feeling that has been plaguing him for months. He came back to win.
In the end, Cauley-Stein came back so that his story at UK could have the same kind of color as the pages he decorated as a kid. Except this time, he wants that color to be not from markers, but from confetti raining down out of a dome’s ceiling.