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By LARRY VAUGHT
Wayne Turner played on two national championship teams — 1996 and 1998 — at Kentucky. Walter McCarty played on the 1996 championship team and went on to play 10 years in the NBA. Yet both were smiling like young children on Christmas morning when they were back at UK last week to receive 1996 national championship rings from the university along with other teammates.
“It is definitely something we were looking forward to for a while. We weren’t sure we were even going to get them,” said Turner. “We just dealt with the fact that it probably wasn’t going to happen.”
Turner still remembers after UK won the 1996 title in New York that players ran into Charles and Ed O’Bannon and the brothers had the national championship rings UCLA had given them for their title.
“We were like, ‘Wow.’ Then we got back here (in Lexington) and it was like the NCAA said something about that it was too much money or too expensive. That was the rumor I heard, but I don’t know how true it was,” Turner said. “We just lived with the fact that it probably wasn’t going to happen. But thanks to the great UK staff they have now, they wanted to make it happen for us. Coach Cal (John Calipari) did his best just like he always does and he made it happen.”
McCarty said it was a “big deal” to be back at Kentucky and honored by the school and fans.
“We put a lot of hard work into what we were able to accomplish with great guys that had a lot of fun. Any time we get together, it’s always fun. Any excuse we can have to get together, it’s awesome,” McCarty said. “We have had a tremendous time here. Getting the ring and walking on that court again in front of Big Blue Nation was awesome.”
As soon as the players got close to the court, they started smiling. Anthony Epps even stopped to bend down and kiss the floor at midcourt.
“We just think about all the good times we had. This was a special team,” McCarty said. “We had a lot of fun and really enjoyed playing together. We were just as close off the court as one the court. Any time we are around each other, we are all just gloating. And we love being back here.”
Fans seem to love them just as much.
“We all had contagious personalities. We all loved to smile and have fun. I think everybody saw we were very genuine and had great character and loved being Wildcats and loved playing,” McCarty said. “We love this place. We feel very much a part of it. They (the fans) give us the same love back. Any time you can be a former player somewhere and still receive as much love as we do from the university, it is great. It means you did some great things.”
Turner, who spent a year as a graduate assistant on Calipari’s UK staff, was not surprised that Calipari managed to help get the team rings.
“I know Cal has been pretty awesome, especially in public. He is someone definitely open to the public and helping people. Since he has been at UK, he has done nothing but help people who have needed stuff and people who are trying to get somewhere,” Turner said. “I think he is just an awesome coach all around. He is not just a coach that cares about winning the game of basketball. I felt like when I was on his staff he really wanted his players to win the game of life as well. Thanks to Cal for this. I give it up to him for doing this for us.”
Former Wildcat Mark Pope couldn’t be at the ring ceremony because he’s coaching at BYU. However, in a message shown on the Rupp Arena video screen, Pope tore off a BYU shirt to show his UK jersey and let the fans in a C-A-T-S chang.
“Not a surprise. Pope was pretty outgoing. Very humble guy. He never really gave himself as much credit as he should have. He always assisted the next guy. For him to do that, he was just showing his personality. That was nothing I had not seen in practice from him,” Turner laughed and said. “But it was also genuine. Can you imagine what he would have done if he had been here?”
Both former Cats are now living and working in Boston.
“I am back living in Boston and working with amateur players. Teaching them how to play the game just like I learned when I finally got to Kentucky and just trying to give them the experience I had growing up wanting to be a collegiate basketball player and then professional basketball player,” Turner said. “Letting them know there are steps along the way that you have to take if you want to make it to that next level.”
McCarty, who coached at Louisville under Rick Pitino and with the Indiana Pacers, says he has “my hat in a lot of places to keep him busy.” One of those places is working with the Celtics to assist former players.
“Life is great. I can’t complain one bit,” McCarty said. “Boston a great city and organization. Just being there to support former players has been awesome.”
McCarty is also an accomplished R&B singer. His third album, Unbreakable, came out in November. However, he says he has no idea what he might be doing in 10 years.
“I hope to be alive. Be somewhere playing golf in warm weather and enjoying myself,” McCarty smiled and said. “I have daughters 9 and 7, so hopefully I will be very much involved with what they are doing, still enjoying life and still smiling. I am very thankful and grateful to be able to smile.”
Turner admitted it didn’t seem like it had been 15 years since he was on UK’s 1998 national championship team.
“I still feel like I can play. Me and Antoine (Walker) were joking on the bench that this made us want to play again. Every time I come in this building, I get the trembles and just wish that one time I could suit up in that Kentucky jersey again,” Turner said. “I could go up and down. I probably have like three pickup games in me, but definitely I am not a full court guy any more. But that doesn’t mean being here doesn’t get you to thinking about what it would be like if you could play again because we all had great times here.”