Jamal Mashburn received a rousing ovation from a sea of fans wearing blue on Friday night at the SEC Tournament when he accepted the Kentucky legends award at halfcourt at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
It has been 20 years since Mashburn earned SEC Player of the Year and first team All-American honors while leading the Wildcats to the 1993 Final Four. Mashburn, a one-time NBA all-star, finished his professional career with more than 11,000 points before blossoming into a successful entrepreneur.
Mashburn, who owns 40 Papa John's restaurants, 38 Outback Steakhouses, two car dealerships and partners with Rick Pitino in a horse racing stable, believes business considerations could factor into the selection committee's decision regarding Kentucky.
“The one thing I've always said since I played professional basketball is I understand the business of basketball,” Mashburn said on Friday night. “If there's a toss-up between another mid-major and the University of Kentucky you have to take into account what they've done on the floor, but as you can see, with the SEC Tournament, UK fans travel, so I think that's going to be in consideration. It's not like they deserve any extra treatment than any other program but I do think the committee is going to look at the business side of it.”
During an interview at halftime of Kentucky's quarterfinal matchup versus Vanderbilt on Friday night, the former Wildcats' small forward said his former team needed to rally in the second half to earn an at-large bid in the tournament. After cutting a 21-point deficit to 11 midway through the second half, Kentucky fell 64-48 to the Commodores.
“They can't lose this game if they want to be in the NCAA tournament,” Mashburn said. “I think people judge them based on last year's team and that's unfair. I also think their opponents are also playing the jersey, as well, not necessarily the players in the jersey but they're playing the mystique of the university. That can be difficult for this team, but it's a growing process for them. We'll see how it plays out.”
Kentucky should also be judged on the team's current makeup after the season-ending loss of Nerlens Noel, Mashburn added. Mashburn said he hasn't provided Noel with any guidance on how to recover from a knee injury suffered last month against Florida, but will if he's asked by John Calipari.
“He wears a flat-top and that's what I came in with. I just didn't have the UK symbol in the back of my head,” Mashburn said. “I would love to talk with him. I told Coach Calipari if they need me to talk to a kid or to help in any way I'm always a phone call away.”
Before Mashburn signed a seven-year, $32 million contract with the Mavericks in 1993, he donated $500,000 to establish and endow the Mashburn Scholarship Fund at the University of Kentucky. In the two decades since, Mashburn's efforts have enabled 40 students to receive full scholarships at the university. One of the first recipients, Mashburn said, now serves as the Chief Operating Officer for his Papa John's franchises.
“I wanted to do something at the University of Kentucky that no other athlete had ever done,” Mashburn said. “My mindset was to give kids an opportunity to experience the University of Kentucky, maybe not how I experienced it as a basketball player, but at least in the classroom. It's just an awesome way to give back.”
Mashburn, who spent the final five seasons of his NBA career with the Hornets, made a bid to become the major franchise owner early last year. Mashburn's bid fell short of one made by Saints owner Tom Benson, who purchased the Hornets for a reported cost of $338 million. Mashburn still hopes to eventually become an owner of an NBA franchise.
“It went to the right owner in my opinion. He can share a lot of the services and expenses and trim things down that I probably couldn't do,” Mashburn said. “I always look at different opportunities, I'm still very much interested.”
The Wildcats entered the 1993 Final Four as the prohibitive favorites after defeating their first four opponents by an average of 33.5 points. Kentucky's run ended in the national semifinals in an 81-78 overtime loss to Michigan. Mashburn led the Wildcats with 26 points, but fouled out early in overtime. With Mashburn on the bench, his teammates squandered a four point lead over the final three minutes. A year earlier, the Wildcats were eliminated on Christian Laettner's buzzer beater in the East Regional Final.
“It was different than a year before when we played against Duke,” Mashburn said. “It was a tale of two themes -- that year against Duke, it was an underdog theme. My junior year, we were a No. 1 seed, it was a different position, it was a different makeup of the team. We still played hard, and worked hard but it's different when you're coming from behind than when you're a favorite.”
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