’96 Kentucky Wildcats: The Best Ever?

Antoine Walker averaged 15.2 points in his final season at Kentucky. He was drafted sixth overall by the Celtics in the 1996 NBA Draft.

MIAMI, March 25 - HEAT forward Antoine Walker and guard/forward Derek Anderson always have a sense of déjà vu when they step on the court together. They know what it feels like to play for a legendary coach in Pat Riley, they know how to play with big time talent and they definitely know how to handle the pressure of winning it all. Those pressures are all too familiar because a decade ago, the Chicago, IL and Louisville, KY natives shared those same pressures at the University of Kentucky.

Walker and Anderson helped lead the Wildcats to a 34-2 record and a win over John Wallace and the surprise Syracuse Orangemen in the 1996 NCAA Championship Game. Now 10 years later, the two are reunited to help the HEAT win its first NBA championship.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Walker, a three-time NBA All Star, and Anderson, who have started on star-laden teams such as the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, are doing it all over again in the NBA.

The ’96 Kentucky team may have been the 2006 Miami HEAT of college basketball. This year’s HEAT team has five players with a combined 34 All-Star appearances in Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Dwyane Wade and Walker. The HEAT also has a Hall of Fame caliber coach in President and Head Coach Pat Riley, who has led the HEAT and New York Knicks to the playoffs, and also led the storied Los Angeles Lakers to four NBA titles. The Wildcats were very similar.

Kentucky was led by legendary college coach Rick Pitino, who in addition to winning the 1996 NCAA championship, led the New York Knicks to the playoffs and later became the coach of another storied franchise, the Boston Celtics, where he became president and head coach.

Also like the HEAT, Walker and Anderson were key players on a beefed up Wildcats roster. Of the 15 players on that championship roster, over half of them would get drafted and have success in the NBA. Four of the five starters that season were drafted in the first round of their respective NBA drafts; three of whom were drafted in the first round following their championship season.

Walker was drafted sixth overall by the Boston Celtics in 1996, where he was reunited with Coach Pitino and made three All-Star appearances as a member of the Celtics. Anderson was drafted the following year by Cleveland and has averaged 13.1 points per game over his eight-year NBA career. Walter McCarty was also drafted following the ’96 championship campaign, going 19th overall by the Knicks. He is currently a key contributor off the bench with the Los Angeles Clippers. Tony Delk, who was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after sinking 7-of-12 three-pointers during the championship game, was selected 16th overall by the then Charlotte Hornets. Delk is now backing up 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups in Detroit.

Derek Anderson hit a key three-pointer to stop an Orangemen rally during the 96 NCAA title game. He finished with 11 points.

Four other players on that championship roster were drafted and had productive NBA careers. Mark Pope, who was the fourth Kentucky player drafted in the ’96 draft, was selected with the 23rd pick of the second round by the Indiana Pacers. Pope, who is playing for his third NBA team, is currently with the Denver Nuggets. Nazr Mohammed was drafted 29th overall by Utah in 1998. He was the starting center for the San Antoino Spurs 2005 NBA championship squad. Scott Padgett was drafted a year later with the 28th pick by Utah. Padgett is now playing for the Atlantic Division leading New Jersey Nets. Ron Mercer, drafted sixth overall by the Celtics, had a solid eight-year NBA career, averaging 13.6 points.

The Kentucky Wildcats also had assistant coach Jim O’Brien, who later led the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Playoffs.

Despite their two losses during the regular season, Walker and Anderson feel that that the 1996 Kentucky team was the greatest college basketball team of all time. They feel they could match up against some of the greatest college basketball teams of all time, including the Grant Hill and Christian Laettner’s 1992 Duke Blue Devils, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony’s1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, Pat Riley’s 1966 ‘Rupp’s Runts’ Kentucky Wildcats, and even the great UCLA teams of the late 60’s and 70’s that featured Hall of Famers Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton and Henry Bibby.

“We could play in any era with that team and compete,” said Anderson. “A lot of teams couldn’t compete with us because no one had another center to come compete with ours. We had two centers. We had the size and talent. “I would love to compete against the 1991 UNLV team that was led by Larry Johnson,” Anderson continued. “They played up and down like we did and if you weren’t on your game, we’d get the best of you. I also like teams like UCLA because they played man-to-man. We never played zone and beat you that way. That’s the way we were. We were so confident.”

Walker agrees.

“We could beat you inside and out and we could defend,” Walker said. “We had a deep bench. We had a lot of guys who could step up at anytime and knock down the big shot. We were a complete team, and we would be tough to beat.”

But the most striking resemblance between the HEAT and the Wildcats may be off the court. According to Anderson, that may be the X-factor in the HEAT’s championship run.

“We just all love to be around each other,” he said. “We would go out and play laser tag and do everything together. That’s very hard in college. Everybody has their own thing going on. A lot of teams don’t even do that. That team, from freshman to senior, all hung together.

“We have that here,” he continued. “When I first got here ‘Toine told me how tight this team is. You need that if you want to compete for a title.”