KSR cuts down the nets at Players First Fantasy Experience

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim08/30/22

I woke up this morning with a tight back, sore feet and a crick in my neck. I also woke up a two-time Players First Fantasy Experience champion.

Somehow invited back for year two, I made my return to Rupp Arena for the three-day camp this past weekend in Lexington, one of 40 players or so in attendance. It’s an event where grown adults live the life of a Kentucky basketball player, taking the floor for five-on-five games and competing for an event championship, with the current players serving as coaches throughout the weekend.

More importantly, though, it’s a philanthropic weekend from start to finish, with some of the program’s biggest donors coming together to raise money for The Calipari Foundation and flood relief in Eastern Kentucky. More on that in a bit.

You arrive for the weekend in the underbelly of Rupp Arena, where you’re escorted to the guest locker room, where a duffle bag loaded with gear is waiting for you. This year’s package included customized Players First Fantasy Experience jerseys (two), shorts (two), polo, sweatshirt, shooting shirt and Dri-Fit t-shirt to go with socks, a pair of Nike sneakers and a water bottle.

It’s all sitting in a locker featuring a custom nameplate, event itinerary, fresh towel for showers and laundry loop for daily service.

After getting suited and loosened up, you make your way to the Rupp Arena floor for an early shootaround to get ready for the evaluation period. There, you’re split up into teams for the 16-minute evaluation, with the current Kentucky players lined up courtside watching your every move — clipboards for notes and everything. Play well, and you move up the draft boards. Play poorly, you move down. It’s like an NBA Draft Combine for out-of-shape individuals well past their basketball primes.

From there, the draft. Coaches (Kentucky players), assistants (camp guests opting not to play) and general managers (former college coaches helping out for the weekend) gather in a room taking turns choosing from a list of names. During the draft, a 3-point contest for the campers — I hit five threes and did not advance past the first round.

The draft results came in shortly after, where I found myself selected by Antonio Reeves, Adou Thiero and Grant Darbyshire, with veteran coach Jerry Wainwright serving as the team’s general manager. My teammates included Nate Conley (Oscar Tshiebwe’s agent), Anthony Reeves (Antonio’s dad), Jason Zone Fisher (NBA host), Jason Moseley (NXTLVL Basketball Academy founder) and Kyle Smith (Sycamore Athletics Sports Information Supervisor and good dude).

A quick meet-and-greet led to our first practice as Team AdvaMed. There, we installed a few offensive sets, specifically Horns — two bigs set high ball screens, one rolls and the other pops — to go with some Floppy action — baseline screen designed to get your best shooter open — along with a quick out-of-bounds play. Not much, but enough for a 15-minute practice before our first game.

That leads straight to tip-off of our regulation 40-minute matchup just hours after arriving at Rupp. A full 94 feet with college 3-point line, NCAA officials, PA announcer, stat-keepers, film — the whole nine yards.

How did things go in game one? Poorly. As a team, we took a double-digit loss, struggling to find our shot and letting up defensively in the second half. Me personally, I scored two early buckets and grabbed some rebounds, but got into foul trouble — awful, awful calls, mind you — and crumbled down the stretch on the defensive end of the floor.

That’s when the heckling began, a consistent theme throughout the weekend. Sahvir Wheeler and Lance Ware worked to get in my head at the line, yelling “Twitter fingers!” as I bricked back-to-back free throws — likely referring to my mouth-running on social media (and this website, probably) and inability to back it up (at the charity stripe, at least). The trash talk worked.

In desperate need of a hard reset (and a bourbon), we packed in busses and rode to WinStar Farm in Versailles for dinner where the backdrop of rolling hills and yearlings at sunset looked like a computer screensaver. To match the scenery straight out of heaven was food straight from heaven, Gus’s World Famous Chicken, a clear 10/10. Drums, macaroni and cheese, beans, salad, rolls, everything you could ask for. My dinner table included Seth Greenberg — who went out of his way to say “don’t write this on KSR” before sharing every story, like I’d remember half of it four Woodfords deep anyway — Dino Gaudio and Jerry Wainwright, among others. A combined near-century of college coaching trying to one-up each other with their stories, always a great time.

Back at it in the morning, tipping off at 9:30 a.m., a much better performance both personally and as a team. I finished with a smooth eight points on strong field-goal efficiency and poor free-throw efficiency (2-4 with “Jack can’t shoot” heckles from Jacob Toppin on every attempt) to go with six or seven rebounds and solid defense. And more importantly, it came in a two-point win to secure our status as the No. 2 seed.

Jacob got his jokes off, but he still took an L.

After the win, Kentucky associate head coach Orlando Antigua — who watched the entire game from the leg massage chairs on the baseline — gave an in-depth breakdown of my performance.

“Young bull, a lot of energy, a lot of toughness, hustles,” Antigua said. “Got to get him to finish a little bit (more), guys got to find him when he’s open. A couple of times he was open and they missed him. But he just keeps bringing it every day, and it’s good to see. Got to get him to make the free throws and his little pull-up.

“He’s got to put the fingers in his ears and not listen to the outside noise, can’t let it influence him.”

Where would I be in Antigua’s rotation?

“He’d be right there, right where he’s at (laughs).”

Considering I was sitting next to him in the massage chairs, not too promising for my future as a player.

As the late-morning game tipped off, I utilized the on-site massage therapists, who stretched and rubbed and popped and cracked and twisted until I felt like a brand new man. One walked on my back to work out some extra kinks back there, while another stretched my hamstrings in ways only a picture can describe.

Simply unbelievable service right there on the Rupp Arena sideline.

From there, a quick lunch and talk with Coach Cal, who made fun of the old guys in attendance for being out of shape, unable to move and washed as basketball players. He also discussed his current team, raving about their abilities on the court and character off of it. His goal for this season? “Let’s chase greatness,” he said.

“No one is stealing my joy. I’m going to have a ball coaching these guys,” Calipari said. “… We’ve got that kind of group. I just want you to enjoy them as much as I enjoy them.”

The rest of the afternoon consisted of pickleball and a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, with the winning team receiving a $2,000 cash prize. Like the moron I am, I turned down that opportunity in favor of rest for championship Sunday — and ended up working on my computer anyway. And apparently it was a drama-filled 3-on-3 tournament with some pushing and shoving as players had their eyes on the money, so I clearly missed out on a good time. Hope the website content was worth it, readers.

The final dinner and auction took place in the Hilton conference center, a spread of salmon, chicken, seasoned potatoes, carrots, asparagus and salad. As meals were consumed, an event highlight reel played on the big screen featuring some of the best plays and moments from the weekend. I obnoxiously cheered when my reverse layup and and-one finish were included in the final cut. Then, Jerry Wainwright was given a veteran coaching award, where he stood at the podium and told inappropriate jokes for 15 minutes.

From there, the best part of the weekend: Family Feud with the Wildcats. Split in two teams on the big stage, the players participated in a camp edition of the popular game show with two rounds and one fast money segment. The winning prize? $10,000.

After a hot start with the team featuring Jacob Toppin, Cason Wallace, Adou Thiero, Antonio Reeves, Kareem Watkins and Grant Darbyshire, momentum shifted the other direction in round two. Sahvir Wheeler, Lance Ware, CJ Fredrick, Chris Livingston, Daimion Collins, Brennan Canada and Walker Horn would pull through late for the comeback win.

How would the winning team use the prize money? By donating it all to flood relief efforts in Eastern Kentucky — every dime, as requested by the players.

That led directly to the charity auction, with proceeds going to the Calipari Foundation, whose mission is to provide for the physical, educational and developmental needs of people and communities — with a particular focus on enriching the lives of children.

Different packages included courtside seats and VIP access to Kentucky’s biggest games of the year, ”assistant coach for the day,” bowling with the team and plenty more, all going for tens of thousands of dollars. One package after the other, all high-dollar totals, with all proceeds going to charity. It was an evening of giving with some of the program’s biggest donors.

Tucked into the evening of giveaways? An opportunity with the Blue-White Game, which is set to take place in Eastern Kentucky this year as yet another opportunity to raise money for flood relief and support a community in need. Details will be coming out about that in the not-so-distant future, but it’s still full steam ahead on a venue change for the annual intrasquad scrimmage.

The night ended with camper giveaways to celebrate how many years you’ve been in attendance. First-year attendees received a signed John Calipari basketball, followed by second-year participants receiving a piece of the 2012 championship floor, also signed by Calipari — the coolest gift, if I must say so myself. Others included custom trading cards (year three), a custom player banner (year four) and a custom engraved wood plaque with your on-court action shot (year five).

Then came the big day, championship Sunday. We had solidified ourselves as the No. 2 seed, locking us into the 8:30 a.m. time slot vs. the No. 3 seed — coached again by Toppin. Like clockwork, he spent more time heckling than coaching his team, and it resulted in a first-round exit in the tournament. I was still trash at the free-throw line, but the all-around performance was fine and the team coasted to an easy victory to earn a spot in the title game.

Interestingly enough, the undefeated No. 1 seed overlooked the winless No. 4 seed in the second semifinals matchup of the morning, resulting in a Fantasy Camp upset for the ages. Coached by CJ Fredrick and Brennan Canada, No. 4 advances to take on No. 2 in the title game.

Mind you, Fredrick joked to open the camp that he didn’t draft me because he saw me using the leg massagers on the first day and didn’t think I’d make it to Sunday. Fast forward two days, and our first head-to-head battle was finally here — in the title game on Sunday, no less.

The trash talk would backfire, as my squad fought to secure an early lead and continued to extend it through the finish line. We threw in a mid-game Weave action that Fredrick and his coaching staff simply couldn’t slow down, resulting in a convincing title victory for Team AdvaMed — back-to-back championships for myself.

And it wasn’t just a ”shake hands and go home“ championship celebration, either. ProCamps set the winning team up with nice glass trophies handed out by Coach Cal, championship t-shirts and an actual net-cutting ceremony with One Shining Moment playing over the loudspeakers.

Over-the-top? Maybe. Awesome? Absolutely.

The dust is now settling on my second Fantasy Experience at Rupp Arena, and my body is slowly healing after some solid wear-and-tear. Looking back at the weekend, though, it’s hard to draw up a cooler event for a diehard Kentucky fan to sign up for. Between the interactions with current players and coaching staff, special guests brought in to help, usage of Rupp Arena facilities, the stay at the Hilton and food throughout, it was five-star treatment from start to finish.

Will I be back next year? KSR is already in early discussions with ProCamps regarding a comeback effort to defend my back-to-back titles. If I’m welcomed back, you better believe I’ll be there.

Make sure you join me, BBN.

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