On a quiet Sunday night, I walked in before the exhibition game in Canada between the Wildcats and the Windsor Lancers began. I was meeting former Kentucky standout point guard Ramel “Smooth” Bradley for the first time.
The New York UK Alumni Club had taken over the top floor. Although there were only 20 fans in attendance, the lowest ever for a game, the atmosphere was buzzing with talk on the 2010 recruiting class.
Heart is Where the Brooklyn Pride Resides
Bradley was sitting at the bar eating a healthy salad with oil and vinegar and a side of boneless buffalo wings while drinking water. His forest green t-shirt and gray cargo pants from Guess elicited an immediate reaction from me: “Where’s your Kentucky gear?”
“It’s all in here,” he said, pounding his chest. And he’s right – it’s all about heart with him. After being born and raised in Brooklyn, his heart still belongs to that part of New York City.
The last time Bradley was in Lexington, Kentucky was in mid-June. He made it a point to hang out with two members of the outstanding freshman class – Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. A female fan approached Lamb and asked him, “Where are you from?” Lamb replied incredulously, “I’m from Brooklyn!”
“I laughed so hard when [Lamb] said that. But it’s something you can never lose; you belong to Brooklyn for life. We all have so much pride, as if everyone should be able to tell just by looking at us that we’re from Brooklyn,” Bradley said.
Bradley chuckled out loud and said, “You see? I knew he was going to do that. He’s thinking about how all of New York City is watching him so he better make them proud.”
Lamb’s New York swagger reminds Bradley of himself. However, the mentality is just a part of growing up on playground courts in a rich basketball culture. Brooklyn has spawned many talented guards like Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Mark Jackson, and Lance Stephenson. In fact, Telfair is Bradley’s cousin by marriage.
While Marbury, Telfair, and Stephenson are famously from Coney Island, Bradley is from Bedford-Stuyvesant. Although there is the conception that Coney Island is a rough part of Brooklyn, Bradley countered, “Coney Island is cupcake compared to Bed-Stuy. Where I’m from is one of the roughest areas of Brooklyn.”
Growing up, it was Bradley’s mother who encouraged him to play basketball instead of wandering around the tough streets. “I’ve been playing ever since I can remember. I would play from eight in the morning to eight o’clock at night,” he said. “My mom was so happy that she could always find me on the courts instead of not knowing where I was.”
Harshest Year at Kentucky
The Brooklyn courts gave him his hardened toughness. It took every ounce of sheer determination, pride, and resolve for him to endure former UK coach Billy Gillispie’s hellish practices.
But, the funny thing is, Bradley caught up with Gillispie on the phone a few weeks ago. In contrast, Bradley hasn’t talked to Tubby Smith, his coach for three years and the man who recruited him, since Smith left for Minnesota.
“Coach Smith is a great man; he taught me many things about life. But in terms of me growing as a person on and off the basketball court, I didn’t feel like I got the maximum out of him in those areas,” he said.
With Gillispie’s firing after only two seasons and subsequent DUI charge, there has been much talk about his character and coaching methods. Many of his former players say that Gillispie’s “no pain, no gain” attitude bordered on abuse.
Bradley, however, tells a different tale. “Playing for Coach G was the toughest, most brutal hardship I’ve ever gone through, mentally and physically. But, I improved so much. He made me better because he honestly cared about me and wanted me to become a better player,” he said.
Under Gillispie’s guidance, Bradley had the best season of his college career. He averaged 15.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists along with making the All-SEC Coaches First Team and All-SEC AP Second Team.
But, it was a brutal year. Besides enduring eight-hour practices for what “felt like every day of the week,” he also played with a broken pinkie the entire season, and never told anyone. He showed me the pinkie, which is permanently bent at an angle because Bradley failed to take care of the fracture when it first occurred.
He explained, “I played through my injury because I felt like I had to lead the team, and I couldn’t afford to sit out. Joe [Crawford] was the same way. He was coming off knee surgery, and the only way he could get ready for games was to sit out practices because it would hurt too much.”
The 2007-08 season pushed him to the edge and made him feel like he couldn’t go on. “I wanted to quit basketball. I would question whether it was possible to take another step or another three steps,” he said. “But I did it. I’ve been through one of the toughest things I’ve ever experienced. Nothing I encounter now can make me fold.”
The drive to avoid failure is what has kept Bradley’s dream of playing in the NBA alive. After playing in Croatia and France for one season each, he signed a six-figure contract last week to play with Israeli team Maccabi Ashdod for one season.
It’s all part of Bradley’s one-year plan to play in the NBA in the 2011-12 season. His website, www.DreamSmooth.com, outlines his goals and has a countdown clock. At the time of publishing, the clock read 323 days, 03 hours, 01 minute, 02 seconds. In addition, he blogs about life, basketball, and music.
The pursuit of that dream is what keeps Bradley going. “My confidence is at a high right now. I’m in a great place because of the things I’ve been through and the lessons I’ve learned,” he said. “How can I possibly be afraid of success?”
Whether or not he makes it to the big league all boils down to one thing – belief. “Maybe I’m not good enough or fast enough, but I believe,” he said. “That’s all I can do. The rest is out of my hands.”
Down to Earth and a Fan Favorite
What is in his power, though, is the ability to make the regular UK fan feel like his new best friend. As Kentucky fans approached and chatted with him, Bradley conversed about everything – from politics to this year’s team outlook to which other Kentucky players he’s following on Twitter.
Bradley knows that it’s the fans that make Kentucky such an elite basketball program. And it is for the fans that he visits Jack Demsey’s whenever the New York UK Alumni Club holds events and he’s in town. It’s his small way of saying thank you.
As I walked out the door, I could hear Bradley attempting to convince a friend to shoot some pool before catching a midnight movie showing. Only in the city that never sleeps are there regular midnight movie showings on a Sunday night.
Although Bradley will be in Israel next week, his heart will always belong to New York. And his blood? Always blue.