A trio of former Kentucky Wildcats will be back inside Rupp Arena on Sunday night to face their alma mater in a men’s basketball exhibition game.
That’s the simple explanation, at least.
Missouri Western State University — an NCAA Division II school located in St. Joseph, Missouri, that competes in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association — is now home to three ex-Cats: Will Martin is the third-year head coach of the Griffons, with Jon Hood and Perry Stevenson both serving as assistant coaches.
All three men came through Kentucky: Martin as a student manager (highlighted by serving as the head manager of Kentucky’s last national championship team in 2012), and Hood (2009-14) and Stevenson (2006-10) as well-known players.
While they all overlapped for just one season (2009-10) in Lexington, the powers of the basketball universe have brought them back together again, now about 30 miles north of Kansas City.
The story of how these three men found their way into college basketball coaching, before reuniting and now returning to their roots borders on cinematic, as does the manner in which Sunday’s MWSU-UK exhibition matchup came to be.
How three ex-Cats found their way to coaching together
Martin’s time as a UK men’s basketball manager was highlighted by three trips to the Elite Eight, a pair of Final Four appearances and the 2012 national title.
It was during that national championship season when Martin realized he wanted to go into coaching.
It was also when he formed a close bond with Hood, who redshirted the season due to a torn right ACL.
“I knew that if Hood got a head coaching job first, I was hoping he would call me. And if I got a head coaching job first, I would definitely call him,” Martin told the Herald-Leader during a Zoom interview with both Hood and Stevenson on Friday. “That’s just how it worked out.”
Hood — the 2009 Kentucky Mr. Basketball at Madisonville-North Hopkins High School who played in 86 games at Kentucky and was part of John Calipari’s first recruiting class in Lexington — remembers fielding a question from former Herald-Leader reporter Jerry Tipton during his pre-Senior Night press conference in 2014, when Tipton asked if he wanted to become a basketball coach.
“I would nit-pick people to death,” Hood said at the time. “I’m very much a perfectionist when it comes to basketball. I know how it’s supposed to be played. I know what it’s supposed to look like.”
But despite his best efforts to craft a career in the private sector working in orthopedics, Hood’s passion for basketball brought the sport back to the forefront of his life.
He was an assistant coach at Fredrick Douglass High School in Lexington, then spent a season as a part-time assistant coach at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Then came a text message from Martin, and Hood joined the MWSU coaching staff in spring 2021.
There was less indecision when it came to Stevenson, who appeared in 134 games for Kentucky during a four-year career from 2006-10 that spanned three head coaches: Tubby Smith, Billy Gillispie and Calipari.
“I’ve known I’ve always wanted to be a coach, I just wasn’t sure if it was at the collegiate level or high school level,” said Stevenson, who was previously an assistant coach at Trinity High School in Louisville. “I’m really enjoying the college level, so I’m probably going to stick with that for the foreseeable future.”
Stevenson — who still ranks seventh all-time in career blocked shots in UK history with 159 — actually reached out to Martin first, before he was hired as an MWSU assistant coach, also in spring 2021.
“I just want to be able to work with people that I can trust,” Stevenson explained. “That I care about and they care about me, that are looking out for me and just enjoy what I’m doing. Who else to do that with than people you care about?”
The cohesive, communal aspect of “La Familia” within the Kentucky program was something that stuck with Martin, and is an element he strives to replicate at MWSU.
“I did the laundry and wiped up sweat (at UK) and these guys made me feel a huge part of it. That gave me a ton of confidence that allowed me when I was really approaching my dream of being a coach,” Martin said. “I felt like I was a part of every single game prep. I felt like I was a part of every single practice. I felt like I was a part of all of the skill development.”
The impact of Calipari, other UK coaches at Missouri Western State
Coming from a college basketball program of Kentucky’s caliber, it’s unsurprising that Hood, Martin and Stevenson all credit Calipari and the elite coaching staff around him with informing and instilling their core basketball beliefs.
Martin name dropped Orlando Antigua, Kenny Payne, John Robic and Calipari when discussing those at Kentucky who have influenced his coaching career.
“We do a lot of different stuff offensively and defensively because we don’t have five-star recruits. But our spacing, the way we move the ball, the way we talk, even that comes from Kentucky,” Martin said. “Everything that we do, in a small way or a large way, stems from what we all learned from Kentucky.”
This Kentucky influence extends beyond on-court actions as well.
“The ways we serve our players, the ways that we serve our community, the way we love our kids, the way that we try to put our kids on a platform and put them first in everything that we do, that’s John Calipari,” Martin added. “We’ll never match it, because coach Cal is better than anybody in the country in terms of serving his players, serving his staff.”
Hood will often crack up with laughter during and after MWSU practices, the result of Martin using a classic Calipari expression (a Cal-ism) without noticing it.
From an assistant coaching perspective, Hood brought up a piece of advice given to him by Antigua.
“As assistants (at Kentucky), they are supposed to figure out everything going on, before it gets to Cal. And they’re supposed to handle it, before it gets to Cal,” Hood said.
Therefore, the role of Hood and Stevenson at MWSU is to help Martin in anyway possible, ranging from character and player development, to checking player performance in the classroom and other behind-the-scenes work.
“Coach Cal is the biggest (influence),” Hood remarked. “Everything that he taught us, that’s what is with us the most.”
Ex-Cats share memories of Kentucky basketball
While all three of Hood, Martin and Stevenson deflected the attention away from themselves and toward their players and university ahead of Sunday’s exhibition contest, it’s understood that they have memories in Lexington that nobody else in their traveling party can truly understand.
For Hood, those core memories centered around competitiveness and camaraderie.
He fondly recounted the private open gyms that occurred daily during his time as a Wildcat.
“You’d have guys ready to go to war against each other, and then you step off the court and it’s ‘OK, what time are we going to Tolly-Ho?’” Hood said.
That’s part of the reason why the 2009-10 season — the only one that Hood, Martin and Stevenson overlapped for, and a team that won SEC regular season and SEC Tournament titles, before going on to reach the Elite Eight — remains Hood’s favorite season at UK.
Stevenson also holds an unconventional favorite memory from his Kentucky playing career.
It was the 2008-09 season, Billy Gillispie’s second and final one as head coach, which culminated in a run to the NIT quarterfinals.
UK, a four-seed in the tournament, hosted UNLV in a first-round game inside Memorial Coliseum, marking the first time the historic venue was used for a Kentucky men’s basketball game since March 1976.
In front of 8,327 fans who packed into Memorial Coliseum, UK staved off a second-half comeback attempt from the Runnin’ Rebels to win.
The game left a lasting impression on Stevenson, who produced the highlight play of the night with a thunderous poster dunk.
“You could literally feel the chills in your body. You could feel the floor shake. Memorial’s not a small building, and that thing was packed, the floor was shaking,” Stevenson recalled. “I was like, ‘This is probably the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in.’ That’s not a knock on Rupp, it’s just smaller and more compact and they’re literally right on top of you.”
Now, the goal is to try and create lasting memories like those at MWSU.
Early returns hold promise.
In his first season as head coach during the 2020-21 campaign, Martin guided the Griffons to the NCAA Division II Tournament for the first time in 11 years.
Last year, the first with Hood and Stevenson on staff, Martin said COVID and injuries to starters derailed the MWSU season.
Now, the Griffons have a high-profile chance to get back on track, and gain a few new fans in the process.
“I hope that after this game, people fall in love with the energy and the toughness of our team, regardless of what the score is,” Martin said. “I’m going to really encourage our guys to make sure that people feel you in that game … and that puts Missouri Western on a platform.”
How do you schedule a basketball game against Kentucky?
There’s one last part of the story to explain, and it’s perhaps the wildest portion of the whole.
Even with all of these UK ties in place, how did Missouri Western State secure a marquee exhibition game inside Rupp Arena against Kentucky?
It was harder than you think.
Martin said the best way to get in touch with Calipari isn’t a phone call or text, but rather it’s a hand-written letter. When he writes Calipari a letter, Martin said he always gets a hand-written letter back within 48 hours.
A letter from Martin to Calipari is now an annual tradition, and it usually comes with caveats at the end.
“Sure would love to come play. You can get us for cheap. We’ll run whatever you want us to run,” are among the offerings Martin has made.
Then, an opportunity presented itself. In September 2021, Ex-Cat Anthony Davis got married, and Calipari and Martin were both invited to the wedding.
“I got to spend about 30 seconds with him, and I mentioned the game. And wrote him another letter,” Martin said.
Later, Hood was in Central Kentucky recruiting for MWSU, and Martin saw another chance to get the game on the schedule.
Calipari was supposed to go watch a recruit at the same event where Hood was, so Hood stayed late, waiting to corner the Kentucky coach. But Calipari never showed up.
“That’s probably the closest you’ve come to yelling at me,” Hood said of a phone conversation with Martin. “All you were was animated. ‘Go sit in his office!’”
Hood, who was staying with his in-laws, drove from Georgetown to Lexington and pulled into the parking lot of the Joe Craft Center, Kentucky’s basketball practice facility on the UK campus.
Hood said Calipari was sitting in his Cadillac Escalade with the car running.
Hood estimated he would get about a 45-second audience with Calipari, but it was enough time to mention the quirk of having himself, Martin and Stevenson all still being on staff at MWSU for a second season.
Calipari gave his blessing for the game, and Hood wandered inside the Craft Center to find someone to schedule the game with.
The next two weeks brought silence from Kentucky, so Hood and Martin combined to bother Kevin Sergent, Kentucky’s associate athletic director for compliance, until a game contract appeared.
But even that didn’t go smoothly.
The game contract was sent to MWSU in August while the Griffons were flying back to the United States from Costa Rica, where they took a weeklong basketball and bonding trip.
“We were kind of freaking out thinking we weren’t going to get (the game) because we hadn’t signed it and sent it back to them immediately,” Hood said. “Stressful times in that Houston airport, that’s for sure.”