Fitch appreciates what Smith has done for him

November 02, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

When Gerald Fitch talks to Tubby Smith 10 years from now, he's not sure what he'll say to the University of Kentucky basketball coach.

"I am pretty sure we will be the best of friends. He will know if there is ever anything he needs from me, I would do it for him. And it would be the same way for him with me," said Fitch. "When that time comes in 10 years, we will probably be in his office crying and just reminiscing."

They certainly will have a lot to remember.

Fitch has been one of Smith's recruiting gems. He came to Kentucky not as a highly-touted prospect, but as a relatively unknown recruit. He's turned into a dependable defensive player, rebounder and scorer and going into his senior season would be considered Kentucky's top returning player by most.

However, he also had a series of off-court problems during his sophomore year that had many UK fans hoping Smith would put him off the team as he did other players following that 2001-2002 season.


Fitch was involved in a fight with a teammate, broke curfew, was cited for trying to use a fake ID to get into a Lexington night spot, and had to sit out a Southeastern Conference Tournament game for breaking a team rule.

Yet Smith never thought of giving up on Fitch. Fitch justified that confidence last season when he not only stayed out of trouble, but averaged 12.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game and shot a team-high 41 percent from 3-point range.

"I could understand why people wondered why he let me stay," Fitch said. "I had a few incidents, but you have to know what was really going on. People are going to listen to the media, and sometimes the media added a few things to make it seem worse than it was. I think I've showed people he might the right decision in keeping me.

"I could have handled things differently my sophomore year. I let my anger control my decision-making at times. Now I would handle things totally different. But more than anything I wanted to do well last year because of the confidence coach Smith showed in me and to show that I am not a bad person.

"You can't really change the hands of time. Those things happened. All I can do is keep making the best of my situation now and continue to gain respect back that I lost that one year."

Apparently, he's done that in a lot of ways. He probably would have made the U.S. Pan-American Games team last summer if not for a groin injury. Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook made him a first-team All-Southeastern Conference pick going into this year.

"I don't think any kid is perfect, and he's not, either," said Kentucky assistant coach David Hobbs. "He has done a good job of taking advantage of a second chance. Some of his problems were compounded by a year in which we had a lot of trouble, but then some problems were his own. His timing was terrible because of everything else that went on that year.

"He knows Tubby had a lot of people thinking he should have done something different with him than what Tubby did. To Gerald's credit, he understood that. He grew up spoiled in some ways, which is not a bad thing. But sometimes kids don't always take advantage of second chances because they think there will always be more chances. Gerald learned his lessons."

Fitch hopes he's also learned how to be a team leader this year. He carefully watched how Keith Bogans handled himself last year when he helped UK sweep the SEC regular-season and tournament championships, reach the NCAA Midwest Regional final and win 32 games.

Now Fitch believes he can supply the leadership UK needs this season.

"I learned so much from him from day one, especially how he struggled all through his junior season and then turned his game around last year to lead us," Fitch said. "I observed how hard he worked, his personality at key times and how he interacted with teammates. Everybody trusted and believed him. He did everything with his teammates.

"Coach Smith always looks to his seniors for leadership. I knew that last year and tried to start getting ready for that role."

Hobbs isn't sure Fitch can be the same type of leader as Bogans. He does not have the same outgoing personality and is not nearly as vocal as Bogans was. Hobbs sees him leading more by example.

"Nobody really maxes out their talent, but he's coming pretty close," Hobbs said. "He's a little unorthodox, especially from the shooting standpoint. But he's worked hard to make himself a player. He's gotten stronger.

"He's not a vocal leader, but he is definitely someone others look to. He has the ability to make plays. Think about the number of big shots he's hit for us and has been willing to take. A lot of guys won't even take a shot with a game on the line. He's willing to take those pressure shots and more times than not he's made them.

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