Vaught's Views: Basketball won't be Azubuike's only concern

November 09, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

This could be the year Kelenna Azubuike makes his mark in college basketball by becoming a consistent contributor on what could be a national title contending team at Kentucky.

Azubuike, a sophomore, has all the physical tools to be a success. He's a prolific scorer, soars above the rim and understands how to play within Tubby Smith's system. He spent last season mainly watching and learning from players like Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch, but this year he has a chance to show he really is a rising star.

However, basketball might not always be the No. 1 thing on his mind - and shouldn't be. As important as UK basketball is in this state, it cannot be the main thought in Azubuike's mind every day this season.

His father, Kenneth Azubuike, recently underwent a heart transplant. He's now home in Lexington doing fine, but he'll never be far from his son's thoughts this season.


"Basketball shouldn't run my life," Kelenna Azubuike said. "There are a lot of things more important than basketball. God, family and academics are all way ahead of basketball in my life.

"You try to be the best you can in basketball and work hard, but you want to make sure you have your priorities straight and not get carried away with all the attention that comes with basketball. There are far more important things in life than basketball."

That's not a knock on UK basketball. It's just a reality more should embrace.

Azubuike's teammate, Gerald Fitch, certainly had more than basketball on his mind Tuesday night when he sat on the bench sobbing near the end of Kentucky's win over Nike Elite. Rather than focusing on the 26 points he had scored, Fitch was overcome with grief because of the death of his grandmother two days earlier.

Azubuike will worry about his father every day. Who wouldn't? My father also underwent a heart transplant several years ago. He never regained consciousness and not a day goes by that I still don't miss him.

"We almost lost him a couple of times," the Kentucky sophomore said of his father. "But we just knew it wasn't his time. Right now he's getting better. I thank God for that because it really is a miracle that you can take a heart out and put a new one in. I still don't understand all that."

That miraculous procedure helped Azubuike's father. Auburn center Kyle Davis wasn't as fortunate when his mother died last season.

"She was on my mind all the time," Davis said. "I would go home every other day to see her. One day when she got real sick, I went home, came back the night of the game and played, and then went right back home."

He still remembers being with her the day she died. She told him to keep playing no matter what.

"I went out and dedicated the season to her and we had a great run (in the NCAA Tournament)," Davis said.

What would his advice to Azubuike be as he worries about his father and also tries to play basketball?

"The best way to deal with it is to surround yourself with people who will support you," Davis said. "Stay close to your coaches and teammates. The whole team was pallbearers for my mother's funeral. That made a lasting impression on me to know they all cared that much. My teammates helped me deal with everything. They were my backbone.

"I hope his father is fine, but I know he's going to worry. He has to let his teammates help him through everything."

Azubuike will. He also knows coach Tubby Smith is there to help. But the Kentucky sophomore has one other support system - his faith.

"I am a strong Christian. My dad's illness may have tested my faith, but my family prays all the time about it," Azubuike said. "My dad remains strong. He is always positive. There's just something about him that lets you know he has never given up. That encourages us to keep fighting and praying and not let him go."

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