By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
If somebody asked me to pick the best basketball player in the University of Kentucky’s stored history, the first thing I’d do besides buy a big bottle of Advil is to ponder the consistent characteristics of the best UK players over the years.
Kentucky’s stars haven’t necessarily been the biggest, the fastest and the strongest, even though Wildcats’ greats from every decade since Ralph Beard was UK’s first Associated Press first-team all-American in 1948 could easily fit in those categories.
The best Big Blue players are usually highly efficient basketball machines that can process coaching, combine it with their athletic ability and excel within a framework of the team. And most of the time, they do it so effortlessly it doesn’t even look like they sweat.
Realizing there are dozens of UK greats who fit that description who’ve played for one of the Wildcats’ seven national championship teams, for one of their 14 Final Four squads, for one of their 27 SEC tourney title-winners, for one of their 45 league regular season championship collections of talent, I needed a tiebreaker.
So I began looking at individual honors. Once I did that, the choice was surprisingly clear.
He’s the only Kentucky player ever to accomplish this one heckuva Bluegrass bucket list: Most Valuable Player in the SEC, Most Outstanding Player of the SEC tourney, Most Outstanding Player of a NCAA Regional or a Final Four, a first-team Associated Press all-American, a three-time AP first-team All-SEC choice, a two-time SEC All-tournament team selection and a starter for a national championship team and two SEC regular season title squads.
And he got it all done in three seasons after transferring from another school. So who is it? You haven’t guessed yet? Well. . .
Kyle Macy, come on down! You sir are the cream of the ’Cats.
To me, Kyle, a 6-3, 175-pound starting point guard from 1977-78 to 1979-80, is the absolute essence of what Kentucky basketball has been about, ever since late Wildcats’ coach Adolph Rupp rolled into Lexington in 1930 and began taking the rest of college hoops to school for parts of the next five decades.
Because when you talk to Kyle about his UK past, it’s not about the awards. It’s about how much he enjoyed being one of the perfectly fitted cogs in the Big Blue Machine, especially as a third-year sophomore starter for the Wildcats’ 1978 national championship team.
“The one thing about that championship team is that nobody really had an ego,” says Kyle, who turns 55 on April 9. “It was all about the common goal of winning. Our NCAA tourney run was a perfect example of what we were about.
“It seemed like every game of that tournament, a different player had a big game, whether it was the reserves against Florida State in the first round, (Mike) Phillips or (Truman) Claytor vs. Miami of Ohio in the regional semis, me against Michigan State in the regional finals, Jack (Givens) and (Rick) Robey in the national championship game against Duke.
“We didn’t have the greatest athletes, but we were a true team. Everybody complemented each other and we all had that willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team. Guys who could have averaged 10 more points a game gave up shots to teammates who had better shots.”
The enjoyment of playing smart, disciplined team basketball was the main reason why Kyle, a Kendalville, Indiana native, transferred to Kentucky after his freshman year at Purdue in 1975-76.
Having played for Peru (Ind.) High under his father Bob Macy, a 1996 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Kyle won the state of Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award his senior season in 1974-75. He scored 2,137 in his high school career, yet wasn’t a selfish gunner. Rather, he was a fundamentally trained sharpshooter who had the innate ability of knowing when he had to turn on his scoring and when to be a true point guard.
If you didn’t realize this, then look at his combined shooting stats from his three years at Kentucky and his seven seasons in the NBA. Put those together and he shot 50.5 percent from the field and 87.8 percent from the free throw line, absolutely ridiculous numbers back then and certainly on another planet by today’s dwindling shooting standards.
“I couldn’t jump out of the gym and I wasn’t super fast,” says Kyle, who averaged a steady 14.4 points in his 98-game UK career. “But being a coach’s son I learned fundamentals at an early age. I did have a good first step, good hands and good anticipation. It’s about knowing what you can and can’t do, and playing to your strengths. Make the best of the skills you were given.”
Kyle’s smooth, sure play is why Purdue and Kentucky waged a recruiting war to sign him. Feeling pressure to stay in state, he signed with Purdue and its head coach Fred Schaus. He was a former NBA star who coached the legendary Jerry West during West’s college days at West Virginia and again with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.
Though Kyle averaged 13.8 points as a true freshman for the 16-11 Boilermakers, he experienced things that went against the way he was taught to play the game.
“There was a lack of team play and a lack of discipline,” Kyle remembers. “We had a lot of talent, but he (Schaus) was very hands off. I didn’t think things would change and we would never reach our potential. And I knew at Kentucky that Coach (Joe B.) Hall was very disciplined and he motivated his players to work hard to become the best they could be.”
One of the long-time running jokes – and a true story – why Macy didn’t sign with Kentucky originally involved Robey, UK’s big power forward from New Orleans.
“On my recruiting visit to Lexington, his car (a Gran Torino) got stuck in the snow and I had to push it up a hill,” Kyle says with a laugh. “But I really signed with Purdue, because it was an hour from home. And at the time Coach Hall first offered me a Kentucky scholarship, he said he needed an answer right then or he’d make the same offer to Truman Claytor. I wasn’t ready to sign, so he signed Truman and I went to Purdue.”
Kyle was more decisive when he wanted to leave Purdue after one season. So he went to Schaus and the Purdue staff seeking a scholarship release so he could talk to prospective schools.
“The coaches really didn’t think I was serious,” Kyle says. “They just said, `Yeah, that’s fine.’
“Then when I visited him (Schaus) a second time and told him I was really leaving, that’s when he tried to sell me on staying. He said, `You’re our most valuable guy, we can’t lose you.’
“But when he recruited me, he told me I’d get an opportunity to play. When I got there, I didn’t really get a chance to play until one of starting guards broke his wrist. Once I had some success, I didn’t want to go back to the bench and the guy who got hurt was going to be back the next season.”
Schaus couldn’t sway Kyle to stay, and Kyle and his father made a trip to Lexington to see UK’s Hall. Just the year before, Hall had been hot and heavy trying to sign Kyle. So what about the second time around when Kyle wanted to transfer?
“It was almost like I had to sell myself to him,” Kyle says.
Though he rarely, if ever accepted transfers, Hall bought in and signed Kyle. It was one of the best recruiting decisions Hall ever made.
Kyle sat out the 1976-77 season at UK in accordance with the NCAA transfer rule, getting stronger in the weight room (“I hadn’t really touched weights much before,” Kyle recalls) and smarter by playing against physical senior starting point guard Larry Johnson. When that 26-4 season ended with a 79-72 loss to North Carolina in East Regional championship game, Kyle could barely wait for the following season.
As a redshirt sophomore, he slid almost effortlessly into the starting lineup as UK began its march to the 1978 national championship, the ’Cats first NCAA title since 1958.
“Having practiced with the team a full season and they’d seen me play, I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself,” Kyle says. “It took me about the first eight games to shake the rust, but the transition was easy.”
Kyle averaged 12.5 points, 5.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds, hitting 53.6 percent from the field and 89.2 percent from the free throw line. As the Wildcats advanced through the NCAA tourney against some of the toughest possible roadblocks – Michigan State with its 6-8 freshman point guard named Magic Johnson and Arkansas with its famed Triplets (Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph – Kyle was at his very best.
In Kentucky’s 52-49 Mideast Regional finals win over Michigan State, Kyle scored 18 points and was the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Half of his points came in the game’s final 6:16, starting with a three-point play and ending with Kyle drilling six straight one-and-one free throws in the last three minutes.
“We put Jack Givens (a solid 6-4 forward) on Magic and I only switched on him a few times,” Kyle recalls. “Magic didn’t shoot the ball well yet at that point in his career and we were more concerned with him as a passer. We tried to use our size on him (with 6-10 senior twin towers Robey and Phillips) to limit his vision.
“Offensively, we had some trouble with their matchup zone. We made some adjustments at halftime. Fortunately late in the game, I kept coming off Robey’s high picks to take shots or get fouled.”
Two games later when UK blasted Duke, 94-88, to win the national title, Kyle scored but 9 points with 8 assists. He attempted only three shots (and made them all), clearly content to feed teammate Jack Givens, whose 41 points destroyed the Blue Devils, and Robey, whose 20 points and 11 rebounds have languished all these years in the shadow of Givens’ enormous performance.
“I scored a ton of points in high school, but there were a lot of games for me at Kentucky like that Duke game where I didn’t need to take many shots,” Kyle says.
When it was all over, Kentucky had won its fifth national championship with 30-2 record, its only losses on the road at SEC foes Alabama and LSU, the latter defeat by a point in overtime. UK’s average margin of victory that season was 14.5 points, with 12 wins by 20 or more points including three victories by 30 or more points.
“ESPN began broadcasting in 1979, a year after we won the national championship,” Kyle says. “If ESPN had started a year earlier, that 1978 Kentucky team would be recognized as one of the best-ever in college basketball.
“We had great shooting outside. We were big and physical inside. We were better defensively than teams thought. We really didn’t have a weak link. We were just a well-rounded team that could do a lot of different things.”
The ’78 championship season propelled Kyle into rock-star status in the Bluegrass State. He was perfection personified, from his court appearance of not ever having one hair out of place and appearing never to sweat, to his penchant for personally answering an average of 175 pieces of fan mail per week.
Kids would mimic Kyle’s free throw routine in which he would bend down and dry his hands on his socks before shooting.
“The biggest reason I did that was it helped me focus,” says Kyle, an 89 percent career free throw shooter (332-og-372) at UK who held the SEC single-season percentage record (91.2 percent, 104-of-114, set in 1979-1980) until Ole Miss’ Chris Warren broke the mark just last season at 92.8 percent.
UK’s starting lineup composition shifted dramatically in Kyle’s last two seasons. Once the euphoria of winning the ’78 national title ended, there was the stark realization the four graduated senior starters (Givens, Robey, Phillips and James Lee) had combined to average 54 points.
The 1978-79 Wildcats in Kyle’s junior season started the year 6-7 overall and 1-5 in the SEC. But the then-new SEC post-season tournament, re-starting after a 25-year absence, helped UK somewhat save face.
“The SEC tournament format that first year (when the top two seeds Tennessee and LSU) got byes all way to the semifinals) was good for us,” Kyle recalls, “because it allowed us to play four games.”
Though Kyle was sizzling – he averaged 23.4 points and 5 assists while shooting 58.3 percent from the floor (35-of-60) and 88.5 percent from the free throw line (23-of-26) – a fresher Tennessee beat Kentucky, 75-69 in overtime in the championship game. Kyle’s cumulative 93 points remains the second highest total since the tourney restart.
Despite UK losing in the finals, he was chosen as the Most Outstanding Player, and it wasn’t a close vote.
Kyle went for a career-high 32 points in round one against Ole Miss, added 22 points and seven rebounds in the quarterfinals vs. Alabama in a 101-100 win victory and then discharged No. 8 LSU in the semis by scoring 29 points on 10-of-15 shots from the floor, and 9-of-9 free throws. In the finals loss to the Vols, who only had to beat Auburn to advance to the championship game, Kyle had nothing physically left in tank and scored but 10 points.
While the Wildcats didn’t get a NCAA tourney bid, being eliminated by Clemson in the first round of the NIT, Kyle’s play in the SEC tournament obviously made pro scouts believers.
Several months after that season, he was training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with the United States team that would later that summer of ‘79 win a gold medal in the Pan American Games. One day, he got a phone call from a Lexington reporter whose opening question was, “How do you feel being drafted by the Suns?”
“I’m like, `What are you talking about?’ ” Kyle recalls with a laugh.
The Phoenix Suns had chosen Kyle in the first round of the NBA draft, taking him No. 22 overall. He hadn’t submitted his name to enter the draft. He’d never met anyone from the Suns’ front office, though he eventually discovered Suns’ general manager Jerry Colangelo had been at the SEC tourney witnessing his scoring spree.
It was actually a shrewd move by Colangelo. The Suns had just lost in the Western Conference finals and had plenty of veteran backcourt talent, such as Paul Westphal. But Colangelo, knowing that Kyle wouldn’t leave college early and knowing that Kyle would only improve, fired the preemptive strike of drafting him early and retaining his draft rights for a year.
Colangelo’s assessment was correct. As a senior in 1979-80, Kyle was named the SEC’s Player of the Year, first-team Associated Press all-American and earned third straight AP All-SEC first-team honors. The Wildcats went 29-6 overall and won the SEC regular season by a game over LSU when Kyle hit a game-winning 15-footer at Baton Rouge in overtime in the final game of the regular season.
But stunningly, Kyle’s last NCAA tourney run basically ended before it started. After UK beat Florida State by 19 in a tourney opener, the Wildcats lost on their home court in the Mideast Regional semifinals to Duke, 55-54. Duke had beaten UK earlier to open Macy’s final collegiate season, 82-76, in overtime.
Kyle already knew his pro destination since the Suns had held his draft rights for more than a year. He played seven seasons in the NBA, five for the Suns and a year each with Chicago and Indiana. He averaged 9.5 points and 4 assists, and was on a playoff team each year in the league.
“I enjoyed the pro game and the team atmosphere with the Suns was similar to that in college at Kentucky,” Kyle says. “The only thing I didn’t like in the pros was front office decisions were sometimes based more on business than trying to win games. You’d see coaches have to play a player to showcase his talent for a possible trade, rather than playing the player that would give us the best chance to win.
“And then you’d have players look directly at you when you were wide-open and they would shoot instead of passing, figuring if they scored more they’d get more money in their next contract. I never ever thought like that and never will. I was raised to play team basketball, five guys playing as one.”
After his final NBA season for Indiana in 1986-87, Kyle decided to play three seasons in Europe for top-level Italian teams Dietor Bologna and Benetton Treviso.
“I wasn’t getting a chance to play with the Pacers and I still felt I could play,” Kyle says. “They love their basketball in Europe. The gyms are smaller, but they are full. You only play one, maybe two games a week, so you get the chance to travel and see the country.
“But when you play professionally in Europe, you know before you get there that if your team wins it’s because the European players played well. If your team loses, it’s because the Americans didn’t do enough.”
After Kyle scored 31 points in his last game in Italy, he held no grand press conference announcing his retirement.
It was simply the end of his playing career.
And it was also the start of a journey over the last two decades that has seen Kyle dabble in a bit of everything – conducting camps, coaching high school tennis (he was a top tennis player in high school), serving as a bank officer, becoming a Division 1 head coach at Morehead (Ky.) State for nine seasons and coaching a professional minor league team.
Kyle continues to be a highly sought TV and radio analyst, living in Lexington with wife and two daughters. Of course, he still keeps close tabs on the latest bunch of No. 1 nationally ranked Wildcats that are 30-1 heading into this week’s SEC tournament in New Orleans.
“This team is really impressive defensively,” Kyle says. “And they’ve done a good job of keeping their egos in check and complementing each other. Somebody always steps up when somebody else is off his game.”
Hmmm, that’s sounds familiar, circa the ’78 ’Cats. And who wants to be Kyle Macy on the current UK juggernaut ready to tackle March Madness?
Whoever it is must learn how to make everybody around him better. And don’t miss free throws. Or many other shots, period.