Tony Delk was never built like a pit bull, but he played like one.
Give the former Kentucky guard an open look on a three-pointer and you were done. If he got a step on you driving to the basket, the best you could hope for was to foul.
A sinewy 6-1, Tony played with a fearlessness that you often don’t find with perceived pretty boy outside gunners.
“Having no fear and playing with confidence came from playing against my four brothers,” Tony says. “Once I beat my brothers, I was never scared to play against anyone ever again. I’m a country boy from Brownsville, Tennessee. I’d play against city guys, and I was like, `Hey, I respect your game, but I know how to play this game, too.’ ”
Such an attitude made Tony the fifth leading scorer UK history and Most Outstanding Player of the 1996 Final Four when the Wildcats won the national championship by beating Syracuse. Considering that, it’s a bit amusing that Tony is too nervous to be in New Orleans this weekend to watch his beloved Wildcats take on Louisville in a Final Four semifinal.
“I haven’t been to any of their games this year, and they’ve won,” Tony says. “I don’t want to jinx them.”
So at 6:09 p.m. Saturday afternoon, when UK and the Cardinals tipoff the first semi of the day in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Tony will be all by his lonesome at an undisclosed location watching the game in his self-imposed solitary confinement.
It’s just Tony, a TV and a cell phone to communicate with the outside world.
What has doubled Tony’s agony is Saturday’s game matches his alma mater, a place where he was an assistant director of basketball operations the last two years under John Calipari, against his college coach Rick Pitino who coaches the hated in-state rival Cardinals.
“I love Coach `P’,” said Tony, 38, who just finished his first season as an assistant at New Mexico State. “But I played for Kentucky and it was Coach Cal who gave me my first coaching job. So my loyalty has always been with the University of Kentucky.”
Still, it’s an emotional struggle for Tony, watching two coaches who greatly influenced his career path – Pitino who coached Tony at UK from 1992-96 and Calipari who showed Tony the coaching ropes at Kentucky from 2009 through last spring.
“I still stay in contact with a lot of players from that (1996 national championship) team,” says Tony, who played 10 years in the NBA with eight teams from 1996-2006. “This weekend is bittersweet for all of us. We never want to wish Coach `P’ anything bad and Coach Cal is a great guy, also. For all of us, it’s about supporting the school (UK).”
It’s strange that this Tony/Coach `P’/Coach Cal triangle started back in 1995-96 season when Kentucky and Pitino faced the University of Massachusetts and Calipari in the second game of the season.
Pitino tried to open that year with Tony at the point guard to showcase his ballhandling skills for NBA scouts. But after the 92-82 loss to UMass and Pitino almost out of the gate, Tony was shifted back to shooting guard, the position he was born to play.
“When we lost to UMass, it made us angry and we vowed we wouldn’t lose again the rest of the season,” Tony recalls. “We won 27 straight before we lost to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament finals (in New Orleans). Losing to Mississippi State got us re-focused again.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
This year’s Wildcats won its first 10 games, lost at Indiana on a last-second three-pointer, won 24 straight, lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament finals in New Orleans and have since won four consecutive NCAA tournament games by a margin of 13.5 points.
Tony says what impresses him the most about Calipari’s current 36-2 Wildcats is they have the same DNA that Tony’s ’96 UK national champs possessed.
“Nobody on this Kentucky team cares who scores, just as long as they get the win,” Tony says. “That’s the way it was on that 1996 team. It’s about sharing the ball and sticking with the game plan. If this Kentucky team does that, they’ll win.”
Tony should know. In his four years at Kentucky, the Wildcats were 119-18, including 11-1 in the SEC tourney and 12-3 in the NCAA tournament. They won the SEC regular season championship twice, the SEC tourney three times, played in two Final Fours with one national title and also lost in a regional finals.
Along the way, Tony, a starter in his last three seasons, scored 1,890 points (14.2 points per game) and set the school career record for most three-pointers (283) that still stands today. He was named the SEC’s Most Valuable Player, a first-team all-American, twice first-team All-SEC, twice on an NCAA regional tourney team as well as the ’96 Midwest Regional MVP and one-time all-tournament
His ability to hit the long ball and score bunches of points in a hurry is what caught the attention of one of Pitino’s assistants named Billy Donovan (yes, that Billy Donovan, Florida’s head coach the last 16 seasons) when Tony was posting big scoring numbers at Brownsville’s Haywood High and as an AAU circuit flash.
Tony developed his automatic shooting stroke competing against four older brothers - Carnel, Ricky, Les and David – on a dirt court behind Les’ house that the Delk brothers nicknamed “Little Boston Garden.”
“When you play on a dirt court, you know you’re in he country,” Tony laughs. “But playing on that dirt court made me better, because it was like playing on obstacle course.
“There were a lot of things that distracted and tested you. You had bumps in the dirt, so sometimes it affected your dribble. If you picked up your dribble on certain parts of the court, there were trees you had to shoot over.
“There were days that it snowed, but I’d still go out there and shoot, because I just felt I had to shoot that day.”
Fighting the elements made shooting inside in a gym a breeze for Tony. It’s why he averaged 37.5 points as a high school junior, and then upped it to 38.4 points per game as a senior, including scoring 70 one night in the usual 32-minute regulation length high school game.
Tony had the good fortune at Brownsville Haywood to play for a coach named Rick Sullivan, who knew a scoring machine when he saw one. Sullivan had been a Memphis Overton High teammate of Johnny Neumann, who averaged 35.3 points per game as a senior in 1968-69 and led major college basketball in scoring with a 40.1 average as an Ole Miss sophomore in 1970-71.
“Coach Sullivan just let me play,” Tony recalls. “He never told me not to shoot. I had so much freedom, and he let me play my game. I had great teammates who sacrificed by screening and giving the ball. They were guys who wanted me to get points. I enjoyed playing with those guys.”
Naturally, the college recruiting battle for Tony was fierce, and took place before his senior season, because he wanted to sign in the early signing period. His finalists were Kentucky and Arkansas.
“I met all the Arkansas players on my recruiting visit and I really liked them,” Tony says. “I knew (Arkansas forward) Corliss Williamson from our AAU battles. Mike Anderson (now Arkansas head coach and then an assistant) recruited me and my Mom loved (Arkansas head) Coach (Nolan) Richardson. It was hard to go against what my Mom liked and my brothers liked.”
But Rick Pitino and staff knew what they were doing when they had Tony take his official visit for Kentucky’s Midnight Madness in October 1991.
The sea of blue packing 8,700-seat Memorial Coliseum for a mere practice dazzled Tony. He took note of the unabashed love for Kentucky basketball, not to mention the tradition of the Wildcats being the NCAA's all-time winningest program by percentage.
"I'd never seen anything like it,” Tony says. ''It was overwhelming how the fans were so in touch with basketball. I forgot about the rest of my scheduled visits. I wanted to sign the next day.''
Tony doubted his decision to play for Kentucky only once during his freshman season in 1992-93 when he wasn’t getting much playing time. He saw other highly touted freshmen he knew at other schools that were starters or getting substantial playing time. Tony was receiving less playing time than any other member of the UK signing class.
“Coach Pitino had a plan for me, he saw the bigger picture,” Tony says. “He said, ``Tony, you’re going to be a good player.’ He wanted me to develop into something more than a scorer.
“Coach always took time to work with me individually, and my game got better every year I played for him. I understood in his system where my shots were taken from, I understood the importance of defense and being a leader to sacrifice my scoring. I wanted to show I could do other things to help the team win.
“I went from being this talented high school all-American scorer to an all-around guard who was more concerned with winning. Coach `P’ got me to buy into winning.”
It was only fitting that on the biggest stage of Tony’s career – the Final Four in his senior season – that he averaged 23 points in wins over Calipari-coached UMass in the semifinals and over Syracuse in the championship game, and was named the Most Outstanding Player.
“I was the only player remaining from our 1993 Final Four team (that lost in overtime to Michigan in the semifinals),” Tony says. “I was a freshman on that team, and I was happy that year just to get to the Final Four.
“We came close in 1995, but lost to North Carolina in the regional finals. Our ’95 team was just as good as our ’96 team, but the ’95 team had some guys doing their own thing. That’s why we lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight that year. We didn’t play how we played all year. We got away from our game plan.
“As a senior, we all committed to being team players. Coach Pitino got us to buy into being a part of history. That’s one of the things I remember saying, `You can be a part of history and hang a championship banner if you buy in and do what’s right for the team.’
“When you’re young, you don’t understand that. But by the time I was a senior, I wasn’t happy just to get to the Final Four. I wanted to win the championship.”
Tony went out and took care of business, starting by scoring 25 points in UK’s 83-63 Midwest Regional finals victory over Tim Duncan-led Wake Forest. Tony, whose outside shot had been struggling in the postseason until that game, nailed 4-of-6 threes in the victory.
When the Demon Deacons showed some signs of life in the second half, Pitino began dialing up Tony’s number.
“Tony got every call,” said Pitino after the win. “I just had so much faith he'd come through for us.''
In the semifinals against UMass, Tony fought through leg cramps. He took fluids after the game, wondering if he would be effective in the finals against Syracuse.
Effective? In the last 40 minutes of his 133-game college career, Tony blew the doors off the Orangemen, tying a Final Four record hitting seven three-pointers (out of 12 attempts), finishing with 24 points and 7 rebounds in a 76-67 victory.
He hit six threes in the first half, stretching Syracuse's 2-3 defensive zone to the max. And his only three-pointer in the second half was part of a rare four-point play that took the UK lead from nine to 13 points at 59-46 with 11:12 left.
Tony wasn’t really open on the play, standing as deep as he could get in the corner in front of the Kentucky bench. When the ball swung to him and he eyed the basket, Pitino screamed to Tony, “KILL IT!”
"I got some wide-open looks that whole game, but that wasn’t a great shot to take,” recalls Tony, who was fouled by Syracuse's Todd Burgan and fell in a heap at the feet of his teammates. ''He (Burgan) grazed me and I kind of took a flop.''
After being in a shooting slump earlier in the tournament – “It's impossible for Tony to be in a slump because he can put the ball on the floor and help us other ways,” said fellow UK senior forward Walter McCarty at the time – Tony saved his best for the final three biggest games of his career.
“I think I played more relaxed, let the game come to me,” Tony says. “When you look at all the tournament games I played in, I let the game come to me. I never felt pressure to go out and score 20 to 25 points.
“I knew I was going to get shots, so I never took any bad shots. They ran all kinds of screens for me and I knew our press would get me easy buckets. To me, it was just play your game and you don’t have to force anything.”
Tony’s Final Four performance gave him the boost to be drafted by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets in the first round, No. 16 overall in the ’96 draft. It would have been nice if Tony could have had the stability of playing four seasons in one locale like he did in college, but he didn’t.
He had a decade-long odyssey of never playing for one franchise for two complete consecutive seasons. He was traded from Charlotte to Golden State to Sacramento, signed a lucrative free agent deal with Phoenix where he was traded after 1 ½ seasons to Boston, then to Dallas, Atlanta and finally Detroit.
Along the way, Tony managed to average 9.1 points in 21.5 minutes for his NBA career, not bad numbers for someone constantly having to learn new playbooks, teammates and coaches.
“I got traded a lot because my contract was easy to move,” Tony says. “I enjoyed playing for Sacramento, but Phoenix offered me a great deal, and I always wanted to play with their point guard Jason Kidd.
“I loved playing in Phoenix. I had my best season there (12.3 points per game in 2000-01 when he scored his NBA high 53 vs. the Kings). I loved the weather, nice and warm. I liked my coach, Scott Skiles. I signed a long-term deal and I thought I’d be there forever.
“Then after I was with the Suns for a season and a half, Jason got traded to New Jersey. Scott Skiles got fired as coach. Then, the Suns traded me to the Celtics (during 2001-02). I came back my second year as a starter and I was playing great when I had a severe groin injury and then my father died. I still had a good playoffs, but Danny Ainge came in as the general manager and traded me to Dallas.”
In his last three years of his NBA career, Tony played for three teams. He knew he had two or three years left in his career, but he wanted to settle his wife and his daughters. So he played overseas in 2007 for Panathinaikos, and helped that traditional Greek powerhouse win the Euroleague Championship.
His last pro job was playing in Puerto Rico briefly in the summer of 2008 when the owner of the team Tony was playing for fired the team’s coach. The owner asked Tony to help coach the team. The team ended up losing in the seventh game of the league’s championship series, but Tony realized how much he enjoyed coaching.
So when he returned home and had one last shot at the NBA with the Hawks cut short by a ruptured patella tendon, Tony knew it was time to start a new phase of his basketball love affair.
He also wanted be home with his wife Margie and their daughters, especially Taylor, who was diagnosed at birth with sickle cell anemia, an inherited disorder that affects red blood cells. Sickle cell stems from abnormal hemoglobin that causes red blood cells to become stiff and get stuck in tiny blood vessels. Blood supply is cut off to nearby tissues, causing pain and sometimes organ damage.
In 2003, Tony started the Taylor Delk Sickle Cell Foundation, which provides financial aid to families of sickle cell patients. He’s held fund-raiser golf tournaments and other events to fund the foundation, which still accepts donations online at tdscf.org.
Wanting to become a coach, Tony contacted Mike Woodson who was Tony’s head coach at Atlanta, and it was Woodson who helped Tony get an invite to one of John Calipari’s private coaching retreats before Calipari’s last season coaching the University of Memphis in 2008-09.
“When Coach Cal took the job at Kentucky and I was trying to get into coaching, Mike Woodson made a call along with some other friends to Coach Cal about me joining their staff,” Tony says. “Coach Cal said it was like a no-brainer, and he hired me as assistant director of basketball ops.
“He was a great guy to be around. He has such love for his coaches, his players and their families. He’s a really good family man, and he made me realize as I got in this profession that you’ve got to make time for your own family as well as your basketball family. You’ve got to have a balance.”
After two seasons at Kentucky, Tony got his first on-court college assistant job this past season at New Mexico State. The 26-10 Aggies won the Western Athletic Conference tournament and lost their NCAA tourney opener to Indiana.
“You have to be willing to leave your comfort zone and everybody knew me in Kentucky,” Tony says of the move to part of the country and a college conference foreign to him. “I didn’t really know the staff here, so it’s a challenge and I’m always up for a challenge, I want to be the best wherever I go. If I have confidence in myself and I love what I do, then I’m going to be good at it, regardless of whom I work for.
“The transition from taking off basketball shoes and putting on the dress shoes as a coach is not so bad after all. I love teaching the game. And having played in the NBA, I have credibility when it comes to a player talking about wanting to play in the NBA.”
Now when Tony speaks as a coach, he can hear the voices of Pitino and Calipari rolling around his head. Which is why this weekend’s Final Four semifinal coached by two men that mean so much to him tugs at his heart.
“They have similar motivational approaches and players under both coaches improve,” Tony says. “They both recruit great players, but they get them to play unselfishly and play defense. They get them to commit to being a team player, where you might have to sacrifice some of your own scoring for the good of the team.
“They instill a fight in their players that makes them play until the final buzzer sounds. They both watch a lot of film to find that one edge that might give them an advantage. Both guys are true competitors and love to win. They both taught me a lot.”
But. . .
“There’s such history and tradition at Kentucky,” Tony says. “What makes Kentucky are the fans. They appreciate and love the players. It’s like you’re a rock star in college. Even after you leave the program, the fans never quit loving you and I’ll always love Kentucky.”