The chant, openly mocking outspoken UK point guard Ramel Bradley, was a payback of sorts, as Bradley had done some gesturing and talking with the crowd throughout the game. Now, with the outcome no longer in doubt after some tense moments in regulation, the Rowdy Reptiles started giving it to the Brooklyn-bred senior, who had no choice but to take it. As he glanced around the arena, pretending to be oblivious to the chant, it seemed as though, maybe for the first time, he had no idea what to say.
Just don’t count on that silence lasting too long.
As one of two remaining seniors from a much-ballyhooed recruiting class, Bradley has endured his share of criticism. And that was before this season, which has seen the Cats stumble mightily, losing at home to Gardner-Webb and San Diego, and hovering under or around the .500 mark all season. Bradley’s shot selection, decision-making and leadership have all come under fire, especially this season, as the losses have mounted. With each careless turnover, rushed three-pointer or failed flop, the groans at Rupp Arena grow a little louder,
“When is that guy gonna learn that he’s not Kobe [Bryant]?” asked a frustrated fan behind me as we watched Bradley pound his dribble into the floor against Louisville before throwing up an off-balance leaner.
But here’s the thing – Ramel isn’t worried what people think. The boo-birds don’t bother him, and he’s not going to change who he is just because a few fans don’t like his style. For better or worse, Ramel is going to be Ramel. Much like quirky Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez with his “Manny being Manny” catchphrase, UK fans are going to have to take the good with the bad.
And to be fair, there’s been a lot of good this year, if you look carefully. Bradley leads the SEC in free-throw percentage, and he went 10-10, including 4-4 in the final 10 seconds, in a home upset over #5 Tennessee on Jan. 22. (That game also marked the first time since Dec. 29 when he didn’t score at least 20 points in a game, a feat spanning six games.) He poured in 20 points and five assists in a win over previously unbeaten Vanderbilt on Jan. 12, and it was his three-pointer that forced overtime in Gainesville, where he finished with 23.
Just as important, Bradley played 214 out of 215 possible minutes in the five-game stretch, as he helped the Cats secure those much-needed wins against Vandy and Tennessee.
“That’s what I have to do,” said Bradley in a recent press conference. “I kind of like it now. Coach [Billy Gillispie] really put me in a position in the off-season, with conditioning, and now I think I’m ready for it.”
But none of those stats reflect what might be his biggest contribution this year – his confidence. On a team that lacks the elite talent and depth of UK teams in the past, Bradley has tried his best to make up for it with a swagger, a swagger that sometimes overshadows his abilities.
That swagger is what causes him to bark at opposing student sections, making him an easy target when things fall apart on the court. It’s what causes him to dribble the air out of the ball near the top of the key on occasion, confident that he’ll be able to get by his man and get to the basket in a matter of seconds. It’s why he has perfected his arm-flailing and primal scream as he drives to the basket and tries to draw fouls, convinced he’ll get the “superstar” treatment from the officials. It’s why he nicknamed himself “Smooth”, and why he has UK students mimicking his “ROC” hand signal (a nod to his Brooklyn roots). It’s why he even got in the face of All-American Joakim Noah last year, even as Noah’s team was laying another beatdown on the Cats.
But that swagger has also allowed him to put his stamp on this Kentucky team. In the upset over Tennessee, Bradley didn’t bat an eye as he matched up with All-American candidate Chris Lofton, shutting him down for much of the second half and securing the victory with his free throws. Although they would ultimately lose at Florida, it was Bradley who kept the team from unraveling in a hostile environment, continuing to make plays down the stretch, including the aforementioned buzzer beater to force OT. Against Vanderbilt, Bradley hit clutch shot after clutch shot in the overtime periods, including the jumper that put the Cats ahead for good.
So despite his faults, there’s no question that this UK team goes as Bradley goes. Stud freshman Patrick Patterson may be a nightly double-double threat, and senior Joe Crawford can drop 20 points on anyone, but there’s no mistaking that this is Bradley’s team. And they’re not going to lie down and accept mediocrity, not as long as he’s around.
“When I was a freshman, I kept saying, ‘It’s going to go by fast, it’s going to go by fast’,” recalled Bradley. “Now I can see it coming, the end of the road, and I don’t want it to be short. I want it to be as long as possible.”
So let’s enjoy Bradley for what he is – a streaky, sometimes over-confident player who gives everything he has while he’s on the floor. A guy who can make some incredibly questionable decisions with the ball, but who also can turn around and hit clutch shots. A guy who fans scream at and berate during games, but want to hug afterwards. A guy who has heard, and likely deserved, criticism of what he is and what he isn’t for three-plus years now, and still proudly dons the Kentucky blue and plays as hard as possible.
Ramel is going to be Ramel. Let’s just enjoy the ride.