Jamal Mashburn was the fourth overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft. He played in the league for more than a decade and was an All-Star in 2003.
And yet, nothing gets his juices flowing quite like March Madness.
“I enjoy this time of year,” the former Kentucky All-American told Damon Amendolara, who was filling in as host of CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I retired from professional basketball almost nine, 10 years ago, but I still get excited about the tournament. I have a young son – 13 years old – who plays basketball and he enjoys watching it. And I get a chance to share my experience and insight on the game since I played it.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” Mashburn continued. “It brings back obviously the Duke/Kentucky game and then also the Fab Five when I played against them my junior year in the Final Four. So a lot of memories. I get a chance to look at the kids’ emotion on their face. I actually enjoy the selection show more than anything because you get a chance (to see) how the kids really get excited about participating in the tournament and showcasing their skill set on the grand stage.”
Mashburn certainly did that in 1993, leading the Wildcats to the Final Four – a place they hadn’t been since 1984. Kentucky has advanced to the Final Four six times since then, including three of the last four years.
In many ways, Mashburn led the program’s renaissance. In fact, he was the first blue-chipper to commit to Kentucky when it was still on probation.
“I grew up on Big East basketball with St. John’s, Syracuse and Georgetown,” Mashburn said. “Growing up in New York City, you watched a lot of that on television, along with the ACC with North Carolina and those great teams. So I spent a lot of time watching those particular conferences but didn’t know a lot about the SEC and didn’t know a lot about Kentucky at all.”
Then Mashburn got a call from Rick Pitino, who coached the Knicks from 1987 to 1989.
“He came to recruit me,” Mashburn said. “Kentucky was still on probation my freshman year, so he told me we weren’t going to be able to go to the NCAA Tournament, but I looked at the long-term vision and took a visit down to Kentucky.”
Mashburn made sure he visited in the fall – long before basketball season began.
“If I was going to go somewhere, I wanted to see what it was like not during the basketball season – because I was going to have spend more than just a basketball season there,” he said. “I was going to have to go to school there, so I wanted to get a sense of the environment.”
Mashburn liked what he saw.
“I took a chance on Kentucky, and it paid a lot of dividends for me, my family – and it still does,” said Mashburn, 42. “My daughter will be going to the University of Kentucky as a freshman next year. She won’t be playing a sport; she’ll just be a regular student, so she’ll be hitting the party scene. It’s wonderful to be associated with that program. The fans have always supported me, and I think once recruits get down there and they see the support that you have, it’s undeniable to turn it down.”
A lot of elite prospects haven’t, which is why No. 1 Kentucky (34-0, 18-0) is unblemished. The top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, this year’s Wildcats could go down as the best in program history.
“They’re definitely up there,” Mashburn said. “Obviously they have to win the championship. I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s either championship or bust at Kentucky, and that’s a high expectation to live up to. But those guys, if they win the national championship, they’ll definitely be remembered as one of the best teams there. There may be other teams that have much more of an emotional connection to the fan base – such as that ’91-92 team. So from that standpoint, it’s hard to match that. But winning a championship and going undefeated – if they can do it, that’ll rank pretty high.”