From Sports Illustrated writer David Seigerman, dated March 30, 1998
Of all the things Nazr Mohammed was not able to fit into as a 6’10”, 315-pound high school senior, Kentucky-style basketball might have topped the list. Even Mohammed’s coach at Kenwood Academy wondered why Rick Pitino wanted to shoehorn this Brahma bull into the greyhound races in Lexington.
Tired of trying to bulk up rail-thin frontcourt prospects like Andre Riddick and Walter McCarty, Pitino hoped he could melt Mohammed into a sleek, mobile center. Three years later, the biggest project of the Pitino Era can be declared a success. The ’98 model Mohammed is the Wildcats’ leading rebounder, their second-leading scorer and a huge reason they find themselves in their third-straight NCAA championship game.
“Coming in here, Nazr knew he had to do a lot to play in this program,” said teammate Allen Edwards. “He had to lose weight and become a lot quicker. He did that. He made the sacrifices.”
First to go were late-night snacks. Mohammed stopped making pizza runs and started pounding the pavement. Since he didn’t play much as a freshman, Mohammed would get some exercise by jogging from the arena back to the hotel after game-day practices on the road. “We’d run suicides after the walk-through, then I’d run back to the hotel,” said Mohammed, who had trimmed 30 pounds by the end of his freshman season and now weighs a low-fat 240.
Perhaps the most vivid illustration of Mohammed’s remodeling occurred nine minutes into the second half of Kentucky’s win over Stanford in Saturday’s national semifinal. With his team trying to overcome what had been a 10-point second-half deficit, Mohammed stepped in front of a pass in Stanford’s offensive zone and streaked downcourt alone for a fast-break dunk that pulled Kentucky within one. It was quite the sight for teammates who remembered when Mohammed was so slow he couldn’t make it across halfcourt during pickup games—he had problems both making the transition to offense and getting back on defense.
“The coaches I have had have always told me that if you work hard, you will reap the benefits later,” Mohammed said. “I tried to keep that in mind even though there were some tough times earlier in my career.”
Mohammed is quick to point out that the adversity he and his teammates have faced—Jeff Sheppard voluntarily redshirted what would have been his senior year last season; Scott Padgett nearly failed out of school; Cameron Mills earned his roster spot as a walk-on; Edwards’s mother died during the season—has enabled them to overcome sizable disadvantages against both Duke and Stanford and put themselves in position for a second title in three years.
In fact, it was thoughts of the support he’s received from his teammates that propelled Mohammed to become a decisive factor against Stanford. He’d been benched by coach Tubby Smith after picking up two first-half fouls, replaced first by backup Jamaal Magloire, whose starting spot Mohammed claimed midway through the year, and then by little-used Michael Bradley. “Me being on the bench was all my fault; I reached in twice and got two fouls and I deserved it,” he said. “I apologized to my teammates as we were walking onto the floor for the second half and said it wouldn’t happen again.”
Mohammed scored 17 of his 18 points after the intermission, including three of Kentucky’s first five points in overtime, to lead the Wildcats back to the final. That’s precisely the kind of big impact Pitino expected he would have.