It started as a casual conversation during a visit to a children’s hospital a few weeks ago.
TJ Beisner, the director of player development for the Kentucky men’s basketball program, was there with some of the Wildcats, and he began telling them about how he was still sore from going down the water slide at the local YMCA with his son, joking that perhaps he was getting a little too old for such an endeavor.
It brought an unexpected response.
“I don’t know how to swim,” said one of the UK players.
“I can’t either,” another Wildcat chimed in.
At first, Beisner thought they meant they weren’t proficient in the pool. Surely these elite athletes could at least tread water if put in that situation.
“They were like, ‘No, we’d sink,’” he recalled.
That was a problem.
The team was heading to the Bahamas in a matter of weeks.
The reason for the trip — they leave Lexington on Monday and stay until Sunday — will be four exhibition games against quality international opponents, a summer tune-up to get the Wildcats ready for the season ahead.
But there will also be plenty of opportunities for fun off the court. The Cats are staying at the Baha Mar resort, a ritzy setup that features — among other things — a waterpark, beachfront access and more pool- and ocean-related activities.
“We’re going to the Bahamas,” Beisner recalled thinking. “These guys have to know how to swim.”
Basketball will be the focus of this trip, but it’ll also be a major opportunity for team bonding months before the real action on the court begins. College teams are allowed to take such trips once every four years, and this will be the third time in John Calipari’s tenure that the Wildcats will go to the Bahamas in August.
The UK coach has talked in the past of how these trips bring his teams together at an accelerated rate. And much of that offseason jelling comes from off-the-court activities. On this trip, many of those will be water-related, and not knowing how to swim could mean missing out.
Beisner asked the two non-swimmers in the conversation if they’d be open to taking lessons.
“Absolutely,” was the response.
So, he sent out a text message to the rest of the team, emailed the players’ parents, and arranged for a two-week session of group swimming lessons through the aquatics center on campus. Anyone who wanted to attend was welcome.
“For guys who needed to start with the basics — like, afraid to get in the water; don’t know what to do — that’s where we started,” Beisner said.
What happened next was unexpected, unintended, and might just be looked back upon months from now as a jumping off point for a team with national championship aspirations.
First in the pool
The lessons started with a small handful of players who either couldn’t swim at all or didn’t have much confidence in the water. Beisner arranged to pick them up at 8 o’clock each morning and drove the group across campus to the Lancaster Aquatic Center, where the lessons were set.
The first couple of sessions were a learning experience, both in the pool and out.
The UK players took a little time to get through the basics, and they didn’t know how much of a full-body workout swimming would be. Collins looked back on that first day — swim lessons in the morning, then basketball practice, then back to his room for what he thought would be some quick rest — and laughed.
“I took like a five-hour nap that day,” he said. “Yeah. I was tired.”
Wheeler said he felt comfortable two or three lessons in. And by that time, he had some company.
The lessons were specifically set up for the guys who couldn’t swim, but — as the players started talking about it back at the team lodge — others started to show up. The pool got crowded pretty quickly.
“It became this thing where — when the guys who were learning how to swim were going to lessons — the players who knew how to swim would just come to the pool and encourage them,” Beisner said.
The other guys showed up and jumped off the diving board, raced each other in the pool off to the side, and shouted encouragement to their teammates who were still learning.
Wheeler said he remembered feeling like he hadn’t made that much progress at first, but then he’d listen to his teammates talk about watching him and realized that he had.
“To know that they experienced you getting better, it’s cool, for sure,” he said. “Any time you get a chance to spend time with your teammates where it isn’t practice or something that’s mandatory — that’s great for bonding.
“And something like that where it’s kind of like organic — it was meant for a couple of guys to become better at swimming and be more comfortable with it, and it grew to some of the coaches, the whole team came. And everyone was in the water. Building stuff like that is only going to help us in the long run and give us an advantage to start the season.”
The UK players learned that Lance Ware had been on a swim team before his time in college. They even talked about him holding his own with the instructors.
While at the pool, they met members of the UK swimming and diving team, watched them practice, in awe of the things they could do in the pool.
Freshman guard Cason Wallace, who’s likely to start alongside Wheeler in the Cats’ backcourt this season, was one of the guys who had plenty of swimming experience but came to the pool anyway.
“We were there supporting them, and I feel like that made it more fun for them,” he said. “Instead of just being there because they have to be — it was more like, ‘My teammates got my back. And we’re all going to have fun together.’
“Just having fun and being able to relax and not be so serious. In practice and games, we have to lock in and go at each other. But when it’s not on the court, we can have fun together.”
At first, Beisner was proud of the basketball players who’d acknowledged that they weren’t comfortable around the water and opened themselves up to learning something new.
“You should be proud,” he recalled telling them. “The fact that you asked for help. Where you are — as athletes and young people — you’re at an elite level. And you put your pride aside and had enough humility to ask for help with something. That’s big-time.”
And when the other guys started showing up, he knew something even bigger was happening. Instead of being embarrassed, the new swimmers fed off their teammates’ encouragement.
By the final lesson — “graduation day,” they called it — nearly every player on the team was in attendance and in the pool. UK coaches Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman were there, too.
“To see them be vulnerable in that — as they were trying to learn — they were encouraging: ‘You got this! You got this!’ It was really cool to see that interaction of guys who were not afraid to be in the water and know how to swim, encouraging the guys who were,” Beisner said.
“And then willing to be vulnerable around your teammates, which I think is a big part of developing that bond. Understanding that you can be who you are. You can have moments of weakness and vulnerability, but that’s what your teammates are there for — to pick you up and make you feel strong and make you feel better. I saw a lot of that in this process.”
There’s no question about the comfort level of these Cats in the water now that the Bahamas trip is here.
Collins is telling people that he’s going to be an Olympic swimmer. Wheeler has his sights set even higher.
“I’m like Michael Phelps,” he said, referencing the winner of 23 Olympic gold medals.
If there was any apprehension among the players going into these lessons, it’s been quickly allayed, thanks in large part to their teammates’ support. Now, no one will have to sit off to the side for the fun stuff on the Bahamas trip. And these guys have some shared experiences long before the basketball season even begins.
“That’s really why everybody went — just to be around each other and have fun,” Wallace said.
The freshman was impressed by what the diving team could do, acknowledging that he could never do anything like it. He did try some stuff on some of the shorter boards and platforms.
Wallace’s best dive?
“Nothing turned out well,” he said.
On one, he attempted to do “something crazy.” The result was a belly flop.
“It didn’t hurt,” he said. “But it didn’t feel good.”
Wallace also gave a quick no to the question of whether he tried to go off the 10-meter platform at the aquatics center, describing the height of it as, “Too high for me to jump off of.”
“We went up there, we looked, we took a picture from up there. And then we walked right back down.”
Wheeler expressed interest in following the UK swimming and diving team’s schedule once the season starts, hoping to get back to the aquatics center for a home meet.
Beisner didn’t know how Calipari would react to the idea at first. Swimming lessons?
“And he loved it. He thought it was great. He called every day and checked in,” Beisner said, adding that the UK players became so engrossed in it that they started texting Calipari to ask if they could go over to his house and swim in his pool while he was out recruiting.
The Kentucky coach told them that was fine.
Wheeler said this Kentucky squad already had a head start on team bonding thanks to the continuity that comes with having several players back from last season. In the past, this UK-Bahamas trip has been a building block toward that goal of bringing guys together.
This time around, it sounds like it’s paying off even before the Wildcats hit the beach.
“We’re around each other every day,” Wheeler said. “We’re trying to find new things to do with each other outside of basketball. And just continue to get to know each other. Continue to build that team camaraderie. Our team last year was pretty close. And, this year, I feel like we can have the same thing or be even closer.”
Wednesday, Aug. 10: Kentucky vs. Dominican Republic National Select Team, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Thursday, Aug. 11: Kentucky vs. Tec de Monterrey, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Saturday, Aug. 13: Kentucky vs. Carleton University, 6 p.m. (SEC)
Sunday, Aug. 14: Kentucky vs. Bahamas National Team, noon (SEC)