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Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein is dialed in

Willie Cauley-Stein was an inside force during his time with Kentucky.
Willie Cauley-Stein was an inside force during his time with Kentucky.Chris Steppig/Getty Images/Pool

When 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein was surrounded by reporters at the NBA combine last month, he was asked about his talent and Kentucky and his humble beginnings in a tiny Kansas town.

But time and again, he circled back to a talking point. He emphasized that his focus, unequivocally, was on his NBA dream.

John Calipari, his coach at Kentucky, had warned him that teams had misgivings about his dedication to basketball. So on this day, clearly, he wanted to clear them up. Yes, there have been stories about his other interests and hobbies, like art. And he wanted everyone to know that he doesn’t even like art. He never really liked art.

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“I love the game,” Cauley-Stein said. “If I didn’t love the game, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. Why would I go through all of this if I didn’t love the game?”

He sounded irritated. He is a freakishly athletic and versatile rim protector, and Celtics fans — among many others — have long swooned over him. And over the past two months, he has worked to persuade NBA decision-makers that it is safe to feel the same way.

“There’s certainly some concern about his level of focus, whether he’s too much of a free spirit,” one NBA executive said. “He’s a little bit different, and a lot of people have told us that his level of interest and commitment to basketball ebbs and flows.”

Is Cauley-Stein different? Of course he’s different.

This is a player who thought the backboard at his grandparents’ home was drab, so he climbed up and painted it green. This was a player who visited with so many children in Lexington, Ky., that his mother started to get calls from schools near her home in Oklahoma City asking if he would visit them, too. This is a player who got a massive neck tattoo this week in honor of a boy he befriended who recently died of cancer.

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Cauley-Stein is very self-aware, and he understands there will be a life beyond basketball. But right now, he insists, his life is basketball.

Nature and nurture

Cauley-Stein was raised by his grandparents, Norma and Val Stein, in the sleepy, no-stoplight city of Spearville, Kan., population 806.

His mother, Marlene, played basketball at an NAIA school and his father played at an area community college, though he faded out of the picture when Willie was young. Marlene moved with Willie and his older brother, Bryce, to Oklahoma City, where she worked at a gym and a tanning salon while taking classes to become a dental assistant.

But her long hours made it difficult to watch over the two boys, so her parents suggested that they return to Spearville to live with them until her schedule became more manageable.

Although Willie is now known for his larger-than-life personality, it was not always that way. He would sit in his room by himself and play with his Batman, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles action figures. He would scribble in coloring books until there was nothing left to color, and then he would draw pictures on his own. Yes, he liked art.

Eventually, he started tagging along with Bryce. They’d play bike tag and tennis-court baseball. Before long, even in such silly games, Willie’s athleticism became obvious. And it gave him confidence. He sparkled as a quarterback and excelled as a point guard in rec leagues.

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“We’d have to carry his birth certificate around with us,” Norma Stein said by telephone, “because people always thought he was older than he really was.”

Occasionally, though, the lack of competition bored Cauley-Stein. Louie Konrade, a family friend and his former summer league coach, recalled a time Cauley-Stein was being dominated by an opponent as an eighth-grader.

“I finally grabbed him and said, ‘If you let that guy get one more rebound and you don’t get him with 15 or 16, you’re sitting,” Konrade said. “And sure enough he goes out and grabs 16 rebounds.”

Another time, Konrade said, Cauley-Stein was at the plate in a youth league baseball game with the bat on his shoulder and no interest in swinging it. He watched pitch after pitch sail by. Konrade glared at him and Cauley-Stein crushed the next offering.

“Sometimes you had to chew him out so he’d really take something seriously,” Konrade said, “and once he did that, he couldn’t be stopped.”

Although football was Cauley-Stein’s initial love, basketball presented the greatest opportunity. The lanky teenager was often seen dribbling two basketballs up and down the streets of Spearville.

He dubbed the hoop at his grandparents’ home “The Yard,” and he eventually started pulling down one rim after another.

“He started dunking on me,” Bryce Stein said, “and I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to be doing this anymore.’ ”

At Spearville High, Cauley-Stein mostly had free rein — on the court and off. And that raised issues. Spearville did not offer summer school, so there were concerns he might not qualify academically for college.

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“Too many people in Spearville made it easy on Willie and would do things for him, and that hurt him in academics, too,” Konrade said. “His grandmother came over one day and we spoke in my driveway for an hour, and she probably cried for 45 minutes of it. She didn’t know what to do.”

The summer after Cauley-Stein’s sophomore year he played for a high-level Kansas City AAU team, MoKan Elite. The family of his good friend and teammate, Shavon Fields, offered to let Cauley-Stein live with them and attend Olathe (Kan.) North High, about a five-hour drive from his grandparents’ home. The move helped his grades and brought a brighter spotlight to his games.

“To be perfectly honest,” Marlene Stein said, “if he’d stayed in Spearville, I don’t think he ever would have made it to Kentucky.”

Growing the game

The first time Kentucky coach John Calipari saw Cauley-Stein play in an AAU game, he said, he tallied about 2 points and two rebounds. Calipari made two visits to see Cauley-Stein at North Olathe, and he saw him play football, Wiffle ball, and kickball.

“A lot of these kids have been groomed since they were 6 years old,” Calipari said. “Well, Willie really started playing when he came with us.”

As a freshman at Kentucky, Cauley-Stein played behind eventual first-round pick Nerlens Noel. Cauley-Stein planned to enter the NBA Draft after his sophomore year, but an ankle injury he suffered in an NCAA Tournament win over Louisville required surgery and sidelined him.

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So he returned this season and was Kentucky’s backbone, as the Wildcats surged to a 38-0 start before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

“Now, I’m one of the older dudes in the draft and I get it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I understand everything. I understand the game. I understand the process. I understand what it takes to be an elite player in the league.”

Back in the Spearville area, he has become a kind of folk hero. One night when the Spearville High team was playing, fans gathered in the school’s lobby to watch part of a Kentucky game. Bryce Stein is now a police officer in nearby Dodge City, and he would gather with his friends and cheer for the Wildcats at local restaurants — sacrilege in Kansas.

When Bryce watched games at home, he would point his six-month-old son, Beckett, toward the television.

“It’s gonna be awesome as he starts getting older to show him and say, ‘Hey, this is your uncle Willie,’ ” Bryce said.

The enormity of the moment is still sinking in with Cauley-Stein’s family. Marlene Stein has put more than 194,000 miles on her Saturn Aura, many from the frequent 13-hour drives from Oklahoma City to Lexington over the last three years.

When she called Willie recently, she first asked why he had been using so much of the data on their family cellphone plan. She told him to find Wi-Fi hotspots.

“He was like, ‘Mom, I know, I know,” Marlene said with a chuckle. “Now he can take care of his own phone.”

Brooklyn, where dreams come true

Cauley-Stein’s grandparents, mother, and brother are planning to be with him at Thursday night’s NBA draft in Brooklyn, watching as his dream comes true.

Now, he hopes, teams realize that this is, in fact, his dream.

One league source said that there are “minor” concerns that the ankle injury Cauley-Stein suffered as a sophomore could require more surgery. But the more pressing issue for teams is gauging Cauley-Stein’s dedication to the sport.

Calipari acknowledged that Cauley-Stein did not spend endless hours in the gym at Kentucky, but he said he had only coached three players who truly had: NBA standouts Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Derrick Rose.

“Anthony Davis wasn’t, like, a gym rat, and he’s OK,” Calipari said of the Pelicans’ All-Star forward. “So I think that’s been overblown, and it’s almost like you’re trying to pick something out that he’s not.”

During interviews with NBA teams at the combine, Cauley-Stein was asked what he would do with his life if he didn’t play basketball. It was a rare moment when he was stumped. He told the teams that he didn’t know. He told them it was not something he had ever considered.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.