Wisconsin basketball: Frank Kaminsky Night epitomizes brotherhood he was all about

MADISON, Wis. — Frank Kaminsky was an NBA lottery pick who has become a millionaire thanks to his tremendous skills as a basketball player. But as he sat on an airplane Thursday heading toward Madison, he couldn’t help but grow sentimental about the simpler college life he left behind at Wisconsin three years ago.

Kaminsky came to town to see his No. 44 jersey hung in the Kohl Center rafters during an electric and emotional halftime ceremony. The honor was bestowed upon him for his contributions in helping to guide the Badgers to consecutive Final Four runs and for earning consensus national player of the year recognition in 2015 during his senior season.

Yet what Kaminsky’s thoughts kept returning to weren’t the victories or individual awards. Instead, he thought about brotherhood. In the NBA, Kamsinky said, he tends to grow bored with the day-to-day routine, where teammates scatter after games and practices to focus on their own lives and families. In college, he thrived because he was constantly around his best friends, who wanted nothing else but to spend more time together.

“I don’t know if it was the fact that we were all so close and our personalities meshed so well or it was just the amount of time we spent together,” Kaminsky said. “But from the first moment I got on campus, I could just feel that this was a culture and a tradition of people who were very close and people who were going to become lifelong friends.”

The ceremony Thursday in front of a full Kohl Center crowd would have been meaningful no matter what. To Kaminsky, however, the fact he was recognized with so many of his former teammates on hand meant even more. Among those in attendance were Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Zak Showalter, Zach Bohannon, Jordan Smith, Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Ben Brust, Evan Anderson, George Marshall and former assistant coach Gary Close. As soon as Kaminsky finished his halftime speech, they met him at half court for a group hug.

“When I see that banner up there, I don’t think of myself,” Kaminsky said during the ceremony. “I think of all my teammates. … Without them, I don’t know if I would have been the player that I was. So thank you guys from the bottom of my heart.”

When Wisconsin reached the Final Four in 2014, it surprised many people who weren’t sure exactly how good the Badgers were. When Wisconsin took one step further and reached the national title game in 2015, it was the byproduct of the most talented team in school history fulfilling its potential on the biggest stage. But that success also was the byproduct of an undeniable chemistry that materialized off the floor.

Badgers players became known for their goofy antics and routinely spent hours together playing Super Smash Bros. and FIFA soccer video games in the locker room and on road trips. They made each other laugh during press conferences, even as the pressure to win mounted in March and April. Kaminsky, now in his third season with the Charlotte Hornets, said the group worked so well together because nobody had an ego and felt the need to dominate the locker room.

Kaminsky was a ringleader in creating that atmosphere because of his naturally fun-loving and easygoing personality, which was on display again Thursday. He arrived at the arena wearing a custom red suit and a pair of red Air Jordan shoes with the Wisconsin motion W logo emblazoned on the back. When he sat down at a podium for a pregame news conference, he began by asking: “Does this have to be formal? Do I have to act like I did when I was in college?”

When told several of his former teammates would be in attendance, he quipped: “You ruined the surprise.” And when asked what an 18-year-old Kaminsky would say to him now, he replied: “Damn, you look really sexy.” He ended his session by collecting a handful of recorders placed in front of him and remarked, “I always wanted to do that.”

Even as Kaminsky’s stock soared, he never made the story about himself. And he treated his teammates the same, regardless of playing status. Kaminsky averaged 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds as a senior. Smith, his best friend, played 35 minutes all season and didn’t score a point. They formed such a strong bond that they were roommates throughout college. Kaminsky will serve as Smith’s best man at his wedding in August.

“It’s hard to come by, what we had as a team,” Smith said. “You think when you’re part of it, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is how every locker room is.’ It’s not. That’s something we had that a lot of people didn’t have. That’s what made us so good.”

While Wisconsin’s ability to act so loose and be friendly off the floor is what many remember, the Badgers’ determination and grit on the floor also stood out. Dekker, who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, said teammates routinely encountered skirmishes in practice because of how competitive they were. Sometimes, it was Dekker battling Duje Dukan or Bohannon. On other occasions, scout team players such as Riley Dearring and Jordan Hill riled up the Badgers.

“Up and down the lineup, we had 10, 15 guys that were real good ball players,” Dekker said at halftime Thursday. “That helped. But I think the chemistry that we built and just the uniqueness of our team top to bottom was something that doesn’t happen too much. The competitive spirit we had. Off the court, we were best friends. But [as] we were talking earlier, we had guys ready to fight in practice daily.

“We always had guys ready to scrap, and that was the fun of it. We knew we were going to get the best out of each other. We pulled it out of each other, and we competed at the highest level we could. Teams like that don’t come around every year and we kind of spoiled ourselves with that, especially as fans. These guys are working, they’re trying. But we built something pretty cool, and hopefully they can get back to that.”

An hour later, Wisconsin stunned No. 6 Purdue 57-53 in the Badgers’ most significant victory of the season. Kaminsky and several of his former teammates were right there on the court to offer hugs to Wisconsin’s players, as students stormed the floor. Members of the best team in school history couldn’t help themselves in celebrating an accomplishment with as many people as they could.

Kaminsky wouldn’t have it any other way.

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