Kentucky Sports People of the year series: David Padgett

It’s getting down to time to think about the people who made 2008 a special sports year in the Commonwealth. So over the next week or so I’m going to post some work on the people who, in my own subjective opinion, made the year what it was.

I don’t know if I’ll label any one as No. 1. I certainly won’t present them as a countdown, though I may designate a single “person of the year,” at the end.

Regardless, I think you could consider them all a Person of the Year, and would be fine if any one of them wanted to use that title.

The first one I’ll mention is David Padgett of the University of Louisville. There’s not much question, he made last season what it was for the Cardinals, and had he not shown more courage in playing through pain than most of us realized, it would likely have been another disappointing finish for U of L.

Here’s a piece I did on him on Jan. 18 of this year, examining his ability to play through pain.

Padgett grins and bears the pain for Cards

Jan, 18, 2008

David Padgett was in the locker room after last night’s 71-51 win over No. 13 Marquette, and the bags of ice were on the way.

Trainer Fred Hina strapped one to each knee, big suckers, like you’d buy for $1.59 in the cooler at a convenience store.

We watch these players during the games, but we don’t know what happens when they get back to the dorm room, when the game is over and the adrenaline tanks.

Twice, reporters asked Padgett how much his knees hurt, and twice he played it off, took his answer another direction.

“I know he still has a lot of pain,” said fellow senior Juan Palacios, who is Padgett’s roommate. “What he’s doing, he’s doing for the team.”

“He shouldn’t even be playing basketball right now,” coach Rick Pitino said, still amazed that Padgett missed only 10 games in seven weeks after he broke his kneecap.

Padgett heard these things and smiled.

But it’s important that the rest of us hear these things. Padgett would be an easy player to appreciate without his injury situation. But what he’s doing with it makes him one of the more compelling stories in college basketball this season.

‘I don’t care about the pain’

Two years ago, you wondered if he’d ever play again. Teammates remember having to lift him onto the team plane and carry him to the back row of the charter, and helping to lift him back down again in New York for the Big East Tournament.

“He’s 6-11, and he couldn’t bend either knee,” Palacios said.

“We were always bringing stuff to his room,” Terrence Williams said. “I’ve never seen a player battle through something like that.”

Padgett referenced those days when he was asked a third time about his pain.

“Compared to what I’ve had,” he said, “it’s nothing.”

Every year, it seemed, there was something. A broken bone in his foot. Sprained knee ligament. Two years ago he had to have both knees worked on. Then came the kneecap injury on Nov. 18. Pitino called a news conference to announce that Padgett would be gone for the season.

Back in the dorm room, Padgett and Palacios discussed it. They were the convalescent ward of Minardi Hall.

“We talked a lot,” said Palacios, who is also just back from a torn knee ligament. “We’d limp back to the room every day and put ice on our knees and kind of take care of each other. But I knew how much he wanted to be back.”

Padgett went to Hina and said: “Whatever I have to do to get back, let’s do it. I don’t care about the future. I don’t care about the pain. This is my senior year, I want to play now. I know my body. I felt I could.”

Padgett returned on Jan. 1 and had 13 points and four rebounds in U of L’s 58-57 loss to Cincinnati.

‘If he can run, he can play ‘

Marquette coach Tom Crean was asked about Padgett after last night’s game. Sore knees didn’t enter into his assessment. He called Padgett the best screen-and-roll player he has seen in the past several years.

“He facilitates their offense as well as any playmaker on any team in the country,” Crean said. “He’s got a lot of value, and that’s his No. 1 value. He does exactly what they want him to do.”

In the five games since his return, Padgett is shooting 76 percent (22 of 29). Last night, after Marquette cut U of L’s once double-digit lead to four points early in the second half, the Cards found him rolling to the basket for layups on back-to-back possessions, and moments later he scored on a tip-in to put the lead back at 10.

He is the team’s signal-caller and traffic cop. He is the one who shakes the team back into concentration mode in the film room.

“He gives everybody out there confidence,” Williams said. “We know if he can run, he can play.”

And the rest of us should not forget that those are still painful steps.

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