Reed Sheppard has won Kentucky fans’ hearts. ‘The whole state is connected to him’

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Some days, he pretended to be Rex Chapman in the 1990 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, recreating all those aerial assaults on an 8-foot goal. But most days, if grade-school Reed Sheppard was shooting on his backyard basketball hoop, he imagined that he was … himself in a Kentucky uniform. The seconds ticked down, the Wildcats needed a bucket, and the kid from London, Ky., was going to deliver.

“I’ve always been a little boy from Kentucky who wanted to play at Kentucky,” Sheppard says. “It feels like that was me just two days ago, out in the yard with my friends and my cousins, taking that last shot for Kentucky.”

Today, there are children across the state pretending to be Reed Sheppard. More specifically, Reed Sheppard on Tuesday night at Mississippi State, where the Wildcats trailed by 13 in the second half before the boy wonder turned his lifelong vision into reality. Sheppard scored 23 points in the final 13 minutes — 11 of those in the last 93 seconds — and buried a game-winning floater with a half-tick to go in Starkville. His heroics kept alive 16th-ranked Kentucky’s hopes of winning an SEC championship and stoked dreams of a deep NCAA Tournament run. He’d already put together a terrific freshman season, but this was a superstar performance: 32 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two blocks, two steals. And that boy-in-the-backyard moment.

“To hit a game-winning shot for Kentucky,” Sheppard says, “was really special for me.”

During ESPN’s broadcast, Jimmy Dykes recited a biblical play on words that has been popping up on homemade signs in the Kentucky crowd this season: A Sheppard boy shall lead them. The faithful understand a simple truth, that each of the program’s eight national championship teams had a native Kentuckian among the top six scorers. That makes Sheppard, in many eyes, not only the most important player on this roster, but the most important person in the state.

Chapman knows better than anyone what that level of in-state celebrity is like. He was Sheppard almost 40 years ago: son of a well-known basketball figure, homegrown hero, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball, McDonald’s All-American, and then an instant sensation for the Wildcats. King Rex, as he came to be known across the Bluegrass State in the 1980s, understands all the adulation, expectation and pressure that comes with being basketball royalty around here. It nearly swallowed Chapman whole back then, and sometimes he can hardly believe how well Sheppard is thriving in that same circus now.

“When I ask his dad how Reed is doing, he knows I mean how is he handling all the people, the crush of all this on his shoulders,” Chapman says. “The important thing is he has a great support system. I really didn’t, and I was more immature than him at this age.

“So you do wonder how Reed does it, how he makes such an incredibly hard thing look so easy, until you remember who his parents are. Then you go, well, that makes perfect sense. He was literally born to do this.”

Jeff Sheppard, Most Outstanding Player at the 1998 Final Four, and Stacey Reed Sheppard, a two-time state champion at Laurel County High and top-10 scorer in UK women’s history, have made arguably the largest alumni contribution in the history of the school. Their 19-year-old son is straight out of central casting for Cats fans’ wildest dreams. He’s got Kentucky basketball in his actual DNA, and he plays the sort of steady, selfless, all-around game that makes John Pelphrey, a member of Rick Pitino’s “Unforgettables” in 1992, say the younger Sheppard is “a throwback guy who could’ve absolutely played with our team.”

It is exactly that ethos — he’s one of us — that made an entire state fall in love with the wunderkind even before he proved the clutch gene is hereditary.

You see, Kentucky fans “believe wholeheartedly that when a Kentucky boy wears the Kentucky jersey, that boy plays harder and it means more to him,” Jeff Sheppard says. “Whether it’s true or not can be argued, but I think the state is feeling that right now. We’re winning, we’re scoring 90 points a game, playing a style that is appealing to the eye, and there’s a Kentucky boy out there. The whole state is connected to him.”

Jimmy Mahan is a lifelong Kentucky fan and owner of Roadshow Cards, which has sports card shops in California, New York, Texas and his home base of Lexington, Ky. He recently paid $1,900 for a one-of-five autographed Reed Sheppard card, which he says he’ll never sell at any price — although that price would be absurd right now. A 1-of-25 autographed Sheppard card was going for $5,000 on eBay on Wednesday evening. Mahan says that among current college basketball players, only Iowa star Caitlin Clark and LeBron James’ son, Bronny, are hotter on the card-collecting market.

That’s nationally. Locally, his popularity is unmatched. Mahan thought he’d never seen a player so beloved as 2022 national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, “and then Reed came along right after and it’s just a whole other level.”

“I would say 90 minutes do not pass in my store that I don’t get asked if I have a Reed card or a Reed autograph,” Mahan says. “If we’re open, someone is always walking in or calling and going, ‘Got any Reed? Got any Reed? Got any Reed?’”

Mahan hosts several autograph-signing sessions for Kentucky players past and present — current Cats can finally capitalize on their celebrity, thanks to name, image and likeness rules — but his eyes widen when he imagines what a Sheppard signing would look like. He’s had preliminary conversations with Sheppard’s parents, who help manage his vast NIL opportunities.

“When does a Reed signing end? In this state? How long would it go?” says Mahan, who estimates he would pay Sheppard $3,000 an hour to sign for fans. “It would basically come down to how much money he wanted to make, because an unlimited signing might go all night.”

That level of attention could be a lot for anyone, let alone someone who was so painfully shy as a little boy that his big sister, Madison, did his talking for him. But Sheppard wanted to get comfortable interacting with fans and being a public figure — because he so vividly remembers what it was like to be the one begging Kentucky players for a picture or signature. Back home, there’s a photo of grade-school-aged Sheppard with then-UK-star Tyler Ulis, who is now helping coach him as a student assistant on John Calipari’s staff.

“I enjoy doing that for people,” Sheppard says, “because I was that fan as a kid.”

He also watched both his parents handle their local celebrity with grace and humility. He grew accustomed to total strangers fast-walking in the family’s direction at a restaurant or the grocery store and striking up a conversation like old friends. Before he knew better, young Reed would tug on Jeff’s arm and demand an introduction.

“Mind your manners!” Jeff remembers telling him. “Once they went away, I’d say, ‘Son, that’s a Kentucky fan.’ He’d say, ‘But do they know you?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, they feel like they do.’ ”

Stacey puts it another way.

“They want to know you,” she says. “Anything they can do or say to share a relatable moment with you, that’s what they’re looking for, and you can see the pure joy when you’re able to give that to them. Reed being from here, growing up with us, he understands what that means to people here, so it’s not an obligation or a bother. It’s a way of giving back to what he’s loved his whole life.”

When Jeff is out in public with Reed these days, fans still rush toward them — but often to talk to the younger Sheppard.

“They’ll say, ‘Hey, Reed!’ and I’m going, ‘How do you know them?’ and now he gets to say, ‘Dad, mind your manners. That’s a Kentucky fan.’” Jeff says. “Now I’m Reed’s dad. I’m no longer Jeff Sheppard, and that transition has been a blast.”

Reed Sheppard is a leading candidate for national freshman of the year. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

After home games at Rupp Arena, Reed lingers a long time in the stands, posing for pictures and signing posters or basketballs or jerseys with the No. 15 that he wears — and Jeff wore — at Kentucky. The coaching staff and school administration have both asked whether the family would like them to do some crowd control, shew away those long lines.

“We’re like no, absolutely not,” Jeff says, “because this is home, and that’s who we live with. That guy, that’s our neighbor. We go to church with those 10 people. Those 20 are his family. Those 17 are his high school coaches and teammates. That’s the difference. We live here, and when all this is done, we’ll still be here. These are our people.”

That doesn’t mean everyone deserves your time and attention. While Jeff believes Kentucky fans are no more hysterical today than when he played, now there’s a whole other level of access to the players, via social media, that is an unnecessary distraction at best.

“What we are trying to help Reed navigate through — and trust me, it’s important for us as parents also — is that you have to be very careful what you listen to,” Jeff says. “Because when I was at Kentucky and I finished a game, I did not drive from house to house to get everybody’s opinion on how they thought I played. So for him, and for us, simple is the word. Simple is the key to his success right now. He plays a simple game, because we’ve taught him that the consistent execution of the basic fundamentals is what always wins, in basketball, in life, in family. So keep it simple.”

For Reed, that’s getting harder every day.

Sheppard is putting together a historic freshman season. He’s just the third high-major player in the last 30 years to record at least 100 assists, 75 steals, 60 made 3-pointers and 20 blocks in a season — and he’s only played 28 games. Lots of people thought, or at least hoped, he would be a really nice multi-year player for the Wildcats, but none dreamed that he might be so good, so fast as to become a one-and-done draft pick. Certainly not when he arrived with a loaded recruiting class that included Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham, who were ranked the No. 3, 4, 6 and 16 prospects in the Class of 2023. Sheppard was ranked 43rd.

“I thought it was actually going to be tough for him to get minutes,” says Scott Padgett, an All-SEC teammate of Jeff’s on the 1998 national championship team — and now a Mississippi State assistant. “I thought he would have a good career, but I’m not going to sit here and act like I knew he would do this right out of the gate. I did believe he would be very good at handling it, though, because of his parents.

“Put it this way: When I played, Jeff Sheppard was Reed Sheppard. Everybody loved Shep, and he could’ve been pulled every which way, but he was so level-headed and calm and focused that it never got to him. Stacey was the same. So if anybody could help Reed deal with everything that comes with this, it’s them.”

Sheppard is helping his teammates cope with the most overwhelming elements of Kentucky basketball. When Edwards, who was hyped as a potential No. 1 overall pick, struggled enough early this season that some quickly labeled him a bust, Sheppard suggested he meet with a mental health coach. He and Edwards also devised a simple plan for picking each other up in an instant: If one of them was down, the other need only flash a big, goofy grin to remind them it’s not that serious. Just smile.

After Edwards delivered the game of his career, a 28-point outburst on 10-of-10 shooting in a win over Alabama, he said Sheppard helped guide him out of the dark days that preceded it. When Sheppard stepped to the line for two tying free throws at the end of regulation at Texas A&M in January, just a week after he sank six straight in the final 19 seconds of a win at Florida, Edwards gave him that goofy grin from the bench. Sheppard smiled, then buried them both.

“Everything in my mind kind of just cleared out,” he says. “Those are the moments you want.”

Therein lies the answer to a wild question: How does a guy who doesn’t even start for his team run away with national freshman of the year — and vault into the NBA Draft lottery — as Sheppard sure seems to be doing? By not caring at all about any of those peripheral concerns. Whatever anyone says he should be, there’s only one thing he wants to be: a winner. And nobody impacts winning for the Wildcats like Sheppard, who has a chance to break Kentucky’s single-season records for both 3-point percentage and steals. Only eight freshmen in the last 15 years have posted a better season-long plus/minus than Sheppard’s, and all of the others became top-five picks.

“I don’t know that my ego could’ve taken being the best player on the team and not starting,” Chapman says. “But again, why are we surprised? Jeff is one of the great teammates of all time.” In fact, at Pitino’s request, Jeff redshirted the year after Kentucky’s 1996 national title, in what would have been his senior year, to clear time for future lottery picks Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson, before coming back as a leader on the 1997-98 squad under Tubby Smith.

“The fact that Jeff didn’t leave tells you that Jeff is tough, tough,” Chapman says. “And when I look at Reed, he’s a lot like him in the way teammates love and respect him for the way he goes about his business.”

Ah, yes, his business. It’s booming. Sheppard has NIL deals with Donato’s Pizza, Planet Fitness, WinStar Farm, The Dairy Alliance, Forcht Bank and White, Greer & Maggard Orthodontics, plus team-wide agreements, all of which add up to a payday that conservative estimates have put in the mid-to-high six figures. There’s certainly seven-figure potential as his star continues to rise, though Jeff says the family has turned down several more offers to keep the focus where it needs to be.

“I didn’t come to Kentucky to do NIL,” Reed says. “The whole goal was to come play basketball, get better, win a national championship.”

But what if the Wildcats don’t this season? How long will he chase that dream in Lexington? Does legacy matter to the kid who grew up with Kentucky posters all over his walls and whose father helped raise two banners to the Rupp Arena rafters?

Reed Sheppard and his sister, Madison, attend a Kentucky game with dad Jeff Sheppard as kids. (Courtesy of the Sheppard family)

One giant pile of money or another will be there waiting for him when the season ends, either way. And Sheppard’s might be the rare case in which there’s enough NIL earning potential to offset the financial risk of passing up a lofty spot in the draft.

“It’s a good question,” Jeff says. “I don’t think he’ll stay or go based on NIL, but to say it’s a non-factor is not accurate. It’s not like we sit down at the dinner table every night breaking down draft classes over the next four years trying to figure out when to go — we don’t talk like that — but we’ll make a thoughtful decision when it’s time.”

If Sheppard keeps climbing draft boards, conventional wisdom suggests the decision will be made for him. But Padgett doesn’t think so.

“I’m not saying he’ll stay four years, but I would still be shocked if his career lasted one,” he says. “If there are weaknesses they think he can work on and improve in a year, I could see him staying another year. They’re going to look at this differently than most, for one because the NIL is probably crazy, but also because education is huge to them and he’d be another year closer to a degree, where he could then come back and finish it in the summers. And, to be honest with you, there’s an unknown factor.

“They are such a close, close, close family, and Reed has lived his whole life in London and Lexington, so I don’t know that there’s a real rush to get out of there unless you’re 100 percent ready. Plus, if he comes back, he’s a rock star. He’s Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. In that state, he would be that.”

At least for a few more weeks, Reed Sheppard is right where he always wanted to be. So while his mother long ago gave up asking how reality compares to the dream, because he’s never been a big talker and “you can’t hardly get his feelings out of him,” the truth is plain to see.

“Watching him play with that big smile on his face, there’s really nothing he needs to say to me,” Stacey says. ”As his mom, that tells me he’s loving every minute of this and he’s having the time of his life.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of Chet White / UK Athletics)

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