Exclusive excerpt from The Unlikeliest Champion
Slowly though he began to gain his sea legs, and earn his title as “Kemba Walker’s wing man.” And it all started innocently with a text exchange between the young freshman and his father.
Since his retirement as a basketball player, Rolando Lamb has worn many hats in the professional world, most recently as a highly sought after motivational speaker, and someone nicknamed by his peers as
“America’s Character Coach.” And in mid-January of 2011, Rolando Lamb challenged the character of his son, not only to overcome adversity on the basketball court, but to face a life obstacle head-on.
“It was the middle of the year, and he was really struggling,” Rolando Lamb said. “So one night I texted him and said, I want you to write down a list of your goals and send them to me.”
What arrived in Rolando Lamb’s inbox at one the following morning, were four goals, written by his son and transported to father via the miracle of modern technology. Rolando Lamb looked them over the following morning, and texted his son back, asking him to add one more goal, one more belief, to his list.
“I am a big-time scorer,” the words read on the son’s cell the next morning.
“For Jeremy, we all knew he could be a big-time scorer. I knew it. Kemba knew it. Coach Calhoun knew it. It was about making sure Jeremy knew it though,” Rolando Lamb said.
Eventually Jeremy Lamb came to know it too. His belief started to take shape on an otherwise quiet Saturday afternoon against DePaul.
Now to give you a bit of a quick history lesson, just understand that anything that happens against DePaul needs to be taken with a major grain of salt. The Blue Demons have been a literal punching bag since joining the Big East back in 2005 and have been nothing short of an atrocity in recent years. Since the beginning of the 2008–2009 season, DePaul had gone an almost unbelievable 2–52 in league play, including an 0–18 mark in the 2010 season that cost Coach Jerry Wainwright his job. In 2011 things were just slightly better. The Blue Demons would improve to 6–6 on December 22 before losing eighteen of their next nineteen games to finish the season. They did however go 1–17 in Big East play, a one game improvement from the year before. At DePaul, that’s considered progress.
So it’s with that as context that you need to understand that no one was throwing a ticker-tape parade when Lamb scored thirteen points in UConn’s 82–62 win in Rosemont on January 15. Then again, it might’ve been hard to notice Lamb’s strong performance as Kemba Walker again stole the show with thirty-one points.
But with that big output against DePaul, high-scoring games from Lamb started to become a trend. He scored fourteen points the next game in the epic Martin Luther King Day win over Villanova. And put in sixteen a few days later in the win over Tennessee in front of a national TV audience. Along with Walker, Lamb led the way, helping the Huskies finish up non-league play at 12–0.
Really though, it wasn’t just that Lamb was scoring points, but more importantly how he was doing it. The once timid freshman was expanding his game and learning what it took to play at the college level. All of a sudden Lamb wasn’t just limiting himself to jump shots but instead taking people off the dribble, hitting a soft little floater in the lane, and finishing dunks with athleticism that no one knew he had. Jeremy Lamb was no longer just a shooter. He was now a scorer instead. It was something that one of college basketball’s top analysts, ESPN’s Jay Bilas, acknowledged as a key to the Huskies late season success: “I don’t know if you can point to one moment, or one game when the light went off for Jeremy Lamb. But by late in the year, he was a real asset for the team. It was no longer just Kemba,” Bilas said.
Never was that more apparent than in a mid-week game against Marquette at the end of February. With the Golden Eagles blanketing Walker and daring someone else to score, it was Lamb who took them up on that challenge. He finished with a career-high twenty-four points, including three 3-pointers from downtown. Lamb had officially arrived as a commodity on the college basketball landscape.
But just as the freshman was hitting his groove in Storrs, the dynamic of UConn’s whole season would begin to change. It started on the following Saturday when Lamb was again phenomenal against Louisville. Unlike his big games against DePaul, Tennessee, and Marquette, this game wouldn’t end in victory but instead in a double-overtime defeat.
This loss, however, would be different from the others. And it would take weeks for UConn to recover from.