- Jason King
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Once the candles were lit, the routine was always the same. Nerlens Noel would lean over his cake as family and friends sang "Happy Birthday," stare down at the flickering flames and close his eyes.
"I wish to play in the NBA," Noel would say to himself.
Then he'd blow out the candles while everyone cheered.
"I started doing it when I turned 8," Noel said. "No one knew what I was thinking, because you're not supposed to tell anyone what you wish for. But playing in the NBA has been my dream for a long time."
Now 18, Noel is sitting in the dining hall at Wildcat Coal Lodge at the University of Kentucky, discussing his goals for a freshman season that is rapidly approaching. The room is otherwise quiet until assistant coach Orlando Antigua walks in with a pair of recruits and their families. Face time with a player whose photo is on the cover of a magazine displayed in a nearby rack seems like the perfect way to end the tour, so Antigua motions for Noel to come say hello.
Noel excuses himself from his seat, removes his black baseball cap and shows off the "UK" logo etched into the back of his trademark, high-top fade. He shakes hands with each prospect, welcomes them to campus and spends a few minutes talking about how great things are in Lexington.
It's a peculiar scenario, to be sure. Noel has become an official ambassador for Kentucky -- yet he's only been here two months.
"I'm stilling learning my way around," Noel says later, "still getting to know everyone, still getting used to how things work at this level."
The adaptation process can be overwhelming. This is, after all, Calipari-era Kentucky, where freshmen aren't exactly freshmen. The Wildcats become celebrities the moment they set foot on campus, where they're gossiped about and scrutinized like public figures.
"This isn't for everyone," Calipari warns his newcomers. "I can't hide you here. You've got to make sure you're OK with that."
No Kentucky player carries as high of a profile as Noel, who will enter the 2012-13 season facing as much pressure as any player in college basketball. As the country's No. 1-ranked recruit, the 6-foot-10 center has become the face of the country's most high-profile team before ever taking the court.
Noel has already been labeled by some as a better shot-blocker than Anthony Davis, the National Player of the Year who became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft last summer after leading the Wildcats to the NCAA title.
Each morning, Noel says he signs items for 10-12 autograph seekers who have camped outside his dorm. When he turns on his TV or goes online, Noel is bombarded with reminders that folks here expect their Cats to compete for a second straight national championship. Never mind that every key piece from last season's team is no longer on the roster.
Coach John Calipari brought in four freshmen with NBA futures, but only one was labeled the top recruit in the nation.
"I definitely get nervous at times," Noel says. "But I tend to think I do things better when I'm nervous, when I have that sense of feeling like, 'What is this going to feel like? What is this going to be like?' I think I perform at a higher level when I'm nervous."
Kentucky fans can only hope.
Long before he was hailed as a potential All-American and future NBA millionaire, Nerlens Noel was a crybaby. Or at least that's how his older brother, Jim, remembers him as a youngster competing on blacktops in the Boston suburb of Everett, Mass.
Jim said he and middle brother, Rodman, played countless 2-on-2 games against Nerlens and one of his friends.
"Nerlens would call everything -- even the slightest foul -- and then whine about it for the next 10 minutes," says Jim, chuckling. "We'd have to stop the game each time to give him a chance to calm down."
Things began to change, though, after Noel made the varsity team at Everett High School as a freshman. Jim was a senior on the squad and Rodman was a sophomore. In a timeout during a game against a crosstown rival, Everett coach John DiBiaso drew up a play that called for Jim to throw a lob pass to Nerlens for a dunk.
Jim was stunned.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'There's no way Nerlens is going to get this alley-oop,'" he says. "I had never seen him do it before. But I threw it up there and he dunked it with ease."
As each game passed, the excitement about Noel and his future began to increase. Local basketball historians opined that Noel was the best prep player to come through the Boston area since Patrick Ewing. Others likened him to Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell because of his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess.
"I don't think [the attention] overwhelmed him at all," Jim says. "He took it all in stride. If he needed to ask questions, he knew Rodman and I were there for him."
Nerlens' brothers were certainly qualified to offer advice, as both were heavily recruited football players who currently start at Division I schools. Jim is a senior defensive back at Boston College, while Rodman plays linebacker at North Carolina State.
The only problem with the Noel brothers' athletic success was that their parents were rarely present to witness it.
Dorcina and Yonel Noel immigrated to Massachusetts from Haiti in 1990 and spent the next 20 years working long hours to support their four children. The Noels also have a daughter, Nashdah, who is 13.
Dorcina's job as a cleaning lady at a local hospital began at 8 each morning. She'd take a 60-minute break at 2 and then begin her second shift, which ran from 3 to 11 p.m. Even on school nights, Nerlens says he almost always stayed awake until his mother returned home so he could tell her about his day.
Yonel worked similar hours driving a cab. And Nerlens saw him even less after his parents separated during his freshman year of high school.
"It was a tough time for me, seeing them split like that," Noel says. "I mean, everyone has their own problems, and [divorce] is common in the U.S. But that doesn't mean it was easy for us to accept. My brothers just taught me to stay focused."
While their parents spent most of their days working, Nerlens, Jim and Rodman were "taken in" by people from their surrounding community. Some nights it meant hitching a ride to practice from a neighbor. Other times it was a coach taking them to McDonald's, or a teammate lending them a coat or a pair of cleats.
For the most part, though, the Noel boys learned to survive on their own. The scenario helped them mature beyond their years.
"We grew up faster than most kids," Jim says. "We became manchilds because we learned how to adapt to things without our parents there. I think our parents were proud of us. They wanted the best for us. It was just tough, because we wanted them to see us play."
Even though his mother wasn't always present, she had a major influence on Nerlens, who credits Dorcina for much of his success.
"As far as what I think about her and how much I respect her it's through the roof," Noel says. "Just watching her grind each day gave me inspiration. I have more of a drive to make it, not just for myself but for my parents, so they can one day be off their feet and not working."
As it became more and more obvious that Noel would have a lucrative career in the NBA, people close to him expressed concern about some of the figures he'd allowed into his inner circle.
One former mentor, George Wright-Easy, even told The New York Times that Noel was like "a piece of meat" with whom various people wanted to be associated in hopes of future financial gain.
"Grown men are fighting over a kid," Wright-Easy said.
Indeed, even before that alley-oop dunk as a freshman at Everett High, Noel had become a big name on the Boston basketball scene. In some ways, Noel enjoyed his status as a star. But it could also be a burden.
"It can be tough being so young and having so much on you," he said. "Everyone is watching. Sometimes you can't say things you want to say after a bad game or something. You've got to stay positive, because little kids are looking at you as a role model.
"There are people coming at you from different directions. You really don't know who to trust, but I always had a good sense of how people were. My motto was that if they weren't there from the beginning, most likely they were trying to get at you for the wrong reasons. That's why I stuck with the people I was around growing up, the people who were there early."
Questions surrounding some of Noel's advisers surfaced after his sophomore season at Everett. It was then when Noel announced he was transferring to the Tilton School, a private institution in New Hampshire. Tilton has a yearly tuition of $47,600, but because of his talent on the basketball court, Noel attended the school for free.
There were some in the community that felt Noel's decision was influenced by former Providence assistant Chris Driscoll, who has known Noel since he was 10. Driscoll had steered other underprivileged basketball prospects to the school. Noel, though, insists he made the decision on his own after consulting with his mother.
"I just wanted to be in an environment where I'd better myself," Noel says. "I knew I'd stay focused at a place where all of the emphasis was on basketball and academics. I definitely feel like it helped me. I developed great habits in those two areas."
Noel originally planned to play three seasons at Tilton. He wanted to repeat his sophomore year after cracking a growth plate in his knee before a game at Everett months earlier. He reclassified to the Class of 2013, but when his knee healed more quickly than expected, Noel altered his plans and switched back to the Class of 2012.
The move drew the ire of Tilton administrators, who reportedly felt that Driscoll was partly to blame for Noel's decision. Tilton headmaster Jim Clements barred Driscoll from the campus.
Noel was asked if he trusted Driscoll, with whom he still maintains contact.
"I felt like I could trust him," Noel said. "But there was a lot going on at that time. I know he was a fan of me reclassifying and he was helping me through the process. There was a lot to it. I don't even know what happened [with the ban]. I just felt like I was ready for the next level. I felt like another year [of high school] wouldn't really benefit me. I felt like I should go ahead and go to college."
After announcing his plans to re-classify in February, Noel quickly whittled his choice down to three schools: Kentucky, Syracuse and Georgetown. He said he eventually eliminated the Orange and had to decide between the Wildcats and Hoyas.
Dorcina Noel favored Georgetown, but after visiting Kentucky, Noel was sold.
"I just told my mom to trust me, and she did," Noel said. "Once she finally visited, she saw what I was talking about. She fell in love with it."
Still, even in Lexington, Noel's relationship with Driscoll and others has raised flags. According SI.com, two NCAA enforcement officials visited the Tilton School in May to ask questions about the people involved in Noel's recruitment process and about how Noel and his family paid for unofficial visits. They asked similar questions three months earlier at Everett High School.
Earlier this month, Calipari announced that Noel had been deemed eligible by the NCAA. He said there was no reason to believe that Noel, who has been practicing with the Cats, won't be allowed to compete in games. NCAA vice president of communications Bob Williams later confirmed that Noel has been cleared to practice and compete.
While it's possible the NCAA may still be investigating Noel, UK officials said Wednesday morning he is slated to play in tonight's Blue-White scrimmage at Rupp Arena.
Jim Noel said he's confident that all of the decisions regarding his brother's basketball career -- both in high school and college -- were made by Nerlens and his mother and that neither listened to advice from people who didn't have their best interests at heart.
"Our family is smart enough to know the type of people that were looking for money as opposed to the people who were genuinely trying to help," Jim said. "My mother can see through people. She knows when someone was trying to take advantage of her or someone in our family. She was protective of us. She could tell who the bad people were, and there were some bad people at times. But all that is taken care of now."
The second of two Saturday practices has just ended at the Joe Craft Center, and the Kentucky Wildcats are huddled at midcourt.
Well, most of them.
On a side basket about 30 feet away, Noel stands alone shooting left-handed hook shots. He misses five in a row, then a sixth miss and a seventh. After his eighth straight errant shot, Noel finally gets one to fall.
"There ya go," yells Calipari, clapping as Noel walks toward the huddle with his hands on his head, taking deep breaths. "Don't worry. You'll get better."
Thirty minutes later, in his office, Calipari says there was no reason to chide Noel for the string of misses.
"He's exhausted," Calipari says. "They all are."
Big Blue Madness -- Kentucky's annual party to kick off the season -- was the night before. And the mere thought of all that lies ahead could certainly be draining. Long, physical practices, extensive travel, fighting through injuries, dealing with expectations. It all begins now. And Noel couldn't be more eager.
This, after all, is why he chose Kentucky.
Sure, his goal is to play professionally. But he's also smart enough to realize that he needs to become stronger, smarter and more versatile before he can even begin to maximize his potential.
Noel scoffs when someone asks if he views Kentucky as a "pitstop" to the NBA.
"I came here because I wanted to get better," he says. "This was the best place for me to come and learn and develop until I'm in a position to make all my dreams come true."
No coach seems better suited for Noel than Calipari, who has had 15 players drafted in the past three seasons. Six of them were among the top 10 picks.
Noel says he respected Calipari for telling him how hard he'd have to work if he signed with the Wildcats, adding that Kentucky "isn't for everyone." Noel says he wants to be pushed.
"Just the assurance he gives us and the way he speaks to us about what we have to do you can tell he's genuine, that he cares," Noel says. "You don't see that in every coach. Every day we're out there, he wants us to learn something new. He's not going to settle for us underachieving."
Defensively, Noel is expected to be one of the elite defenders in college basketball as a freshman. Offensively, however, Noel is far from polished. He looks uncomfortable with his back to the basket and needs to improve his outside shooting touch. He also lacks an arsenal of low-post moves that lead to easy points. For those reasons and others, it's unfair to compare Noel to Davis.
"People mention that to me all the time, but I'm different," Noel says. "I'm my own player. I know who I am. I know what I bring to the table."
Even in games when he is struggling offensively, Noel says he's confident his teammates will pick up the slack. Like Noel, Kentucky freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin are expected to be taken in the first round of next summer's NBA draft. So, too, is sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, a transfer from NC State.
Noel said having such talented teammates will take some of the pressure off him to score a ton of points.
"If I were on a lot of other teams, people would be keying on me," Noel says. "There may have been nights when I was double- and triple-teamed. But teams can't do that against us here, because everyone can play at a high level. Teams have to respect that. I'm not going to be the person everyone is trying to lock up every night. It'll make things easier."
Reached by phone on Tuesday -- 10 days after missing all those hook shots on the first official day of practice -- Noel sounded pleased with the progress he's made thus far. Demanding as Calipari's workouts are from a physical standpoint, Noel said they're even more challenging mentally.
"We ran plays in high school," Noel said. "But these plays have a lot of little things to them, just certain things you have to read. It's not just a set play. You have to read the defenses. I'm learning. It's making me a better player."
Calipari has tried to temper the outside buzz surrounding Noel. Just like he does in practice each day, the head coach wants Big Blue fans to show some patience with the Wildcats' new center.
"He's going to have to learn to play through things," Calipari says. "The comfort level, breaking barriers, he's going to have to get through that. And he will."
Calipari pauses and grins.
"When stuff hits, when stuff gets intense, he has something inside of him you can't teach," Calipari says. "It's in there. I don't know where he finds it, but when he does, it's really something to watch."
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