As one of the four Unforgettables, Deron Feldhaus will be remembered as a member of the Wildcat team responsible for bringing Kentucky basketball back from the depths of probation to respectability and prominence.
It’s a team many UK basketball fans tuck closely to their hearts, remembering the loyalty and perseverance Richie Farmer, John Pelphrey, Sean Woods and Feldhaus displayed so prominently during their reign as Kings of the Commonwealth. They stayed when others around them were leaving; they stayed even though they had no coach, no possibility of postseason play, and no real chance of being successful.
Feldhaus, the 6-foot-7 forward from Mason County, left Kentucky 20 years ago this season as the No. 26 career scorer in UK history with 1,231 points (he is now No. 36 on the all-time Wildcat scoring list) and the No. 32 rebounder, having recorded 540 career boards (he is now No. 40 in rebounding). Great numbers, no doubt, but with Feldhaus’ jersey, along with the other Unforgettables, hanging from the Rupp Arena rafters, his contributions to the Kentucky basketball program go well beyond measurable statistics.
“Every time I walk in there I have to glance up there, and it’s still hard for me to believe,” Feldhaus said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
As then Athletic Director C.M. Newton said upon the Unforgettables having their jerseys retired only days after the end of their careers, “We retire these jerseys in honor of four young men who have been the heart and soul of our basketball program the past three years. Three years ago our basketball program was devastated. Today it is back on top, due largely to four young men who persevered, who weathered the hard times and brought the good times back to Kentucky basketball. Their contributions cannot be measured in stats or record books.”
When the chapter closed on his career at Kentucky, Feldhaus had a pretty good idea of what he was going to do to continue his basketball career.
During Feldhaus’ sophomore season, an individual from Japan spent nearly the whole season with the team to study Kentucky basketball. Watching the program at home games and practices, the man from Japan grew to like Feldhaus’ game. When he decided to start a team in Japan, he gave Feldhaus a call after his graduation.
The possibility of playing in the NBA crossed Feldhaus’ mind, but he said, ”I knew my chances at the NBA. … I did go to Portsmouth (a chance for fringe NBA candidates to display their wares), but I knew what I was going to do.”
So the Kentucky boy from Maysville, Ky., packed his bags and headed east – Far East.
Feldhaus experienced a culture far different than the United States, but it was the communication hurdle which presented him with his biggest challenge.
“The language barrier was tough,” Feldhaus said. “It’s a tough language to learn. The first year I was over there, I was the only foreigner, American, on my team, so it was a long, long season.”
Making matters more challenging for Feldhaus was being bitten by the injury bug. He tore up his ankle in the early season, and the modern miracle of medicine hadn’t caught up with the times in Japan.
“Their medicine is not the greatest in the world,” Feldhaus said. “They wanted to put me in a cast. That first year was a long year, and a lot of it was because of my ankle injury, plus it was pretty lonely. … The first year was by far the toughest.”
When Feldhaus made it back from his first-year ankle injury, he began to realize the competition on the court, especially at that time, was not what he was accustomed to.
“That was the hard part of it,” Feldhaus said. “It was a lot of going back to fundamentals because the coach was trying to teach the Japanese players. But I was past the stage of doing fundamentals every day.”
Feldhaus also explained that the manner in which the Japanese league scheduled their games was a big change from college basketball in the U.S.
“Usually you play all your games … no real home and away games … you go to different towns in whatever division you’re in,” Feldhaus said. “All the teams come there and you play a game or two. I’d be over there seven months out of the year and only play like 15 or 18 games.”
But for someone who had been through some particularly trying times at UK during the probation years, he continued through the difficulty of an injury, living in a foreign land and being away from the ones he loved. Things got better for Feldhaus in his second year when former Vanderbilt player Todd Milholland joined the team, plus he received some help with the communication barrier.
For Feldhaus, it was “long days, long practices, but I did enjoy it. I actually did a lot of the coaching, too. I’d run some drills and stuff like that. They treated me great over there. I never had a problem.”
After playing in Japan for five years, Feldhaus had had enough. He was burned out and wanted to do something different, but what would one of the most beloved UK basketball figures in history do with the rest of his life?
Coaching would seem a natural fit for Feldhaus, who grew up playing for his father, Allen, a former Kentucky player himself (1959-62), at Mason County High School, and whose brother, Allen Jr., is the highly successful coach at Madison Central High School. But ultimately Feldhaus’ run with basketball had come to an end.
“I always thought that’s probably what I’d do,” Feldhaus said. “When I came back from Japan, I thought I might try and get back on the college level (coaching), but I’ll be honest with you, after five years playing basketball in Japan … that was the last thing I wanted to do.”
It took Feldhaus time – time to determine his future, time to ponder exactly what it was he wanted to do with his life – but eventually the call of home became too loud to ignore.
“When I got back from Japan I didn’t do anything for a while,” Feldhaus said. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had a house in Lexington, but I’d always find myself coming back to Maysville. My dad had a golf course with my stepmom, and I was all the time coming back to help them around here (on the golf course).”
Nearly a scratch golfer in high school, Feldhaus medaled in the regional tournament three years and tied for second place in the Kentucky state high school golf tourney. He’d put his golf game on the backburner for college and professional basketball, but he was no stranger to the links, and so the transition felt natural and right.
Since the late 1990s, Feldhaus has been working at Kenton Station Golf Course, a nine-hole course in Maysville. He now co-owns it with his father and stepmother. It’s not basketball, but Feldhaus is coaching, in his own way.
“It’s definitely a tough business,” Feldhaus said. “There’s not much money in it, but I really love what I do. I give a lot of golf lessons to people, mostly kids. I enjoy teaching the kids. I average teaching eight to 15 kids a week, and I really enjoy that part of it. We also have a lot of golf clinics, six or seven weeks a year.”
Still a Wildcat at heart
As with any dyed-in-the-Big-Blue-wool Kentuckian, Feldhaus still closely follows the Wildcats with a passion only an Unforgettable can muster.
“I’m a diehard fan,” Feldhaus said. “I watch every game.”
Of course, he watches fellow Mason County alum Darius Miller with an especially close eye.
“Darius is a great, great player,” Feldhaus said. “He’s had an outstanding career; 1,000 points, what else can you ask of a guy. He can put it on the floor, he can defend, he’s long; he’s just a tough matchup for anybody.”
Feldhaus has been particularly proud of Miller’s unselfishness.
“At the beginning of the year when he wasn’t starting, I said that’s fine, Darius isn’t going to pout,” Feldhaus said. “He’s been there through it all. He’ll be fine, and I guarantee one thing: when the game’s on the line, he’ll be in there, and that’s all that matters.”
As for the other Wildcats and the job this team is doing upholding the unparalleled Kentucky tradition, Feldhaus can only gush about what he sees gracing Cawood’s Court.
“I think they have phenomenal talent,” Feldhaus said. “The bottom line is, (Michael ) Kidd-Gilchrist and (Anthony) Davis, those two, along with Darius, they have a will to win. Those kids just work their butts off. They don’t have to think about the game. They just go out there and play, and that’s the best part about watching them.”
Feldhaus wasn’t sure John Calipari could turn around the program as quickly as he did, but he’s been impressed with his ability to recruit and mesh top-level players.
“He was definitely the right guy for the job,” Feldhaus said. “He brought the excitement back, he promotes the university. It’s just great, just great.”