Other than his parents, his sister and his girlfriend, no one knows where Tod Lanter has been disappearing to every day for hours at a time.
Lanter hasn’t said where he’s been going, but his friends began to suspect something was up this week when his face popped up on a preview of ESPN’s “All-Access Kentucky” series.
They texted him and asked if that was really him on their television screens. Once they figured out it was Lanter, they wondered what their friend was doing practicing with the Kentucky basketball team.
For everyone else that saw the unfamiliar face, they thought, “Who is that kid?”
In secret, unbeknown to anyone outside his inner circle until now, Lanter has been practicing with the UK basketball team. Two weeks ago, just two days before Big Blue Madness, Lanter got confirmation he could join the team as a practice player. That Saturday morning after Madness, he practiced with the team for the first time.
“I didn’t meet anybody until Saturday for the first time,” Lanter said. “I just met them in the locker room and walked out on to the court.”
Like walking into a dream.
No, Lanter isn’t a walk-on, at least not yet. He has the opportunity to participate as a practice player with only a promise that he’ll get what he earns and a guarantee that he will be counted on to help improve the team.
“They told me from the beginning there were no promises or anything,” Lanter said. “They said they would have to see how I worked with the team, but they ended up letting me in practice.”
Obviously, the goal for Lanter is to earn a walk-on position. To officially join the same team his dad, Bo, walked on from 1980-82 would be nothing short of a dream come true, one that started with a risky decision after a season at a small junior college in Florida.
Lanter was raised in Lexington and played high school ball at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Like his father, who scored 43 points during his three-year career at UK, he had aspirations of playing Division-I ball.
Bo’s son grew up hearing tales of his dad’s stories at Kentucky, but he didn’t understand until later in his youth what it meant to play at UK. As soon as Lanter realized the privilege his dad enjoyed, the magnitude cast a shadow over him.
“I just kind of used that as motivation to push myself,” Lanter said. “Even though he was just a walk-on here, I was always under his shadow. In games in high school, people would always chant, ‘Dad-dy’s bet-ter!’ That was just more motivation.”
Lanter didn’t receive so much as a whiff from a Division I program after his high school career was over. Asked to gauge the interest he received from other college programs, Lanter said, “Not good. I took pretty much the only option I had.”
That option was Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Fla.
Lanter played the 2010-11 season away from home, averaging 2.6 points and 1.2 rebounds for the 11-19 Commodores. He scored a career-high 16 in his first collegiate game and shot 41.8 percent.
But for a kid who dreamed of playing D-I ball, Gulf Coast State College was not the path Lanter wanted to be on, so he made a dicey choice after his freshman year to drop out of college, move back to Kentucky and work out on his own to create an opportunity.
To take off a year from college and hope to get picked up by a college by training on your own is a leap of faith for anyone. To do it after getting no offers and make it on the 2012 national title team – the hometown school his dad played for – is something Hollywood’s best writers would have a hard time dreaming.
“I talked to my dad before I decided to leave and he said, ‘You realize that this could mean you may never play again?’ ” Lanter said. “I told him I wouldn’t let that happen.”
His father, who also transferred to Kentucky after a season at Midwestern State in Texas, developed a grueling workout plan for him to get him bigger, stronger and work on his jump shot.
“He was there every step of the way,” said Lanter, now a sophomore. “I obviously took his advice with him having been here and him being a transfer himself. Every player looks to his dad for advice. Having him there was helpful.”
Even with the guidance of someone who could show him the Division-I ropes, the odds of going from Gulf Coast State College to the defending national champions seemed astronomical. But Lanter wasn’t going to quit until someone flat out told him no.
“I really wanted someone who could evaluate where I stood,” Lanter said. “I came to them, and if the opportunity to walk on was there, fine. If not, at least they could say, ‘You’re not good enough to do this,’ or ‘You’re not good enough to play at this level.’ Once I thought that I could fill a role that they could use, at least in practice, I tried to go ahead and pursue it.”
Assistant coach John Robic granted him a workout in mid-August, but Lanter didn’t hear anything until that Wednesday before Big Blue Madness. Robic told him to come by that Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and watch a couple of the workouts just so he “wasn’t completely lost.”
A few days later, he was meeting and competing with some of the nation’s top players.
“It was interesting,” Lanter said of that first morning practice. “I’m sure everybody is going to want to hear, with me being a local kid and everything, that it was crazy to see this machine work from the inside, but as far as it being surreal, once I got out there it just became back to work. Everything else just went away. It was like, ‘Alright, I’m back out here, let’s do what needs to be done.’ It was basketball.”
Sure, it was just basketball, but it was also one of his father’s proudest moments.
“He’s always told me that if he could take his experiences and give them to me, he would do it in a heartbeat,” Lanter said. “Any father would do that for their son. It’s kind of surreal now thinking back about that, realizing how close I could be to experiencing some of the stuff he did.
“He would have been proud no matter where I ended up. Obviously being here, not only because of where Coach Cal has this program, but just because it’s his alma mater makes it that much better for him.”
There was obviously a significant jump in the level of competition Lanter is facing now, but he said his year of college ball prepared him for what to expect.
“You go 100 percent all the time no matter what,” Lanter said.
The most overwhelming part for Lanter was learning all of the drills and getting used to how Calipari coached. While everyone else had months of individual and team skill instruction with Coach Cal, Lanter’s feet were put to the fire the first day of in-season practice.
“I just watched the guy in front of me,” Lanter said.
Believe it or not, Lanter has held his own and even gotten some time in 5-on-5 drills. With Twany Beckham still recovering from a back injury and the nearly 20 pounds he added to his now 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame during his year off, Lanter has been asked to guard Alex Poythress a couple of times.
“It just comes back to basketball,” Lanter said. “I believe you play to the level of your competition. You just have to step up. When you’re put in the position, you just have to answer the call. There’s no other way around it. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stop somebody on defense. If you resort to your game, then you’re going to be fine. If you play to your strengths, you shouldn’t have any problems.”
That attitude could eventually land Lanter a walk-on position with the team, meaning he would get his own jersey, travel with the team and the opportunity to play in games.
The process has happened so quickly that Coach Cal hasn’t even sat down with him to tell him what he expects, but if his role falls in line with other walk-ons, his duty is to be a good teammate and make the scholarship players better every day in practice.
Lanter said if that results in a bigger role in the future, so be it. If it doesn’t, he’s grateful for the opportunity to practice with the team that so many other Kentucky kids dreams being a part of.
“I knew this is what I worked for, but I did not think the opportunity would be there,” Lanter said. “When you look at a program like this especially, you’re always going to have seven studs. Those players are always going to come here, but most teams have 12 to 13, 14 guys. Where’s the rest of them? Why not me? They need somebody. They need talented players that can challenge the rest of them and give 100 percent and be there every day. I always thought why not.”
From an unknown son of a former walk-on to a role in the Kentucky basketball program and now a spot on ESPN, life is about to change for Lanter.
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