“Where are they now” is a periodical series that will take a look back at the careers of former Kentucky basketball stars and/or John Calipari-coached players and find out what they’re doing post-college. Today we catch up with Tony Delk, a guard at Kentucky who helped UK win the 1996 national championship.
When Tony Delk walked to the center of Rupp Arena to receive his 1996 national championship ring last Wednesday night, the roar of the crowd made it clear just how important he still is to the Big Blue Nation.
The former guard not only led UK to a national championship with a record seven 3-pointers in the title game, he earned All-American first-team honors, was named SEC Player of the Year and was the 1996 Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Looking back at his time at Kentucky now, Delk said his UK experience had little to with the individual accolades he racked up over the years.
As the 1996 team started rolling into Lexington last Tuesday night, Delk looked forward to reuniting with his “family.” Although “The Untouchables” are known most for their dominating national championship, Delk pointed out that 1996 was about more than just hanging a banner.
“What really stands out now is the 27-game winning streak we had,” Delk said. “It was over a span of two or three months of not losing a game. That’s a lot of focus and determination.”
While last year’s national championship team did not boast the impressive win streak of the ‘96 squad, the two teams have often been compared. Delk felt that the biggest similarity between the teams had to do with an abundance of selflessness.
“I enjoyed watching that team,” Delk said. “It reminded myself of the team I played on in ‘96 with so many talented players. They all came together collectively and set aside their egos.”
Another similarity between 1996 and 2012 came from the fan support when the team returned to Lexington after winning it all.
“As soon as we came back the town was going crazy,” Delk said. “It was great to win a championship for our fans because they’re the most loyal and the best fans in the country.”
Seventeen years later, that statement is as true as ever. As Delk and his teammates learned last Wednesday for the ring ceremony, “The Untouchables” will always remain royalty in the Bluegrass State.
“With all the places I’ve been, I can’t say any fans compare to Kentucky’s fans,” he said.
Heading to the pros
It came as a surprise to no one that Delk, the fifth all-time leader in career points at Kentucky, would take his talents to the NBA after completing his degree at UK in 1996.
Delk was chosen by the Charlotte Hornets as the 16th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, and though he ended up playing for seven different franchises, he took everything in stride.
“I think the transition wasn’t that hard because Coach (Rick) Pitino had coached on that level and he prepared us for the NBA,” Delk said. “I think mentally he made us a lot better than most guys who were coming out from those years.”
Although initially it was hard for Delk to not “take it personally” when he got traded, he came to realize that at the end of the day it was all business.
“My contract was easy to move,” Delk said. “Wherever I went I played well. I got a chance to live in a lot of different places, meet a lot of people and just enjoy doing what I love doing.”
Delk may not have held any grudges against his former teams, but that didn’t stop him from playing some of his best games when facing old teammates. On Jan. 2, 2001, Delk scored a career-high 53 points for the Phoenix Suns in overtime against the Sacramento Kings, who traded him in 2000.
“It was nothing personal, but everyone thought it was personal,” Delk said. “It was just a remarkable game I was having, playing with a great point guard in Jason Kidd.”
Equally as memorable in Delk’s mind was his 2002-03 season with the Boston Celtics when he joined former UK teammates Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“That was kind of like a family reunion getting back with those guys,” he said. “That was a special moment.”
Delk returns home
While Delk’s NBA career came to a close in 2006, he was certainly not ready to step away from basketball.
In 2009, Delk returned to Kentucky, along with former college teammate Scott Padgett, as assistant director of basketball operations in John Calipari’s first year at UK.
Upon his arrival, Delk immediately began learning from Coach Cal to develop his coaching skills.
“I learned to manage people,” Delk said. “You gotta try to get guys to buy in from day one, and that’s where Cal was really good. People think he doesn’t do any coaching, but it’s a lot of coaching.”
Delk realized that coaching at UK is a unique experience because of the amount of talented players that come in each year.
“When they get to this level, you still gotta have the basic fundamentals down,” Delk said. “Cal really helped our guys work on that, from John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins to Patrick Patterson, who had been in the program before he got here.”
One of the biggest differences he found between the NBA and college basketball is the tradition that still exists.
Although a rare occurrence now, Delk played all four years at Kentucky, which really helped him build a relationship with the fans. The appreciation that UK fans still have for Delk could be heard throughout Rupp Arena on Wednesday night.
“I think especially with me staying here for four years the fans really got to know me,” Delk said. “I got to appreciate the Kentucky fans and the history of Kentucky basketball because there’s a lot of history that I didn’t know about.”
The next step
In 2011, New Mexico State University offered Delk an assistant coaching position with its men’s basketball program, which he happily accepted.
Even though it was his first official coaching job, Delk felt ready for the next step in his career.
“Cal prepared me, along with Coach Pitino,” Delk said. “They’ve been in the profession for so long and been represented by a particular agency that helps prepare coaches and get them ready for that next level.”
The main adjustment Delk has faced is the transition from moving from UK, where the fan support was insurmountable, to NMSU, where basketball admittedly isn’t as popular.
“It’s a lot different,” Delk said. “At UK you knew how much the people appreciated us and what we did for the program. I don’t think other places embrace the players like that.”
Despite a smaller basketball environment at NMSU, the Aggies are having a successful season, currently holding a 19-10 record, including a 12-game win streak earlier in the season.
Even with his limited experience as an assistant coach, Delk has quickly learned that coaching is a lot harder than people think.
“It’s different when you’re in the head coach’s seat, that’s what I’m finding out,” Delk said. “When things aren’t going right everyone points the finger at one person, and that’s the head coach. But I haven’t got there yet.”
Delk may not be dealing with the stresses that come with a head coaching position yet, but those days aren’t far out of reach.
“That’s what I’m working towards,” Delk said. “I’m thinking maybe another year or two.”
Delk’s top priority
While most Kentuckians know Tony Delk to be a great basketball player, they may not be aware of an even more important aspect of his life.
About seven years ago, Delk created the Taylor Delk Sickle Cell Foundation for his now 14-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with sickle cell in 1998.
Upon learning about Taylor’s illness, Delk decided to invest time and money into educating others about the disease and becoming more involved. His youngest daughter, Trinity, has also been diagnosed with sickle cell.
“It’s something near and dear to my heart, especially when you have kids that are constantly in and out of the hospital,” Delk said. “You see other families that are not able to take care of their kids because of financial reasons, insurance or they just don’t have the time.”
With Delk’s help, the nonprofit organization has helped improve the quality of life of many children and their families that are living with sickle cell disease, as well as increasing public awareness.
For someone who enjoys helping others more than anything, coaching seems to be a perfect fit for Delk, who continues to be extremely active with the foundation.
“It’s great just to put smiles on other people’s faces,” Delk said. “I love my daughters and they have been the highlight of my life, and taking care of them is my number one priority.”
If you would like to donate or get more information on the Taylor Delk Sickle Cell Foundation visit tdscf.org.