A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Throughout the summer, CoachCal.com will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. This week is walk-on guard EJ Floreal.
Generally speaking, most children aspire to do as well as their parents. It’s ingrained in most people to want to live up to their parents’ legacy, and in many cases, achieve just a little bit more.
For E.J. Floreal, a walk-on on the 2013-14 Kentucky basketball team, that notion could seem daunting if he lets it.
His father, Edrick Floreal Sr., who is in his second year as the head coach of UK’s track and field program, was a two-time Olympian for Canada, won five NCAA individual titles as a college athlete and is in pursuit of a team championship as the head coach at Kentucky. His mother, LaVonna Martin-Floreal, a two-time U.S. Olympian, won the silver medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. Even his sister, “Mimi,” who is a few years younger than him, was one of the fastest sprinters in the state last year as a freshman in high school.
Suffice it to say, his family is a collection of elite athletes. EJ, no doubt, possesses many of the physical attributes that his parents do – after all, he earned a spot on this year’s mega-talented Wildcat squad – but in a family of standouts, it’s hard to stand out if you’re EJ Floreal.
Between his dad’s championships, his mother’s medal and his sister’s rising talent, there’s a lot of internal competition within the Floreal family. At the very least, it makes for interesting dinner table conversation.
“Whenever I try to say something like, ‘Hey mom, I got third in the state,’ she’ll be like, ‘I got an Olympic medal.’ I can’t say nothing to that or my dad will bring up his national championship rings when I try to bring up something that I just did,” Floreal said.
Floreal’s parents are only joking with their son when they talk about their accomplishments – they ultimately want him to do better than they did, too – but their success was also a way to humble Floreal as a sometimes arrogant child.
“I butted heads (with them) a coupled times,” Floreal said. “When I was younger I had a little bit of arrogance about myself. Looking back, I really didn’t have a reason to, and they would always try to keep me down and say, ‘You have to understand, you haven’t done anything yet.’ I would try to say, ‘I’m going to do things. I’m going to do things way better than you. Just watch.’ ”
That drive to do better still exists today, but it’s matured, become more focused. Floreal, as he started to heed the advice of his parents, learned that it wasn’t so much about living up to his parents’ dream; it was about creating his own.
For Floreal, that was going outside the family line of work and choosing his own path in basketball.
“I always set out and do things better than them,” Floreal said. “I want to be the best athlete in the family. … (Their success) really motivates me because I want to be the best. I want to be better than they ever were.”
Blessed with his parents’ superior athleticism, Floreal was involved in some type of sport year around growing up. Basketball eventually caught his attention, but he tried just about everything else. He dabbled in soccer and shined in baseball. Football was almost too easy for him.
“I really thought that football was my sport early on just because I didn’t have to work very hard at it and it came so easy to me being tall and athletic,” Floreal said. “I could catch, I could run, I could jump. … It was just an easy sport and it always seemed like I could do the bare minimum and still be a good player.”
Even though his parents were Olympians in track, he didn’t start to run until his dad coaxed him into it in high school.
Date of birth: March 23, 1995
Parents: Edrick Floreal Sr. and LaVonna Martin-Floreal
Hometown: Lexington, Ky.
High school: Paul Laurence Dunbar High School
Favorite TV show: SportsCenter
Favorite food: Burritos
Favorite superhero: The Flash
Favorite player: Michael Jordan
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Hanging with teammates
Favorite movie: More Than a Game
Favorite artist: Big Sean
“To me, it was more of a hobby,” Floreal said. “I didn’t really want to run track in high school and my dad was like, ‘Look, it’s going to get your running better and I can work with you. You’re going to get a lot more exposure from this.’ ”
Floreal decided to try to follow in his parents’ footsteps, and for a little while, it looked like it was the right choice.
By his junior year, he was a budding track star. One of the top 100- and 200-meter sprinters in California, Floreal received significant interest from schools in and around California after he was named California’s Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year. Many of them wanted him to take official visits and consider coming aboard as a scholarship athlete, but Floreal’s heart was never truly into it.
Even after he placed third in the 200m in Kentucky’s state finals and fourth in the 100m, Floreal knew track wasn’t the sport for him. In his mind, he was a basketball player moonlighting as a runner, and the year-around grind of playing so many sports began to take a toll on Floreal’s body, so he had to make a decision and stick with it in college.
Basketball was his choice, which his father accepted, even as the track coach at the University of Kentucky.
“I know it’s tough for him because track, I was probably a top-25 sprinter in the country,” Floreal said. “To have your son want to do something different when he could easily come help your program, had to be tough, but he was always behind me. He told me, ‘This is your dream; this is what you want to do. I’m going to be behind you. I’m going to do anything I have to do to help you.’ He went and he learned a lot about basketball just for me. It really means a lot that he went to learn the game, to go work out with me, to get a key to the gym just so I could go work out and get better.”
When it came time to find a place for Edrick Jr. to play basketball, Edrick Sr. played a significant role.
“He wanted me to go wherever I wanted to be happy,” Floreal said. “I told him that I wanted to just be the best. He told me, ‘What is your goal?’ I said, ‘I want to be the best player that I can be. I want to reach my full potential because I don’t think I’m anywhere close yet.’ He said, ‘Look, I think that you need to go to Kentucky. If that’s what you want to do, you know you can go immediately and play somewhere else, but are you going to get better there?’ I was like, ‘I don’t think I will, not like I will at Kentucky.’ ”
Of course, wanting to go to UK and actually playing there were two different concepts.
Floreal had options to play other places. He turned down Santa Clara and Cal Poly. Western Kentucky showed interest. Even Tennessee and Arkansas took hard looks at Floreal, and both were potential spots had Floreal not had his sights set on UK. When Floreal weighed all his possibilities, the place that would push him the hardest and force him to improve is what appealed most to him.
“I wanted to be the best I could be,” Floreal said. “I wanted to play with the best, practice with the best, work out with the best. This has the best trainers, best facilities, strength coaches, so this is the best place for me. I also wanted to get some experience with a team that’s winning, not a team that’s rebuilding – a team that’s going to go deep into the tournament.”
Still, Floreal had to find a way on to the team.
Just because his dad was the track coach at Kentucky and had become friends with John Calipari didn’t mean he had a spot on the team, nor did his dad’s prior relationship with assistant coach Kenny Payne. Those factors certainly didn’t hurt, but Floreal couldn’t just walk on without being able to hold his own.
It was after the Kentucky state tournament, after Floreal had averaged 12.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and roughly five blocks as a senior in his first and only season at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, that the UK coaching staff told them there was a chance he could walk on.
“They pretty much just said that we have to wait and see how the rest of our recruits fill out,” Floreal said. “When it was all said and done, there was a spot. I went back and talked to them and they said, ‘Do you understand what you’re getting into? Do you understand how hard this is going to be? Do you understand this and that?’ I was like, ‘Yes, I understand, this is what I want to do. I just want to get better and there’s no place to get better than Kentucky.”
“My dad’s always told me, and even Coach Payne and Coach Cal have told me, athletically you can compete with anyone in the country. There’s no question about that,” Floreal said. “It would just be my skills (that I need to improve on). That’s the reason I chose Kentucky is because this is the best place to get my skills up. I feel like once I get my skills up with my athleticism, I can be something special.”
Floreal never would have imagined winding up at UK two years ago when he was still in California and his father was the head track and field coach at Stanford.
That all changed in between Floreal’s junior and senior seasons of high school when his dad told him he’d been offered the head coaching position at Kentucky, a place he had served as an assistant at from 1996 to 1998.
“My face kind of froze and my heart kind of sank and I was just like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Floreal said. “Like, I’m going into my senior year. I’m having a great year of basketball. The year before, I had just been all-California honorable mention. I was feeling really good about going into my senior year and being able to play whatever position I wanted to. He said, ‘This opportunity just came. It’s much better than what I have here.’ … When Cal, the best recruiter in the country, actually called my dad and said Kentucky wants you really bad, I knew from that point on that he was going to go.”
Uprooting during the end of high school and leaving all of his friends was tough for Floreal, but he saw in his father’s eyes how much it meant to him to return to UK and have a chance to do something special. Because of that, Floreal stood by his father’s decision to leave Stanford and start anew in Kentucky.
“He wants to win,” Floreal said. “That’s the bottom line for him. He pretty much turned Stanford from a bottom feeder to one of the best teams in the country and a top-three team in the Pac-12 each year, but it didn’t really seem like he was enjoying it as much as someone with that much winning and someone with that much confidence should have been. When he came to Kentucky, he just seemed so much happier and the kids just seemed like they were so much more involved with us and they wanted to meet us and know us.”
Now, having his father at the same school he plays ball is a bonus for Floreal. Other than the couch in Edrick’s office that EJ can nap on between workouts, EJ knows his father is just a stairway away from a shoulder to lean on, some motivation and some guidance.
“He always gets on me for just the little things, but I expect that from him,” Floreal said. “If he didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
As a walk-on, Floreal understands his role. He knows he isn’t going to play much in his first season, but he is willing to sacrifice playing time for an opportunity to improve.
“I just want to improve,” Floreal said. “I want to gain some experience. I want to learn from Julius (Randle) and the twins and James. I want to learn from the stuff they did. What did they do to work out? What did they do to get their handles like that? What did they do to get their shooting like that?”
Floreal’s goal is to eventually be on scholarship, but he knows that earning one falls on him and how hard he works. Ultimately, playing without a scholarship doesn’t matter to him because he’s creating his own dream in a family full of achievers.
And if that scholarship does come down the line, well, at least Floreal will have something to talk about with his parents at the dinner table.
“I want to just be able to, when they bring up their (accomplishments),” Floreal said, “I want to bring up something better and be like, ‘Yeah, I worked for this. I got this now.’ ”