- Georgia Bulldogs - March 3, 2015 - 9:00 PM EST - Stegeman Coliseum, Athens, Ga. - ESPN
Jon Hood didn’t realize it at the time, but by the sixth grade, he already knew how he wanted to make a difference in this world.
Every Saturday, Hood, his family and his younger brother, Mitchell, made the 40-minute drive north from their home in Madisonville, Ky., so Mitchell could play in a special needs baseball league in Henderson, Ky. There weren’t any options for Mitchell, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, to play in any games around Madisonville, so drive north every week, every Saturday, they did.
After the game, before they headed home, they’d stop at Mister B’s in Henderson, grab some wings and spend some time with each other. Hood, who played an active part in helping his brother in the league, didn’t recognize it at his adolescent age, but those were some of the best times of his life.
He didn’t realize it until everything just stopped.
“The lady that ran it moved out of town,” Hood said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “Nobody wanted to pick it up. Nobody wanted to communicate with anybody. It just stopped. Nobody went about it.”
And Hood was left with a brother who had even fewer options than he had before.
“You see special needs, special education kids who love sports but don’t have the opportunity to play sports,” Hood said. “There are only a handful of sports my brother can play.”
That motivated Hood to come up with a lifelong plan to give back.
By his freshman year of high school, he had it all planned out. He’d earn a scholarship at a major college program playing basketball, go to the pros, make some money, and start a special needs baseball league back home so that people like his brother would have the opportunity to play sports and enjoy the same things he does.
There are similar leagues across the country, including the Miracle League in Lexington, but Hood believes there are too few, especially in more rural places like back home.
By the time Hood makes enough money to start the kind of league he envisions, his brother, now 19, will be old enough to help him run it.
“Then he can tell me, ‘Here’s what (people like me) can do. Here’s what this kid can do. He’s just like me. He has epilepsy and cerebral palsy. He just had the surgery I had. His right side of his body can’t do this,’ ” Hood said. “I started thinking about all this my freshman year of high school. Once I’m done and have made my money and I can actually afford it, that’s what I want to do. To have him on the board to help me and be my right-hand man, chairman, president, whatever you want to call it, would make that almost as good as the Miracle League here.”
Hood’s relationship with his brother has always driven him to help others, particularly children, who are less fortunate than him. It’s part of the reason why Hood grew so close to 12-year-old Scott Schaffer, a courageous little boy who died of a congenital heart disease condition last spring.
“Mom always taught me to, ‘Look, he’s got it worse than you. Make his day better. Make his life a little bit better,’ ” Hood said. “It started with Mitchell, and once I met with Scotty, I just fell in love with Scotty. It wasn’t that he had anything wrong with him, it was just the way he carried himself. He knew he had something wrong with him and he still carried himself like that, which is unfathomable to me.”
Appreciating the opportunity
What Scotty went through, what his brother battles every day, puts things in perspective for Hood.
When he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the summer of 2011 and sat out the 2011-12 season, it was difficult, yeah, but it was nothing like what Hood’s brother goes through on a daily basis.
“I had ACL surgery,” Hood said. “I’ll walk again. I’ll play basketball again, maybe on the pro level. Mitchell had surgery. Yeah, it took his seizures away, but his whole left side of his body will never be the same.”
Nevertheless, getting back on the court last season and making a contribution was important to Hood. His teammates on the 2011-12 national championship squad made him feel like he was still a part of the team, but between missing road trips due to rehab, watching practices from the sidelines and missing out on the day-to-day competitiveness, it weighed on him.
When Hood returned last season, he learned to appreciate the love of the grind that John Calipari talks about so much.
“When you’re sidelined, you really appreciate it,” Hood said. “You really look forward to it. You really cherish the workouts.”
Hood made an impact last season, especially after he regained his strength from a winter bout with mononucleosis, but it always felt like he was playing catch-up to be a part of the team.
He was still finishing up physical therapy and was still unsure of his knee last summer, and though he was a junior and in his fourth year in the program, he felt like an outsider because he didn’t play the season prior. This summer, none of that was a problem.
“This year I don’t have to worry about the knee,” Hood said. “It’s fully back, fully healed. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s something that I’m happy I don’t have to worry about. I can just focus on basketball. This offseason was a lot better for me personally as far as getting my mindset right for the season. You’ve got everybody here. You get accustomed to everybody. You get close with one another. You don’t have to spend half your day in the training room rehabbing. You can go eat with them after when we get done practicing or lifting or whatever. That’s a big thing for me is being around the guys.”
Hood had a few opportunities early in 2012-13, but he played more than 10 minutes just once before coming down with mono in mid-December and only sparingly in the games after. It wasn’t the triumphant return he had dreamed of during those grueling physical therapy sessions.
At one point, Hood contemplated finishing out the year, grabbing his diploma and finding a job. Remember, his medical redshirt year provided him with one more year of eligibility.
Instead, Hood did some soul searching and had a talk with Jarrod Polson. Then he talked to former players DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. He asked them what he should do and if he should go. Their collective answer: no. Their collective resolution: work harder.
“Their advice was, (Coach Cal’s) going to yell at you anyway, but he won’t yell at you as much if you go 500 miles an hour and do things that you’re not comfortable doing,” Hood said. “Get back in the gym and do that. Once I did that, I don’t know what happened. I can’t explain it. My family will tell you the same thing. I fell in love with it. I’m in here at nights doing workouts. I’m coming in the morning before we lift. I’ll shoot some then. I fell in love with it the second half of the year and started playing a lot better.”
By the end of the season, Hood was one of the few shining examples of how to play and how to work in an otherwise substandard season. Still, it was disappointing for Hood.
“I don’t really care about individual stuff,” Hood said. “It’s team first. Would I liked to have played a little bit more? Yeah. … but still, the year was disappointing. We go to the NIT, lose first round to Robert Morris in front of 3,000 people. It’s not UK basketball.”
Plans have never changed
The way the year ended – from the individual success Hood had at the end of the year, to the disappointment as a team, to the incoming, almost unbelievably loaded freshman class coming in – some wondered why Hood didn’t take advantage of the NCAA graduate rule and transfer to another school.
The way some saw it, Hood, now a graduate of UK, could transfer to another team, play immediately (he wouldn’t have to sit out a year if he transferred to a school that offered a graduate degree UK doesn’t have) and complete his final year of eligibility by playing significant minutes at another program.
Make no mistake about it, Hood could have easily walked in to a number of BCS-level schools and played big-time minutes right away, and he certainly heard that talk and thought about it.
“It crossed my mind,” Hood admitted.
But walking away isn’t who Hood is, especially after a season like last year.
“I don’t like to go out on stuff where I lose,” Hood said. “I hate losing. … I want to win again, and looking at the team this year, we have the key components to win again and win another one.”
Playing time will once again be hard to come by on a team loaded with potential NBA draft picks. Hood, as he always has, will have to battle for a spot.
“These guys are competitive and ruthless,” Hood said. “They go at your jugular at every second of every play.”
But Hood is OK with that. If he wants to make it to the pros – Hood said he and Polson have talked about playing overseas after this year – the best place to do it is at UK. While he could take advantage of the NCAA graduate transfer rule and play more minutes somewhere else, those other places wouldn’t offer the competition he gets at Kentucky on a daily basis.
Hood has guarded everyone from John Wall and Bledsoe – yes, believe it or not, Hood was on the first Calipari team at UK – to Terrence Jones, Kyle Wiltjer, and now James Young, Marcus Lee and the other current Cats. Quite frankly, there is no duplication of that kind of competition anywhere else.
“Some of these guys and the guys that I’ve played against over my career at UK, some of those practices will be the hardest games I’ve ever played,” Hood said. “As a competitor, that’s what you live for is to compete with other guys that are better than you, that are just as good as you, that will propel you to play and get better. That’s what everybody here wants. We don’t want to stay the same and be mediocre. We want to be great.”
And Hood’s plans are to be great during and long after his UK career.
Whether or not he plays a significant role this season hardly matters in Hood’s grand plans. For him, those have never wavered. He made it to college, played against the best competition in the country and still has his eyes set on playing at the next level. Once he conquers that and makes a little money, he plans to do what he’s always known he was going to do: help people less fortunate than him.
“I want to take something like that (Miracle League) back to Western Kentucky,” Hood said. “We’ve got plenty of places to do it in Madisonville. Outside of the job I want to do, that’s what I want to do. I want to help kids.”
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