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Final Four stardom not always followed by long NBA career

by Ace Damon
Final Four stardom not always followed by long NBA career

Jeff Sheppard works as a financial planner now, more than two decades from the time he helped Kentucky win the NCAA tournament.

However, he is still asked regularly about his role in the 1998 Wildcats national championship.

"They remember where they were when they watched the championship game and that sort of thing," said Sheppard, who works in Lexington and lives an hour away in London, Kentucky. "It's definitely a lot of fun."

Sheppard was not signed after that glorious race and participated in an NBA season with the Atlanta Hawks in 1998-99, before playing for a few years in Italy. He is not the only outstanding player in the Final Four to play less than 20 games in the NBA.

In the case of Sheppard, he decided to retype the 1996-97 season as a veteran in charge of Rick Pitino, Kentucky coach at the time. Sheppard was stuck behind future NBA lottery choices Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer as a shooting guard.

"I had a choice," said Sheppard. "I could fight for a while playing with these guys or a red shirt, letting them be the featured players in 97 and go to the pros, and then it was my place to lose in 98."

The wait proved to be worth it. When she was in fifth year, Sheppard helped the 1997-98 team win a national title for Tubby Smith, who took over when Pitino joined the Boston Celtics.

Sheppard scored 27 points in the 86-85 semifinal victory over Stanford overtime and 16 in the 78-69 Utah championship triumph.

Staying in school for another year meant that Sheppard entered the draft at the age of 23 relatively advanced, although he does not think that was an important factor in his short professional career.

"A 23-year-old who is studying the draft (now) is almost a disadvantage," said Sheppard, who was also part of the 1996 Kentucky championship team. "It wasn't exactly like that back then. You had a lot of four-year-olds going into the NBA. I was a 6-3, 185-pound shooting guard. I was good in many areas. I don't know if I was great in any area."

Some other outstanding Final Four ex-players with no long NBA history:

JOEL BERRY, NORTH CAROLINA (2017)

Berry still has time to get off that list because he doesn't turn 25 until April 1, but he hasn't appeared in any NBA games yet.

The 6-footed player scored 20 points when North Carolina lost 77-74 to Villanova in the 2016 championship game and followed up with 22 points when Tar Heels beat Gonzaga 71-65 in the 2018 NCAA Tournament final.

Berry was the first player to score at least 20 points in consecutive NCAA league games since Bill Walton did it for UCLA in 1972-73.

He played another season in North Carolina, but was not eliminated because his lack of height worked against him. Berry tore the meniscus and fractured his tibia during his debut season in the NBA G League.

He now plays for the Swarm in Greensboro (North Carolina) of the G League. He averaged 7.9 points, but had a 44 point game just a few weeks ago, before the season was halted because of the pandemic.

"All things happen for a reason," said Berry. "I was happy to be able to show that it wasn't just a college thing for me. I can do it for professionals. I just need the opportunity and a place to do it.”

IRWIN DAMBROT, NEW YORK CITY COLLEGE (1950)

Dambrot helped CCNY to participate in one of the most striking post-season races of all time, when he won the NCAA Tournament and NIT the same year. The New York Knicks made Dambrot the seventh overall choice in the 1950 draft, but he attended Columbia dental school.

Then his life took a dramatic turn.

Dambrot and the entire initial team of the 1950 CCNY team were arrested in 1951 as part of a shaving scandal. Dambrot pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge and received no prison terms.

"They were kings of the city one day, and the next day they were the city bums, really, because of the scandal," said Dambrot's nephew, Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot.

Keith Dambrot said that his uncle went on to a dental career. Irwin Dambrot died at the age of 81 in 2010.

MILES SIMON, ARIZONA (1997)

Simon was an All-America guard who played for Arizona from 1994 to 1998 and averaged 22 points in the 1997 NCAA tournament. Simon scored 30 points when Arizona beat Kentucky 84-79 in the league game.

The six-foot Simon went to Orlando in the second round of the 1998 draft, but appeared in just five games with Magic. He spent a few seasons playing abroad and at the Continental Basketball Association.

He is now a technical assistant to the Los Angeles Lakers.

KEITH SMART, INDIANA (1987)

Smart made one of the most memorable moves in the history of the NCAA tournament when he sank a nest egg with five seconds remaining to give Indiana a 74-73 victory over Syracuse in the 1987 championship game.

Smart played another year in Indiana. He was drafted in the second round by the Golden State Warriors in 1988, but his only playing time in the NBA was in two games with San Antonio in 1988-89.

He continued to play several seasons internationally and on the CBA. He followed this with a long coaching career, which included coaching stops at the Cleveland Cavaliers (2002-03), Golden State (2010-11) and Sacramento Kings (2011-13).

DONALD WILLIAMS, NORTH CAROLINA (1993)

Williams scored 25 points each in North Carolina's semifinal victory over Kansas and his championship triumph over Michigan.

He played two more seasons in North Carolina after that, although a shoulder injury prevented him in the first year. Williams was not elaborate and never played a game in the NBA.

But he played professionally in several different countries and also had stints at CBA and Harlem Globetrotters.

Williams now runs basketball courts and coaches the women's basketball team at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"All my life as a child, I dreamed of going to college and playing basketball, playing professional basketball and becoming a coach after that," said Williams. “My life has just been aligned with that. The only thing I can say was bad: I was not recruited by the NBA. Other than that, my basketball career was wonderful. I'm blessed."

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More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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