Doron Lamb has always been the forgotten man in Kentucky's boundless bundle of talented bodies, the deft scorer with a flawless stroke and smoothness to his game that made it easy for him to get lost in the shuffle of more celebrated teammates. It was fitting then that Lamb made two of the most important shots in that national championship game as the Wildcats sealed their eighth national title, finally stepping out of the shadows on the game's largest stage.
Doron Lamb scored 22 points in Kentucky's national title victory over Kansas
But what if it had never happened? What if the best percentage three-point shooter in Kentucky's illustrious history had never found his way to the Commonwealth? While the game of basketball was always in Lamb's blood it wasn't a cinch he'd play the game as a youngster growing up in New York City.
In fact, Doron Lamb nearly took a run at becoming the next Michael Phelps at the insistence of his mother, Brigitte Grant.
“My mom had me swimming and I used to be a great swimmer,” Lamb said during the Cats' postseason run. “When I was little my mom told me she watched a movie on Lifetime and some kid couldn't swim, drowned and died, so she always said when she had a son he would learn to swim.
“I liked doing the backstroke. I was fast. I might be a swimmer.”
The idea of a future NBA player – Lamb is expected to announce his intention to enter the 2012 NBA Draft in the coming weeks – taking the plunge into the pool seems far-fetched but Lamb wasn't your ordinary kid growing up in Queens. Sure, basketball was is passion but he never played the game exclusively. He was heavily involved in just about anything his mother could get him signed up for during his childhood. Swimming was the earliest activity.
“We would take him to the (YMCA) on 92nd from the time he was 21 months old until he was 10 or 11, every Sunday,” Grant said. “I would hold him in the water. They really wanted him to keep swimming but it was five days a week and took 45 minutes by bus (to get there).
“Then he started with baseball because there weren't any basketball teams for 5-year-olds. He played with 15-year-olds. I wish I had videos of it but I just have photos. It was so funny because he thought he was equal to the 15-year-olds. He had played one game in the park. (The coaches) told him to go to third base and he had to count the bases to know which one it was. The second year he was a pitcher. If he had kept with baseball he would have been really good.”
Whether it was swimming, baseball, track and field or anything else, none of it could ignite Lamb's inner fire like basketball. The son of former Long Island University scoring legend Calvin Lamb, 'Little Cal' – as the neighborhood's elder statesmen called him – immediately took to the game. He would make the trek to Twelve Park with friends, including Louisville guard Russ Smith, every day and play from dawn until dusk.
Lamb made fashioning the '3-Goggles' a major part of Kentucky basketball the past two seasons
“I've known Doron since probably six or seven years old,” Smith said. “Doron was always the more laid back player, the silent killer. He could end a game with 18 or 20 points and you wouldn't known until you looked at the scoreboard. As he got older and developed you could just tell he was going to be good.”
Lamb's easy demeanor on the playground and later at Oak Hill Academy and Kentucky earned him a reputation as one of the best players in the famed New York City prep leagues. In addition to being called 'Little Cal, Lamb was often referred to as 'Smooth Criminal' by friends and rivals on the court.
With each passing day his game looked more and more like his father's. Calvin Lamb was well known on the playground circuit growing up but did not played organized ball until following a friend to junior college, where he showed enough talent that LIU signed him. In two seasons at LIU he scored 983 points, averaging 19.2 points per game as a junior in 1986-87 and 20.2 points per game as a senior in 1987-88. The elder Lamb earned 2nd Team All-North Eastern Athletic Conference during that final season.
“People always tell me my dad is a great shooter,” the younger Lamb said. “He could shoot it from halfcourt with his eyes closed. He was a great shooter and taught me how to be a great shooter.”
“When I read the story that said he could shoot from halfcourt with his eyes closed, he could really do that,” Grant confirmed of the elder Lamb.
It was Calvin Lamb's basketball connections that led to perhaps Doron's most important decision regarding his development. The competition in the New York City prep leagues and summer circuits lent itself to politics and favoritism, something Lamb didn't always understand. According to Lamb, famed Christ the King school did not want Lamb as a freshman – it had Florida guard Erving Walker – so Lamb landed at Bishop Loughlin.
It wasn't a good fit. A rivalry with Villanova guard JayVaughn Pinkston ensued.
“I was there with JayVaughn Pinkston and he was like Top 5 in the country coming into high school,” Lamb said. “They had us like Batman and Robin and I thought I was Batman and (coach) had me as Robin. I was very upset with that. I told my dad I wanted to leave that school and he told me that if I wanted to leave I had to play good in New York for one year.”
Lamb celebrated Kentucky's title with teammate Marquis Teague
Lamb exploded onto the scene as a sophomore at Bishop Loughlin, which led to his move to Oak Hill Academy. He was also buoyed by a work ethic and reward system set up by his parents that fostered achievement both on and off the court. If Lamb wanted top go see New York City phenom Sebastian Telfair play he would have to ace his school tests.
“I knew about Oak Hill because Calvin had friends there,” Grant said. “It was a big adjustment (from New York) but not so much for (Doron) because he never really hung out, He was very well adjusted. He's kind of a chameleon like that and handles different situations. They were the greatest. Smaller schools focus on you and everyone wants you to be a success. That's hard to get in New York City. We loved that school. There were no distractions.”
What some people would call a lack of distractions, high schoolers call complete boredom. It wasn't necessarily fun for a teenager but Lamb acknowledges it was the best thing to happen to his game.
“Woke up at 7:50 and went to school,” Lamb said. “We had Saturday school and mandatory church on Sunday. My normal day was go to school and then last period, seventh period, was practice for us. Then I'd go to study hall and do homework for two hours and then go play pick-up after dinner and then watch a movie and chill in the door. Then run it back every day.
“We never left campus really. Cell phone service didn't work out there, you couldn't have it either. If the dean saw you with it he'd take it. I had a great two years there.”
The secluded life of Oak Hill was a fry cry from New York City, but it helped Lamb's game catch the eyes of nearly every major basketball school in the country. Ultimately the 6-foot-4 sharpshooter opted to sign with Kentucky and coach John Calipari, giving the Cats the shooter it lacked during Calipari's first season when a 4-of-32 brick fest in the Elite Eight knocked a team with five first round draft picks out of the championship race.
“At Oak Hill all we had was the gym so I was always in there,” Lamb said. “I would go out and put up at least 500 shots a day. I'd have to make 500 (before leaving).”
If Lamb's final game in a Kentucky uniform was his 22-point effort against Kansas the sophomore will leave the school as one of the most accomplished shooters in school history. Lamb's 47.5 percent (144-of-303) is the best career three-point percentage for any player with at least 150 attempts, besting Cameron Mills' 47.3 percent. He also owns the second and third-best single season percentages – 48.6 percent in 2010-11 and 46.6 percent in 2011-12, respectively – in school history, trailing on Travis Ford's 52.9 percent season in 1992-93. He also joined the Cats' elite 1,000-point club in that NCAA final, finishing with 1,018 total points, just a few jumpers more than his father's two-year collegiate total.
Lamb scored a career-high 32 points against Winthrop on Dec. 22, 2010
But while it has always been his dad's basketball legacy Lamb has chased, it was his mother who always went the extra mile to make sure Lamb was focused on making something of himself. Grant famously took cones she purchased for roller blading and utilized them in basketball drills she would run her son through.
“Since I was little she took me to all of my games, even in other sports,” Lamb said. “I don't think she's ever missed a game in my life. She travels everywhere I go. She goes hard. She knows the game.”
It was fitting then that both Grant and Calvin Lamb were in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to see their son help push Kentucky to its first title since young Doron was just 6 years old. It was the end they always wanted for their son.
“He won championships at tournaments and at Oak Hill they were 40-1 but he's never won a championship with a school,” Grant said on the eve of the Final Four. “I really want that for him and for the kids. They are the greatest kids. I feel they deserve it. I really want it for him. I want this for Kentucky, too.”
As the clock neared midnight on April 2nd that desire became a reality for Lamb and his family, completing 20 years of work toward that type of moment. There was only one catch:
Just imagine if Doron Lamb had stuck to swimming.