Jeff Sheppard was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player on Kentucky's last national championship team in 1998. Fourteen years later and with the Wildcats on the verge of cutting down the nets again, he's a card-carrying member of Big Blue Nation.
Sheppard, now 37, is married to former UK women's basketball player Stacey Reed and has two children, Madison, 11, and Reed, 7. He owns and operates 15inc. — a nod to his number as a player — which is an apparel company that makes T-shirts and embroidered items and organizes basketball camps and other events.
In fact, Sheppard multi-tasked on his cell phone Tuesday to conduct an interview while selling Final Four T-shirts inside a pop-up tent in the parking lot of his friend's Italian restaurant in London, Ky. That town about 70 miles south of Lexington is where Sheppard now calls home.
Amid the mania of Kentucky's latest trip to the Final Four, Sheppard sounded both proud and enthusiastic about his alma mater.
"I don't work for the university or anything like that," Sheppard said. "I don't have a direct connection to the university. But I'll do anything they ever ask me. I know coach [Calipari], spent a little bit of time with him.
"I've been to a few practices and a few games — just a huge fan now."
Sheppard's company is a labor of love. He said that the creation of the company is something that just developed from his residence in the basketball-mad state, his reputation as a UK hoops hero and, of course, his personal affection for the school.
"Whether I'm selling a T-shirt, coaching or putting on a basketball camp, Kentucky basketball always will be a part of it," Sheppard said.
Sheppard also spoke of his link with coach Rick Pitino, which puts Sheppard in an awkward position Saturday night.
Pitino guided Sheppard and UK to another national title in 1996 but is now the head man at Louisville, the bitter arch-rival that stands between Kentucky and Monday's national title game. Pitino is persona non grata in Lexington, but Sheppard said he roots for Louisville when the Cards aren't playing Kentucky.
The reality of the feud between Pitino and Kentucky's John Calipari — not to mention the fan bases of the in-state rivals — is not lost on anyone, but Sheppard takes the high road when talking about the pair of coaching legends.
"It's a wonderful story, and they have a history that goes back a long way," Sheppard said of Pitino and Calipari. "And I played for coach Pitino at Kentucky against coach Calipari [at UMass] in the Final Four in '96.
"We won that year and ended up winning the championship. To see them back against each other, with coach Pitino at Louisville, what a wonderful story. I'm so proud of coach Pitino."
While Pitino is now scorned, UK fans will always love Sheppard. A role player on the '96 team, the 1998 Final Four MOP scored a team-high 18 points when UK rallied from 17 down in the second half to beat Duke in the '98 Elite Eight, 27 more in a Final Four overtime victory over Stanford and 16 in the title game against Utah in which the "Rally Cats" won after being down 10 points at halftime.
His college heroics didn't translate to the pro level as Sheppard spent just one season in the NBA and called it quits for good in 2001 after playing overseas.
As for the voice inside Sheppard's head, he said that it sometimes forces the thought of getting into college coaching, but he admits it's a profession that requires a lot of time for which he's unwilling to sacrifice because of his young family and business that has him traveling around the state.
After all, the lunch-time rush of T-shirt customers is calling his name.
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- Jeff Sheppard