Why Kentucky basketball legends are convinced their friend Chin Coleman will shine at UK

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – When new Kentucky basketball assistant coach Ron “Chin” Coleman was deciding where he would work next season, at least one of his closest friends had a vested interest in the decision.

Former Kentucky star Antoine Walker, the highest draft pick from UK’s 1996 national championship squad, has known Coleman for almost 30 years. The two first met as high school stars in Chicago in the early 1990s and speak “almost every day.”

So, when Coleman called Walker for advice about the next step in his coaching career amid interest from Kentucky, his former employer Illinois and others, Walker knew he had to shoot straight.

Antoine Walker of Kentucky began the sideline celebration as the seconds wound down in their victory over Wake Forest. 1996

“It was tough because obviously my love is for the school and my love is for him, so the first thing when he called me was, I wanted him to be happy,” Walker said. “I wanted him and his wife and his daughter to be happy. I wanted the best for them. He thought this would be a great opportunity. I blessed it. I wanted him to be a part of it.

“I just told him ‘Don’t get me wrong, the University of Illinois is a great school, but coming to Kentucky is something different. Being a part of Big Blue Nation and the culture and everything at Kentucky is going to be different.’”

A year older than Walker, Coleman graduate from South Shore High School in Chicago in 1992 and enrolled at Weber State. He transferred to Lamar for his second season as Walker, who graduated from Mount Carmel in Chicago, began his college career at Kentucky.

The Boston Celtics drafted Walker with the No. 6 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Coleman finished his collegiate career 10th on the Lamar career scoring list in 1997.

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While Coleman never joined Walker in the NBA, he did enjoy a seven-year professional career that included stops in Finland and Latvia.

“Even though he may have not played at the highest level, he could have,” Walker said. “He was a big-time high school player in the city of Chicago. He had a very good collegiate career. He played pro for a couple years too. He knows how the game is. He understands it from a coach’s perspective as well as a player’s perspective.

“…My first 8-9 years in the league, that was one of my workout buddies. That was a guy I played pickup ball with every day. I think his on-the-court development on top of the recruiting makes him a little bit different than most assistant coaches.”

Walker’s former Kentucky teammate and fellow Chicago native Nazr Mohammed met Coleman around the time of UK’s 1996 championship season. Mohammed, who spent 18 seasons in the NBA and now works in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s front office, missed a call from Coleman in the days leading up to Coleman joining John Calipari’s staff, so he did not learn the news until he saw it on Instagram.

Former University of Kentucky basketball player Nazr Mohammed was honored during the team’s tipoff luncheon, in Louisville. Oct. 31, 2017.

Mohammed quickly texted a screenshot of the post to Coleman, who confirmed he was joining Big Blue Nation.

“I know how important this is to him as far as what Kentucky means,” Mohammed said. “He’s been around it through me and Antoine. He knows just being in the game … the caliber and the history of Kentucky. Getting a chance to add a friend to that inner circle is kind of special to me.”

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After his playing career ended, Coleman started his coaching career in the high school ranks in Chicago. He coached Chicago-area AAU power Mac Irvin Fire from 2005 to 2011 before jumping to the college ranks as an assistant coach for Tim Miles at Colorado State.

Coleman made stops at Nebraska, Bradley and Illinois-Chicago before moving to Illinois in 2017. There, he worked with former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua.

When Calipari decided to shakeup his staff in the wake of a 9-16 2020-21 season, he quickly pursued a reunion with Antigua, a key figure in the program’s early success during Calipari’s tenure, but did not stop his raid of the Illinois staff there. While Coleman said he and Antigua were not a package deal, he acknowledged Antigua’s familiarity with Kentucky was a helpful resource while he weighed multiple offers this offseason.

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood, left, and assistant coach Ron Coleman react on the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.

“I’m truly living a dream,” Coleman said. “I’ve done it from the bottom all the way to the top, literally. Literally, I’m at the pinnacle, I’m at the top of the mountain in terms of being a coach at the University of Kentucky. I needed every step of the way.”

The energy and work ethic that spurred Coleman’s ascent up the coaching ladder was evident when Walker and Mohammed first met him more than 20 years ago.

Both expressed confidence that the partnership between Coleman and Kentucky will allow his reputation as an elite recruiter to blossom even more, but the friends cautioned that Coleman should not be typecast as a recruiter alone.

“We argue and talk and disagree – we do it every day – about basketball and about talent from every level,” Walker said. “So, I know his developmental skills and how he’s going to be able to develop a player on the court is getting better and better. I think that’s what he’s going to separate himself from most guys that come in.”

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Antigua left Kentucky in 2014 for a head coaching position at South Florida. Walker and Mohammed think Coleman could enjoy a similar rise after studying under Calipari at Kentucky.

Before then, they expect Big Blue Nation to reap the rewards of their friend’s varied talents.

“I think he’s going to shine," Mohammed said. "...There was nothing I really needed to tell him. He knows it all. I told him, come do what you have to do. It was a rough year this year. Time for you to contribute and help Coach Cal help us have a nice bounce back.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ