MEMPHIS, Tenn. — One question from a reporter on Saturday afternoon did what no UCLA defender could accomplish on Friday night in the Sweet 16: It stopped Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox in his tracks. What does it mean to know Carol Barnett is watching all this?
Fox, who hours earlier looked like an inexhaustible ball of energy as he dropped an NCAA Tournament freshman-record 39 points on the Bruins, went silent and stared at the floor.
“I had never been through something like that,” he said. “It’s just something that — something that makes you appreciate life more.”
Likewise, this story might give Wildcats fans a greater appreciation of their understated star. Carol is the mother of Seth Barnett, a former classmate of Fox’s at Cypress Lakes High School in Texas who passed away last spring. Before Seth died, Fox provided one of the most memorable moments of the teen’s life.
“I love De’Aaron for that. My whole family loves De’Aaron for that,” Carol said. “I don’t feel like every other boy that age would have the compassion for my son that he did. So I’m proud of him — we were so excited to watch him against UCLA — and I feel so honored to know him.”
Seth, confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, was born in Eastern Kentucky and moved to Texas because of his father’s job, taking with him a deep love of UK basketball. What a joyous coincidence, then, to end up in high school with a McDonald’s All-American who was being recruited by the Cats.
But Fox didn’t just befriend Seth, who often showed up at Cypress Lakes games wearing Kentucky gear. When John Calipari and assistant coach Kenny Payne flew to Texas for an in-home recruiting visit in September of 2015, there was an extra guest waiting for them at Fox’s house: Seth Barnett.
“It was a dream for Seth. It was a dream I had for Seth, to meet Coach Cal,” Carol said. “I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
It did, though, because Fox set it up and the Cats’ coaches embraced the wide-eyed young man. Everyone beamed in photos together and Seth went home with several signed pieces of UK memorabilia, including a new jersey. Calipari and Payne flew back to Lexington with a new level of respect for Fox.
“It was everything in the world for that kid to be in that home with us, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is who De’Aaron is,’” Payne said. “To be honest, it’s refreshing. In a climate where everything is geared toward me, me, me, me, to see a kid give so much to change another person’s day, month, year, life, it was inspiring.”
But good luck getting Fox to talk much about it, or about himself. He’s averaged 22.4 points over the last seven games and propelled Kentucky into Sunday’s game against North Carolina (5:05 p.m. ET, CBS) that will decide the last spot in the 2017 Final Four. There might not be a hotter player left in the NCAA Tournament — or a less boisterous star.
“He’s been that way since he was a freshman,” Cypress Lakes coach Emmanuel Olatubosun said. “He scored 50 points his third game in high school and I actually did pull him out and ask him, ‘Is this going to change you?’ He said, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to be the same person.’ And it’s weird, but he is. For all the praise De’Aaron gets, he still calls to ask about his old teammates, how our team is doing. He flew down to watch us play in the preseason. He’s not big-timing anybody.”
Friday night at halftime, when he’d already scored 15 first-half points against the potential No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft and Calipari was telling the rest of the team to give him the ball and get out of the way, Fox burst into the locker room searching for a stat sheet.
“I think I’m taking too many shots,” he said. No one else agreed.
“One of the most amazing things in the recruiting process was Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk, all the guys that we were recruiting, they all wanted to play with him,” Payne said. “It just showed that he’s a leader without trying to be a leader. It’s natural.”
Effortless even, it sometimes seems. Fox dished a dozen assists in his first college game, scored 21 points in his second and produced a triple-double in his seventh. He dominated the SEC Tournament, earning MVP honors, and threw down two hellacious dunks late in last week’s Round of 32 thriller against Wichita State.
“It hasn’t changed me at all,” Fox said. “I’m still a kid, still kind of to myself, move to the beat of my own drum. I’m still humble. People are always like, ‘Why aren’t you cocky?’ But there’s no point. I like the way my life is, so I’m going to stay who I am.”
Olatubosun talks to Fox before a lot of big games, but usually he tries not to talk basketball. Keep it light. With Friday’s showdown against Lonzo Ball looming, though, the coach couldn’t resist.
“I asked him if he was ready,” Olatubosun said. Fox was typically brief. “He just said, ‘Yes.’ That was it. OK, enough said. I’ve never seen him not perform on the biggest stage.”
Now comes the biggest one yet. Top-seeded North Carolina is the only obstacle left between Fox and the Final Four. Carol Barnett will be watching Sunday, and she hopes Seth will be, too.
“He would have been so proud of De’Aaron,” she said.