Tyler Ulis rocks a fade haircut he bought at Cuts on Lime. There’s a curved, shaved line above the left temple — just like Drake, the international rap star who hangs out with coach John Calipari and writes rhymes about “Kentucky blue.”
Below the ‘cut are a pair of square, gold earrings patterned like Commonwealth racing stripes. Ulis’ left wrist is weighed down by an enormous, gold Michael Kors watch.
Surrounded by reporters and cameras, the best point guard in the country is a star at media day — and he looks the part.
Two years ago, at Marian Catholic in Chicago, his arms were clean. Now, they tell a story.
Ulis added a large left arm tattoo the night before leaving home for his freshman year in June 2014. The text is pulled directly from Proverbs 3: 5-6.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”
It’s a reminder to stay patient. In the lane. In the real world. Wherever.
Beneath that, the name “JADEN” rests above hands folded in prayer.
This one’s for the kid who wasn’t supposed to make it.
When Kelly Reed began experiencing labor pains in 2005, she brushed them off.
Ulis’ mother was only 24 weeks into her pregnancy, and she blamed the pangs on young Tyler’s basketball game.
“It went into overtime, and I was so excited,” Reed says, laughing. “I was joking, like, ‘You guys are gonna make me go into labor.’ I was having pains all the way home. The next morning I woke up, and they were just getting worse.’”
Reed was rushed from her home in Lima, Ohio, to a hospital in Toledo.
That’s where Jaden, Ulis’ stepbrother, was born prematurely.
Ulis was nine years old at the time. He stuck his hand in the incubator, and Reed still has a picture of the moment; her newborn son barely larger than her fourth-grader’s fist.
“He was the smallest baby in the NICU,” she says.
Today, Jaden does not have any complications from his birth.
Reed calls it a miracle, but still says those days were the hardest time of her life. Little Jaden spent nearly a full month in the hospital while Reed stayed across the street at the Ronald McDonald House.
Four years later, Ulis delivered a different kind of blow, one that Reed calls the “second-hardest” challenge she’s had to face in motherhood.
The summer before his freshman year, the teenager was frustrated after attending a summer basketball camp.
Lima High’s new coach made him uncomfortable, and Ulis was ready to make a change that his parents — who divorced when he was young — had been discussing for awhile.
“Tyler came home that day and said he wanted to go ahead and go to Chicago,” Reed said.
Ulis began dribbling a basketball when he was three. Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers were on television every week, and he loved to watch.
For his preschool graduation, his parents bought him a cake with a custom design: Ulis’ picture on one side. Iverson’s on the other.
“YOU’RE OUR MVP,” it read.
When Ulis was five, his father, James, moved to Illinois. He and Reed both remarried, but they were more than 200 miles apart.
That distance put Ulis in a car every summer. He’d spend three months with his dad before heading back to Lima for the school year.
As ninth grade crept closer, his parents discussed the possibility of Ulis moving northwest to boost his basketball prospects.
The final decision was heartbreaking for Reed.
“I couldn’t be selfish for him to achieve his dream,” she says. “That was four years. I had had him all those other years. If he was willing to go achieve his dreams, then I wasn’t going to stand in the way of that.”
So Ulis left, and made an immediate impression.
When Mike Taylor first saw Tyler Ulis walk into a Chicago gym, he saw a shrimp.
“He was 5-2, and didn’t weigh much over 100 pounds,” Taylor says.
The coach at Marian Catholic High School — located in Chicago Heights, roughly 45 minutes south of the United Center — had invited the soon-to-be freshman and his father, James Ulis, out to a summer league game at Brother Rice.
But Taylor was skeptical when the older Ulis popped a question every prep coach dreads.
“Do you think there’s a chance he could play on the varsity?” James asked.
The coach was hesitant.
Then he watched the shrimp play.
“Within the first five minutes he was on the floor, I had my answer,” Taylor says. “Their coach is the brother of one of the Vanderbilt coaches, and both of us looked at each other and said, ‘Boy, he’s something else.’”
Much like Iverson, size is an inevitable topic in any version of Ulis’ story. It’s what allowed him to shock the Chicago area that winter, when he routinely put up 20-point games as a freshman playing against senior guards more than a foot taller.
Fans began driving from all parts of the city to see Ulis (now 5-foot-9) play after he hung 37 on St. Viator.
“That’s kinda when everybody opened their eyes with him,” Taylor says. “That moment his freshman year, he was able to show people, ‘There’s a lot to my game.’”
Things weren’t as easy off the court, where Ulis struggled to adapt to his new situation.
“That’s a part of the story we don’t get to tell much,” James Ulis says. “I mean, he was 14 years old at the time. To leave his mom. All his childhood friends. His grandparents live in Lima, Ohio. To me, that’s a heck of an adjustment for a kid, right?
“That’s the biggest thing people didn’t realize: When they saw him on the court, he looked like nothing was wrong. But he went to a school where he didn’t know anybody. He didn’t go to grade school with any of these kids. So, there was no one in Marian that he know. So for him to do that, we knew we were taking a chance.”
The transition was aided by James’ wife, Leslye.
“There were times when Tyler would come from a game as a freshman and Leslye would be like, ‘Baby, don’t worry about it. You played your butt off. You’re trying. Let’s sit and snuggle,’” James Ulis says. “You need that.”
His birth mother, Reed, was also there when he needed her; she missed only two games during Ulis’ four years on varsity, making the eight-hour round trip to Chicago Heights more times than she can count.
The kid began to settle in.
He made friends. He got taller. Then he started getting offers.
Ulis picked up his first one — from DePaul — as a junior, and another from Iowa before the major programs began knocking down his door.
He’d always been enamored with Michigan State, where his cousin Travis Walton was a captain.
But when Kentucky coach John Calipari called, Ulis didn’t have much trouble saying “no” to the Spartans.
“Coach Cal” had already turned a pair of Chicago kids — Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis — into No. 1 overall picks, so Ulis decided to join a class that featured fellow 5-star athletes Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker.
Now, those three are already wearing NBA uniforms, while their former point guard prepares for another season in Lexington.
Ulis’ left biceps features the Chicago skyline, complete with “CHICAGO” underneath — perhaps so he doesn’t need to explain it to anyone when he flexes.
A long list of modern Windy City stars includes Mark Aguirre, Anthony Davis, Michael Finley, Kevin Garnett, Tim Hardaway, Doc Rivers, Derrick Rose, Isiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Antoine Walker.
There are several other guys who have played heavy minutes in the NBA Finals, and a group of “old timers” who have Hall of Fame plaques.
There’s also a crop of recent prep stars Ulis competed against from 2010-14: Jabari Parker. Jahlil Okafor. Cliff Alexander. Frank Kaminsky.
All of those players are in the NBA now.
“People that ain’t played in Chicago or New York or L.A. don’t understand what basketball games are like in the city,” James Ulis says. “The crowds are crazy.”
His kid went through the ringer.
As coach Taylor puts it, teams didn’t just show up to play Marian Catholic. They showed up to knock his point guard down a peg.
“It was just everybody playing Tyler Ulis,” Taylor says.
But there’s a reason Ulis was able to overcome his small stature and dominate one of the country’s toughest basketball circuits: He was a step ahead of everyone else.
“For two years, Tyler and I got up at 5:30 in the morning and went to the local rec,” James Ulis says. “He worked out before school. He worked out after school. When kids were at movies. Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
There was also a God-given athletic ability that made him special. As an 8-year-old in Lima, he outran 12-year-olds to win several AAU track championships, including a 400 time of just more than 70 seconds.
But his key attribute, as James Ulis says, has always been “above his shoulders.”
In third grade, he would direct teammates around the floor on every possession. He was a master at getting the defense off-balance with misdirection before he was tall enough to ride roller coasters at Six Flags. When he stepped in that gym at Brother Rice in 2010, there was little question he was Marian Catholic’s smartest player.
“So many people are enamored with ‘athletes’ today, that oftentimes, they forget what a basketball player looks like,” Taylor says.
The University of Kentucky has developed a reputation as a “one-and-done” stop.
Since Calipari arrived in 2009, he’s placed an emphasis on sending his players to the NBA once they’re ready. For many prospects, that means one season in a Wildcats uniform before hitting the draft lottery.
When Cal recruited Ulis, there wasn’t any talk of a graduation plan.
“He told me when I first got here, he didn’t want me here all four years,” Ulis says. “If I thought that, then don’t come. He’s trying to make my dreams come true.”
Before this season, the message became even clearer: Ulis won’t be in Lexington much longer.
“My thing isn’t hey, you need another year,” Calipari says. “If he needs another year, we’re here for him, but I don’t see how much he can change from what he’s being able to do now. His decision making, can that be better than it is? I mean, he is what he is and he’s really good. He is our best player — and it ain’t close.”
When current Sacramento Kings star DeMarcus Cousins was in town for an exhibition game this October, he had a talk with Ulis about his vocal presence, using Kings teammate Isaiah Thomas — who’s 5-foot-9 — as an example.
“He’s the smallest guy on the court, but talks like he’s the biggest guy on the court,” Ulis says. “So I took that into consideration.”
Truth be told, Ulis doesn’t need much improvement when it comes to leadership.
He operates as an extension of Calipari, and the respect his teammates have for him is unparalleled at Kentucky.
“I’ve never played with a point guard like this,” 5-star freshman phenom Skal Labissiere says. “I think it’s rare. He’s the one guy at practice — whenever he talks, everybody listens to him. He’s shown so far that he can be a great leader of this team.”
Keep in mind: Ulis is still 19 years old, and he’s the unquestioned leader of perhaps the best college basketball squad in America.
Calipari calls that pressure “unfair,” but his star disagrees.
“He’s not asking me to lead the country,” Ulis says. “He’s just asking me to run a basketball team. It’s really not that hard. I just have to come out, you know, and try to lead us to wins.”
Last year, Kentucky became the first team in NCAA history to begin a season 38-0, but the ‘Cats lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four while Ulis (six points and one assist) sat on the bench during critical minutes.
Seven players from that group went to the NBA, while a whole new crop of 5-star freshmen (including Labissiere and Ulis’ fellow starting guards, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe) has taken the court.
They’ll probably all be drafted higher than Ulis next June.
“Even I know I’m not the best NBA prospect because I’m five-foot tall,” he says with a smile. “Skal’s seven feet. C’mon. He’s potentially the No. 1 pick. So I understand that. But at the end of the day, I know how to play, and I’m just gonna go out there and show what I can do.”
There’s a large mural-like tattoo on Ulis’ right arm tat that reads, “A love I can’t explain.”
A basketball rests underneath those words, supporting them. An angel prays below the text. Heavenly beams of light shoot in all directions.
Fans see it — and most of his other ink — every time he slips on his No. 3 jersey.
But few see his most important tattoo, which hides on his chest. That one features two faces: his moms, Kelly Reed and Leslye Ulis.
They symbolize his transition from Lima, Ohio, to Chicago.
“That’s permanent,” Reed says. “So you can never get rid of that. I think it just shows how much influence he feels we’ve had on his life.”
Reed still makes it to almost every one of Ulis’ games. Her “miracle,” Jaden, often tags along. He has a special bond with Ulis that has existed since they met each other in the Toledo NICU a decade ago.
“The same way Tyler is with his team, he’s always been very protective to people he’s close to,” Reed says. “And that’s the way he was with Jaden.”
Ulis’ younger stepbrother has always called him “bruh bruh.”
Until recently, Jaden didn’t realize that Ulis was a well-known athlete outside of the Reed home.
“One day he was on the computer, and he pulled up Tyler’s name, and all these pictures popped up,” Reed says. “He was like, ‘Oh. I guess bruh-bruh really is famous.’”
Jaden prefers drawing over basketball. But he’ll always talk Kentucky when Ulis comes home.
“Whenever he’s around,” Reed says, “he wants to be in his presence.”
Get in line, kid.
Last year, when Kentucky played in nearby Dayton, Ulis’ family made t-shirts to commemorate the occasion.
Reed estimates half the city bought t-shirts, while complete strangers approached her to give their support.
“It does a lot for our community,” Reed says. “To see him succeeding and be on one of the biggest stages of college basketball. This whole community is really excited, and they show a lot of support for him.”
Chicago might have the legendary rivalries and the Hall of Fame members. But Lima lays partial claim to Tyler Ulis.
“He kind of helped put Lima on the map,” Reed says.
And vice versa.
But he didn’t become a star until he lit up Chicago.
“He played in front of packed houses,” James Ulis says. “Great games. Competitive games. Tyler loved that type of atmosphere.”
The 19-year-old is now one step away from realizing his dream: Playing in the same league that Allen Iverson used to dominate.
If his Kentucky teammates felt inclined to bake him a cake for his 20th birthday in early January, it might read something similar to the one his mother and father ordered when he was a toddler: “YOU’RE OUR MVP.”
At Kentucky’s media day, Ulis is asked a question sophomores rarely get asked.
Is this your team?
“Yeah,” he says, “I would say so.”
No. 2 Kentucky takes on No. 5 Duke at United Center (Chicago, Ill.) in Tuesday night’s Champions Classic. The teams tip off at 7:30 pm ET before No. 4 Kansas faces No. 13 Michigan State at 10 pm ET. Both games are on ESPN.