LEXINGTON, Ky. — "It's Kentucky basketball," the Kentucky Basketball Facts Book says with pride. "Not just basketball -- Kentucky Basketball basketball."
It is a special place for basketball, at a university that has won more games (1,453) than any other university in history -- at a 75 percent clip. The names roll off -- Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Cliff Hagan, Louie Dampier, Dan Issel, Jack Givens, Kyle Macy. National championships in 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958 and 1978.
And it's in trouble -- again -- with the NCAA, which began an investigation after an 8x10-inch cardboard delivery package being sent to a Kentucky recruit came apart at the seams.
Under this cloud, what was already a bad month in Lexington got worse last Friday. The team's standout sophomore guard, Rex Chapman, announced he was going into the NBA draft. He insisted that the investigation had little to do with his decision. But regardless of Chapman's motivation, losing the state's young idol is a horrific blow at the worst possible time.
The central character in this latest case is Chris Mills, a do-everything player from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles who signed with Kentucky last November. The 6-foot-7 Mills averaged 30.5 points and 14.4 rebounds a game as a senior, and was averaging 37 points until an ankle injury late in the season hampered him.
The centerpiece is an overnight air-delivery package -- specifically, Emery Air Freight Corporation Air Waybill No. 043365177, a package that once again has thrust the University of Kentucky under a harsh light.
The package was mailed March 30 from the athletic department at Memorial Coliseum. After a flight from Dayton, Ohio (the superhub of the Emery company), it arrived at the Los Angeles Emery center, a warehouse a few blocks from Los Angeles International Airport. The addressee was Claud Mills, Chris Mills' father and his biggest booster; the return address bore the name of Dwane Casey, an assistant coach at Kentucky.
The package came open between 7 and 7:30 a.m., while being handled by Emery employees. In the package was a videotape.
In the videotape jacket were 20 $50 bills.
If Casey sent the money, the $1,000 would constitute an improper inducement to an athlete, a violation of NCAA rules.
Casey, who played for Kentucky under Joe B. Hall and who's been an assistant coach since April 1986, emphatically denied there was money in the envelope when he sent it. But he hasn't elaborated on the subject since the denial. The package was resealed and sent to the Millses; Chris Mills signed for it, but said it contained no money.
Though few in the Bluegrass State seem to believe Casey put money in the envelope, many accept the idea that someone did. Some boosters even advance the theory that jealous UCLA supporters put it there to embarrass Kentucky. It is left to NCAA investigators to sort it out.
Mills is one of those special talents. The type of player who gets his jersey retired. The type of multihonor player (a first-team all-America for Parade, USA Today and Converse, Naismith player of the year in California) that makes college coaches think about traversing the road to the Final Four. In style.
"I haven't seen a freshman do the things I hope he can do next year," said his high-school coach, Harvey Kitani. "You had the kid (Temple freshman Mark) Macon with his scoring, but I don't think there's anyone who's capable of doing all of the all-around things that Chris is."
He averaged 28.3 points a game his junior year and was named Los Angeles City 4A player of the year. The recruiting struggle was fierce. Nevada-Las Vegas thought it had the inside track initially. But after Mills scored 30 points in an all-star tournament in Lexington last summer, things changed.
He narrowed his list to five schools: UNLV, UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana and Syracuse. Unlike other recent blue-chip recruits, who prefer to have recruiters deal with their coach, Mills and his father were contacted directly at home.
"We thought we had him up until 10 days before letter of intent," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "The last 10 days, we felt he wasn't as warm when he talked with us on the phone. But up until the day before the letter of intent, we thought we had a shot. His father kept telling us he was going to come here."
During the final week before letters of intent were signed, Kitani said, "He was getting tired. I could see the strain on his face."
Mills signed a national letter of intent with the Wildcats Nov. 11. That same month, he began driving a white 1984 Datsun 300ZX. The NCAA inquired, and Claud Mills said he paid cash for the used car (between $6,000 and $7,000) with some of the $24,000 he received in workmen's compensation for a back injury suffered in 1986. In addition, Claud Mills says he received $10,000 for the settlement of a claim from an auto accident in 1987.
State records, the Los Angeles Daily News noted, verify Claud Mills' claim. And the NCAA provided the Millses with a certificate approving the purchase.