Basketball players recruited from across the country soon catch the Big Blue Nation’s infectious ardor for UK basketball, but one player has loved the team since he was in diapers — literally.
Like so many little boys growing up in the Lexington area, Jarrod Polson dreamed of being a Wildcat while he was shooting hoops with his dad and older brothers.
“He always wanted to play at UK,” George Polson, Jarrod’s father, said. “That has always been his life dream.”
George Polson said his son’s passion for basketball seemed to exist “from birth.”
“We actually have videos of Jarrod shooting — not throwing, shooting — at 18 months,” he said. “I know people think I’m crazy, but I have videos of him in diapers shooting the ball — and making them. It was kind of strange.”
Now the community that watched Jarrod Polson play for church leagues, in middle school and as a Colt at West Jessamine High School gets to watch him go to the Final Four — for the second time.
Though UK promotional materials list his hometown as Nicholasville, Ky., (where West Jessamine is located), Polson hails from the small town of Wilmore, Ky.
Wilmore is a college town with two stop lights nearly 20 miles southwest of Lexington and with a population of about 6,000.
A hometown boy becoming a Wildcat is big news.
Last year his name appeared in the town’s newsletter with the words “Congratulations to the UK Wildcats and Jarrod Polson, member of Final 4 UK Team and WILMORE resident!”
“It has literally been a community deal,” George Polson said.
Jarrod Polson’s basketball skills caught the attention of many in his community long before he received the call from head coach John Calipari, letting him know he could play for his favorite team in college. West Jessamine head coach Damon Kelley arrived at the school in time for Polson’s senior year as a Colt and quickly noticed there was something special about him.
“He was one of the best players, but you would never know it talking to him,” Kelley said. “He likes to just be one of the guys. He was a superstar but there was no jealousy because of his attitude.”
His senior year, Polson set the school’s record for the most points scored, averaging 18.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds, and leading the team to the second round of the Sweet 16 state tournament.
Locals still talk about a game from the previous year, his junior year, when he scored 51 points against local powerhouse Lexington Catholic.
“I don’t think people realize how good Jarrod and the other kids on the bench are,” Kelley said. “We felt like we could do anything — because we had Jarrod.”
Calipari, too, has recognized his talent, calling him the most talented walk-on he has ever coached and awarding him a scholarship both seasons he has played.
Polson’s popularity has increased exponentially since his high school days, even though he gets less playing time. Several fan sites have cropped up, and his youthful face has become iconic to many UK devotees.
His family members, however — mother, Chrisi; older brothers, Wes and Eric; and younger sisters, Ashley and Alyse — remain his biggest fans. They have enjoyed traveling to different cities to watch him play games.
They may be his biggest fans, but being on UK’s basketball team has also given Jarrod Polson’s family opportunities for some good-natured teasing.
“He’s the resident cutie pie or something,” George Polson said.
When he learned his son would be playing for UK, he told him: “You’re going to be the first Kentucky basketball player known for your looks more than your basketball.”
His father’s words seem to have had some predictive qualities, as Polson was recently named one of Cosmopolitan magazine’s “The Hottest Guys of March Madness.”
George Polson said when he found out about his son’s ranking, “I actually laughed. No. 1, I knew Jarrod would not know what Cosmo was. We gave him some good-natured ribbing. He still doesn’t realize people know who he is.”
Ribbing aside, more than Jarrod’s looks seem to have caught him widespread attention. Polson is known as one of the team’s best students and can also play the piano by ear.
“He’s the total package,” Kelley said, noting that he couldn’t think of a single person he had ever heard say anything ill of the player. “He’s the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry.”
And many do seem to want their daughters to marry him.
“I’ve had several people stop by my business just to give me the names and numbers of their daughters and granddaughters,” George Polson said. Fans also flag him down at games and other events, insisting that their daughters “have to meet” his son.
The Polson family’s Christian faith was an important part of Polson’s upbringing, and so was UK basketball. Born into a household of UK fans, he loved watching basketball and would pretend to be his favorite UK greats.
He started playing basketball with his dad and with his brothers, two people who made their own marks on West Jessamine’s athletic programs.
“He always had to play against bigger people,” George Polson said, citing this as one reason Jarrod might feel comfortable playing with the big players he now encounters at UK.
As early as first grade, Jarrod’s father noticed his knowledge of basketball and ambidextrous ability to dribble with both hands.
“We knew he was probably going to play in college,” George Polson said. “We weren’t expecting him to be at UK.” Though Jarrod Polson expressed his desire to play for UK to his dad as a child, both he and his family knew his chances were remote.
“He knew there were astronomical odds,” George Polson said, but “as a parent, you always encourage it.”
George Polson describes the experience of getting to watch his son play for UK as “crazy as a fan, crazy as a parent.”
Kelley agreed: “It’s exciting every time to see him out there. He really wanted to play at Kentucky. That was his dream. He’s getting to live that dream every day.”
Achieving his dream hasn’t made Polson forget where he came from.
Kelley said Polson recently tweeted the West Jessamine team a good luck message before their tournament and remains popular with the team even though he is now several years past high school.
“He still comes around when he can,” Kelley said. “He’s still a part of our program.”
“He’s got a very good support system,” George Polson added. “They’re friends; they don’t see Jarrod the Wildcat, they see Jarrod the friend.”
As Polson heads to his second Final Four, his family will be traveling to New Orleans to cheer on the team and support Jarrod, whether or not he plays.
“Whether it’s a rec league, middle school or high school, you still support your child,” George Polson said.
And Kelley said his players, who are not all UK fans, cheer for all different teams, from North Carolina to Tennessee, but that they have one thing in common: “We’re all Jarrod fans.”