Mark Story: Pacers interim coach has UK roots
Pacers coach was 'basketball junkie' and Mills' roommate at UK
Mark Story / Herald-Leader Sports Columnist
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Cameron Mills learned the hard way. When you are a college student and do not pre-select your roommate, you risk living with some rather eccentric behavior.
How would you feel if you drew a roomie who insisted on watching the same movie every night?
In his sophomore year (1995-96) at the University of Kentucky, Mills roomed with a guy from New Jersey, Frank Vogel.
Mills would come in late at night from studying. Vogel would have Hoosiers on the VCR.
Then a UK guard, Mills would return to the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge from a date. Vogel might already be in bed, sometimes was even asleep; either way, Hoosiers would be playing on the TV.
On those occasions when the two roomies were turning in at the same time, it didn't matter. At lights out, Vogel would flip on Hoosiers.
"Maybe it wasn't every night," Mills said, laughing, Monday. "But it was at least five nights out of seven. Every week. I'd be lying if I said it didn't get old."
When it comes to the NBA playoffs, University of Kentucky basketball fans have become used to having a parochial rooting interest. Once again this spring, former UK guard Rajon Rondo seems to be turning up his performance several notches for the Boston Celtics now that the games carry championship significance.
What few people in the commonwealth might realize is that an NBA head coach whose team has been one of the pleasant surprises of the playoffs is also a UK man.
The Frank Vogel whose Indiana Pacers are giving the overall top-seed Chicago Bulls fits is the same Frank Vogel who, during his days as a Kentucky basketball student manager, gave Cameron Mills wall-to-wall Hoosiers.
Vogel was an unexceptional Division III point guard at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., with aspirations of being a medical doctor when he decided that coaching basketball was his life's passion and that the mentor that could best turn that enthusiasm into a career was Rick Pitino.
Problem being, Pitino had no clue who he was.
Following a brief introduction to Pitino at the famed Five-Star Basketball Camp, Vogel transferred to UK and jawboned his way into a position as a student manager.
"He was a gym rat," Mills said of Vogel "Well, more accurately, he was just a basketball junkie. He could not get enough of basketball. He lived it."
In the year they roomed together, Mills said, Vogel had all the duties of a team manager. When Pitino and Co. bought a state-of-the-art video-editing system for Kentucky basketball, Vogel taught himself how to master it and thus became the coaching staff's de facto "film guy." If that wasn't enough, he was also the point guard on Pitino's JV basketball team.
"He had to go to class, too," Mills said. "I used to wonder how he found the time to sleep."
After Vogel graduated from UK with a biology degree, Pitino hired him into a video-coordinator position. When the coach left Kentucky in 1997 for the Boston Celtics, he took Vogel with him.
When Pitino's Boston tenure ended, he was replaced as Celts head man by his former UK assistant Jim O'Brien. Vogel was promoted to Celtics assistant coach by O'Brien and also served as an aide to O'Brien when he was head coach of the 76ers and the Pacers.
This Jan. 30, with Indiana struggling at 17-27, O'Brien was fired by Pacers executive Larry Bird, and Vogel was promoted, on an interim basis, to replace him.
With the 37-year-old Vogel in charge, Indiana finished the regular season 20-18 and snuck into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference No. 8 seed. In the post-season, it was widely expected that Chicago would obliterate the Pacers.
Instead, the first four games have all gone down to the final two minutes, though Indiana has only a Game 4 victory to show for its plucky performance.
Still, the Pacers have looked like a team on the rise. Question is, will it be enough to earn Vogel the full-time Indiana head-coaching gig?
Mills said watching his former college roomie lead the Pacers in the 2011 playoffs has become "like watching Kentucky in the Final Four. I'm so nervous I don't want to watch, but I can't not watch. There's nothing I want more than for (Indiana) to do well enough that they take the interim off Frank's job."
Following their college days, Mills said, he and Vogel eventually lost contact. Then last basketball season, "Frank called me out of the blue. We've stayed in regular touch ever since."
This season, even after Vogel became Indiana's interim coach, Mills said, the two text "at least every other day."
Before the NBA regular season ended, Mills and a group of former UK basketball managers who had worked with Vogel journeyed to Indianapolis to see the Pacers play the Pistons.
The ex-UK shooting guard said there "were a lot of Frank Vogel stories told that night."
Hard to imagine many were better than that of the former college roommate that Vogel made watch Hoosiers every night.
"You can't be involved in basketball and not get the appeal of the movie Hoosiers," Mills said. "But it always spoke to Frank on a higher level. He wanted to go to sleep every night watching that."
Right now, the former Kentucky Wildcats basketball manager has a pretty good real-life version of his favorite movie going.