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Reed Sheppard captures the hearts of Kentucky fans as the entire state becomes united in support of him

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Some days, he pretended to be Rex Chapman in the 1990 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, recreating all those aerial assaults on an 8-foot goal. But most days, if grade-school Reed Sheppard was shooting on his backyard basketball hoop, he imagined that he was … himself in a Kentucky uniform. The seconds ticked down, the Wildcats needed a bucket, and the kid from London, Ky., was going to deliver.

“I’ve always been a little boy from Kentucky who wanted to play at Kentucky,” Sheppard says. “It feels like that was me just two days ago, out in the yard with my friends and my cousins, taking that last shot for Kentucky.”

Today, there are children across the state pretending to be Reed Sheppard. More specifically, Reed Sheppard on Tuesday night at Mississippi State, where the Wildcats trailed by 13 in the second half before the boy wonder turned his lifelong vision into reality. Sheppard scored 23 points in the final 13 minutes — 11 of those in the last 93 seconds — and buried a game-winning floater with a half-tick to go in Starkville. His heroics kept alive 16th-ranked Kentucky’s hopes of winning an SEC championship and stoked dreams of a deep NCAA Tournament run. He’d already put together a terrific freshman season, but this was a superstar performance: 32 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two blocks, two steals. And that boy-in-the-backyard moment.

“To hit a game-winning shot for Kentucky,” Sheppard says, “was really special for me.”

REED SHEPPARD WINS IT FOR KENTUCKY 🚨
@KentuckyMBB

During ESPN’s broadcast, Jimmy Dykes recited a biblical play on words that has been popping up on homemade signs in the Kentucky crowd this season: A Sheppard boy shall lead them. The faithful understand a simple truth, that each of the program’s eight national championship teams had a native Kentuckian among the top six scorers. That makes Sheppard, in many eyes, not only the most important player on this roster, but the most important person in the state.

Chapman knows better than anyone what that level of in-state celebrity is like. He was Sheppard almost 40 years ago: son of a well-known basketball figure, homegrown hero, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball, McDonald’s All-American, and then an instant sensation for the Wildcats. King Rex, as he came to be known across the Bluegrass State in the 1980s, understands all the adulation, expectation and pressure that comes with being basketball royalty around here. It nearly swallowed Chapman whole back then, and sometimes he can hardly believe how well Sheppard is thriving in that same circus now.

“When I ask his dad how Reed is doing, he knows I mean how is he handling all the people, the crush of all this on his shoulders,” Chapman says. “The important thing is he has a great support system. I really didn’t, and I was more immature than him at this age.

“So you do wonder how Reed does it, how he makes such an incredibly hard thing look so easy, until you remember who his parents are. Then you go, well, that makes perfect sense. He was literally born to do this.”

Jeff Sheppard, Most Outstanding Player at the 1998 Final Four, and Stacey Reed Sheppard, a two-time state champion at Laurel County High and top-10 scorer in UK women’s history, have made arguably the largest alumni contribution in the history of the school. Their 19-year-old son is straight out of central casting for Cats fans’ wildest dreams. He’s got Kentucky basketball in his actual DNA, and he plays the sort of steady, selfless, all-around game that makes John Pelphrey, a member of Rick Pitino’s “Unforgettables” in 1992, say the younger Sheppard is “a throwback guy who could’ve absolutely played with our team.”

It is exactly that ethos — he’s one of us — that made an entire state fall in love with the wunderkind even before he proved the clutch gene is hereditary.

You see, Kentucky fans “believe wholeheartedly that when a Kentucky boy wears the Kentucky jersey, that boy plays harder and it means more to him,” Jeff Sheppard says. “Whether it’s true or not can be argued, but I think the state is feeling that right now. We’re winning, we’re scoring 90 points a game, playing a style that is appealing to the eye, and there’s a Kentucky boy out there. The whole state is connected to him.”

Jimmy Mahan is a lifelong Kentucky fan and owner of Roadshow Cards, which has sports card shops in California, New York, Texas and his home base of Lexington, Ky. He recently paid $1,900 for a one-of-five autographed Reed Sheppard card, which he says he’ll never sell at any price — although that price would be absurd right now. A 1-of-25 autographed Sheppard card was going for $5,000 on eBay on Wednesday evening. Mahan says that among current college basketball players, only Iowa star Caitlin Clark and LeBron James’ son, Bronny, are hotter on the card-collecting market.

That’s nationally. Locally, his popularity is unmatched. Mahan thought he’d never seen a player so beloved as 2022 national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, “and then Reed came along right after and it’s just a whole other level.”

“I would say 90 minutes do not pass in my store that I don’t get asked if I have a Reed card or a Reed autograph,” Mahan says. “If we’re open, someone is always walking in or calling and going, ‘Got any Reed? Got any Reed? Got any Reed?’”

Mahan hosts several autograph-signing sessions for Kentucky players past and present — current Cats can finally capitalize on their celebrity, thanks to name, image and likeness rules — but his eyes widen when he imagines what a Sheppard signing would look like. He’s had preliminary conversations with Sheppard’s parents, who help manage his vast NIL opportunities.

“When does a Reed signing end? In this state? How long would it go?” says Mahan, who estimates he would pay Sheppard $3,000 an hour to sign for fans. “It would basically come down to how much money he wanted to make, because an unlimited signing might go all night.”

That level of attention could be a lot for anyone, let alone someone who was so painfully shy as a little boy that his big sister, Madison, did his talking for him. But Sheppard wanted to get comfortable interacting with fans and being a public figure — because he so vividly remembers what it was like to be the one begging Kentucky players for a picture or signature. Back home, there’s a photo of grade-school-aged Sheppard with then-UK-star Tyler Ulis, who is now helping coach him as a student assistant on John Calipari’s staff.

“I enjoy doing that for people,” Sheppard says, “because I was that fan as a kid.”

He also watched both his parents handle their local celebrity with grace and humility. He grew accustomed to total strangers fast-walking in the family’s direction at a restaurant or the grocery store and striking up a conversation like old friends. Before he knew better, young Reed would tug on Jeff’s arm and demand an introduction.

“Mind your manners!” Jeff remembers telling him. “Once they went away, I’d say, ‘Son, that’s a Kentucky fan.’ He’d say, ‘But do they know you?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, they feel like they do.’”

Stacey puts it another way.

“They want to know you,” she says. “Anything they can do or say to share a relatable moment with you, that’s what they’re looking for, and you can see the pure joy when you’re able to give that to them. Reed being from here, growing up with us, he understands what that means to people here, so it’s not an obligation or a bother. It’s a way of giving back to what he’s loved his whole life.”

When Jeff is out in public with Reed these days, fans still rush toward them — but often to talk to the younger Sheppard.

“Incredible things to say! Absolutely fantastically composed; obliged indeed, Sir!”

“They’ll say, ‘Hey, Reed!’ and I’m going, ‘How do you know them?’ and now he gets to say, ‘Dad, mind your manners. That’s a Kentucky fan.’” Jeff says. “Now I’m Reed’s dad. I’m no longer Jeff Sheppard, and that transition has been a blast.”

After home games at Rupp Arena, Reed lingers a long time in the stands, posing for pictures and signing posters…

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