A record number of young Harlan County basketball players filled the court Thursday at Harlan County High School for the UNITE Shoot Hoops Not Drugs Basketball Camp, the last of five held around eastern Kentucky.
“It’s been the best camp we’ve ever done,” said former University of Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard,” who led the camp. “We’ve been doing this nine years, and this is the biggest turnout and best turnout. We’re really pleased to be here in Harlan County, and it’s great to have (2014 UK senior) Jarrod Polson with us here as well. It’s been a great camp.”
Operation UNITE spokesman Dale Morton said the Harlan County camp drew 333 students, the largest in the five-year history of the program.
“The ‘E’ in UNITE stands for education. The purpose is to use basketball to bring kids together and tell them to stay away from drugs,” Sheppard said. “We believe God has a plan and a purpose for these kids’ lives, and we know that drugs intersects that and destroys lives and families.”
“I’ve been to camps with Jeff earlier in the summer, but when we told me about this camp I was very excited. Hopefully, some of the kids will learn from this,” Polson said. “I think being a former UK player gives us all a platform to help kids. I hope they will listen.”
Sheppard is a native of Georgia but has lived in London for several years after marrying former Laurel County basketball star Stacy Reed, who also played at the University of Kentucky. The Sheppards’ daughter, Madison, is a standout freshman guard at North Laurel.
“I know how big Kentucky basketball is and how important it is to this part of the state,” Sheppard said. “I live here and love it. It’s been a great ride.”
Polson felt at home in the massive HCHS gym, even though it was his first time there. Polson’s father grew up in Cumberland before moving to central Kentucky for college.
“My dad told me to take pictures,” said Polson. “He went to Cumberland, but he heard it was very nice and it is. My dad grew up here, then moved to Lexington after college, so I have tons of family, some I don’t even know.”
A native of Wilmore, Polson set the Kentucky High School Athletic Association record for free throws attempted and made in a January 2009 game during which he scored 50 points. As a high school senior, Polson led West Jessamine to the second round of the Sweet 16 state tournament and was named first team all-state.
Originally a walk-on at the University of Kentucky, the 6-foot, 2-inch point guard quickly impressed coach John Calipari, who gave him a full scholarship before his freshman year had begun.
Polson received only limited playing time during his first two seasons with the Wildcats (which included a NCAA national championship his sophomore year.
The situation changed after Calipari inserted him in for an ailing teammate during the 2012-2013 season-opening game against Maryland. A 10-point performance, key steal and clutch free throws in the waning minutes earned him accolades and solidified his spot in the rotation.
He played in all 33 games as a junior, including three double-figure scoring efforts and averaging 13.8 minutes a game.
Polson continued to provide key playing time during his final season, including nailing a crowd-pleasing 3-pointer during 19 minutes of action on Senior Night.
Over his four years with UK, Polson played in 94 games, scoring a total of 140 points with a .424 field goal percentage (.313 3-point percentage).
This past spring, the Colts retired Polson’s jersey — the first time that distinction had been awarded in school history.
Blake Polson, who played football and basketball at Harlan County High School in the first year of the school, is a second cousin of Jarrod’s. Several other family members are current or former Harlan County residents.
Playing at UK is a dream for thousands of Kentucky high school players, including Polson, who was one of the few able to live that dream.
“When I was growing up, playing at UK was kind of a fantasy,” Polson said. “The experiences were really cool and it was very exciting.”
Polson graduated with degrees in marketing and finance.
“I’m kind of in that weird stage now where I don’t really have a job. I’ve been doing camps and things like this for a while. I know at some point I can’t just show up at random places for camps and will have to find a job,” Polson said with a smile.
Operation UNITE is a regional anti-drug initiative empowering citizens groups and community leaders in 32 southern and eastern Kentucky counties. UNITE, which stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education, seeks to fight the drug epidemic by expanding drug awareness and education programs to keep people from using drugs; coordinating drug treatment and outreach programs for those who are already addicted; and operating regional undercover law enforcement task forces for interdiction and prosecution of those dealing drugs.