One minute at a time: Lammi sees floor for UConn HuskiesFormer Windjammer 'enjoying the ride' with Division I program
Storrs, Conn. — One minute at a time, former Camden Hills Regional High School standout-athlete Kiefer Lammi is making a difference on the basketball court.
And he is doing so for one of the most storied and successful Division I basketball programs in the history of collegiate sports.
The 21-year-old Lammi, a Camden native, is a member of the University of Connecticut men's basketball team this season. The Huskies currently are 18-7 on the heels of a 73-66 overtime win over Cincinnati Feb. 21 and would have been eying an at-large bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, but are ineligible for tournament play this season.
Lammi's story is indeed an extraordinary one. A story that starts with him helping out as a practice player for the Huskies' women's basketball team as a sophomore and currently has him sitting on the men's team bench as a senior walk-on.
"It really is [a dream come true]," he said. "My roommates really help me stay in check about it.
"They remind me that anybody, especially kids growing up in Connecticut, would die to be in the position that I'm in. To be a part of something like this is just an unbelievable experience."
Lammi, a 2009 Camden Hills graduate, is one of four players at the far end of UConn's bench. But he has seen the floor — one minute to be exact — in a Jan. 8 victory over DePaul. Lammi was 0-of-1 shooting from the field in the game and also logged one steal.
"It was a lot of fun," he said of the experience.
The former VillageSoup athlete of the year, who played golf, basketball and baseball during his days with the Windjammers and was a pivotal piece of the Windjammer boys undefeated state Class B championship basketball team his senior year (averaging eight points, four rebounds and two assists per contest), enrolled at UConn as a freshman with plans of trying out for the golf team.
When that "didn't end up working out," he began playing a fair amount of pickup basketball at Dyer Gymnasium, the college's recreation center.
While there, he began his road toward being a member of the UConn men's basketball team.
"I played a lot of basketball at [Dyer Gymnasium] my freshman year and some of the kids I got to know were guys that practiced with the women's team and helped out with it. So by the end of my freshman year they convinced me to try that," Lammi said.
Lammi, who is an exercise science major, then began practicing with the women's basketball team four to five times a week, along with several other talented players not affiliated with the men's team.
In return, Lammi and the other players were awarded complimentary tickets to the Huskies' games along with other perks such as sneakers and warm-up gear.
Not only was Lammi practicing with the Huskies, but the practices were led by legendary women's coach Geno Auriemma, who has led Uconn to seven national championships.
Lammi said Auriemma was "honestly one of the smartest people I've ever been around" and he had a budding rapport with the coach as well.
"If we would perform well [against the women] he would say, 'We picked these guys up out of the rec and they're coming in here and beating you guys,' " said Lammi of Auriemma. " 'They don't even have plays' [he would say], and all that kind of stuff. He would use us to make fun of them and motivate them.
"He would make jokes and stuff because he appreciated the fact that we helped out the girls team so much. He would never criticize us, it was always on the girls, so it was enjoyable for us," Lammi said.
Lammi had planned to try out for the Huskies men's program his sophomore year as he had been being scouted by team officials, which typically frequent Dyer Gymnasium looking for potential walk-on candidates.
Due to the extensive time commitment, he opted not to try out and to instead work with the women's basketball program.
The UConn men went on to win the NCAA national championship that season.
At the start of his junior year, Lammi walked away from the women's program — and walked on with the men's team.
Not only was Lammi walking on with the defending national champs, but by the team led by legendary coach Jim Calhoun.
Talk about pressure.
Lammi said it was "intimidating" to say the least, as Calhoun "rarely, if ever, talked to the walk-ons."
"Not only was it my first year and I'm out there on a court with Division I basketball players where I never thought I'd be, but I was with a Hall-of-Fame coach," Lammi said. "The amount of respect he demands and the way he can almost will a team to want something as much as he can is unbelievable."
The following year, Lammi received word from the head manager of the men's team "sometime at the end of September or the beginning of October" that Lammi and three other walk-ons had made the team as seniors.
"We had gone through all the preseason conditioning and all the tough stuff and then they told us we were going to get to travel and suit up for the year," Lammi said.
The UConn men are now led by former NBA player Kevin Ollie, a former UConn player who is in his first year guiding the team. Ollie took over for Calhoun, who led the Huskies to three national championships.
Lammi called Ollie "one of the hardest working guys I've ever been around."
"His ability to motivate us and really make each one of us love what we do and love one another and play as hard as we can [is amazing]," Lammi said. "You can tell it comes from the way he used to play because he played 13 years in the [NBA] with almost every year being a one-year contract. He worked his butt off and he came here and he's doing the exact same thing with us."
Then, out of the blue on Jan. 8, in a home game against the Blue Demons, came Lammi's shining moment.
"In the second half [of the game] there were three walk-ons sitting at the end of the bench," Lammi said. "There was 10 minutes left and we were up 20 [points] or so and then with five minutes left we were up even a little bit more. And so we started talking to each other about whether or not we were going to get into the game.
"When [coach Ollie] came down the bench and got us, it was the most nervous I'd been since the first time I'd played in a high school game I think."
Lammi and two other walk-ons entered the game with a minute left, as did a few walk-on players for the Blue Demons, all looking to make a name for themselves.
The former Windjammer's moment in the sun started a bit rocky, but ended on a positive note.
"I had no intentions of trying to do anything with the ball except maybe take a couple dribbles and pass it off," he said. "But we got down to the offensive end and the ball had gotten swung to me on the wing and it's wide open. So a shot a three and I aired it completely.
"But we came back down on defense the next play and I got a steal, so I made up for it a little bit."
Lammi said his teammates on the bench were going wild for the three UConn walk-on players getting their long-awaited chance.
"They were loving it," he said of his teammates. "They were all standing up on the bench waiving towels around, everyone got excited when someone did something good. And then when I got the airball it was a big joke for them. It was a good time."
The good-natured camaraderie is what draws many talented hoop stars to UConn — and what brings them back.
"Last year was a unique year because of the [NBA] lockout," Lammi said. "So at the beginning of the season Kemba [Walker, a UConn alumni who plays for Charlotte Bobcats] came and trained with us for probably close to a month almost every day. And then over the time I've been here we've had guys that would stop in for a day or two [to practice]. We've seen Ray Allen, Hasheem [Thabeet's] been here, Rudy [Gay] and Kemba have both come back.
"It's an unbelievable sense of family around here. I feel really lucky to be a part [of it]."
Whether Lammi sees the court again this season remains to be seen, but he continues to plug along — one minute at a time.
"I'm enjoying the ride while it goes on," said Lammi, the son of Ray Lammi and Maude Reddy. "Honestly, the playing time is just a bonus. Everything else I get to do is just a blessing.
Courier Publications Associate Sports Director Mark Haskell can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.