By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Toward the end of West Virginia University’s disappointing men’s basketball season, he was a sad figure, this beaten-down senior who was Deniz Kilicli.
Normally gregarious and outgoing, he became somewhat withdrawn, reluctant to speak, once even walking out on one post-game interview after answering one question, saying, “I can’t find anything positive to say after all these games this year.”
At that time, he put it this way:
“It’s been rough on everybody. Personally, it’s been rough on me. I’m not healthy, you know? I’m not healthy. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat.”
Those, though, were the symptoms.
He wasn’t telling anyone that what was causing them was a diseased locker room, a team gone bad.
The results you saw on the floor during a 13-17 season were not nearly as bad as what you didn’t see.
Once it was over, as Kilicli returned to Beckley, which was where Bob Huggins found him after he had left his native Turkey to try and land at an American college, he felt free to open up, doing so to the local Beckley television station WOAY.
“Now the season is over and I can talk about this actually. I didn’t want to before,” he said.
And talk he did.
While he did not name names, he said he played with a couple of “prima donnas,” that he was playing with people who “didn’t want to win,” that practices deteriorated into shouting matches with players quitting and that players actually wound up laughing at what coach Bob Huggins had to say.
He began by talking about how spoiled he had been, how he had never had a losing season, how he had won 33 games in a row as a youth one year, then repeated it the next.
“I always played for people who were like Huggs, really serious about their wins and losses. They wanted to get better. At the same time they would get the players that had the edge, who were rough, who grew up rough. They knew what hard was,” he said.
“This year was a little different. We had a couple of prima donnas. That’s really upsetting for me.”
That, of course, had gone all season without being said, although Huggins hinted it over and over again as he grew more and more frustrated, holding players who had figured to be his better players out of games for long periods of time.
“The whole year was frustration,” Kilicli said. “If I wanted to describe the whole season it was frustration because even if you are doing good, you are going down with the ship.”
Huggins could not reach his team, according to Kilicli.
“As we moved on in the season, Huggs gets way more upset with stuff and practices started to become people yelling at each other, people quitting. It was really rough for me,” Kilicli said. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people didn’t want to win.”
In the past, Kilicli indicated, Huggins’ inspirational stories were taken to heart by the teams Kilicli played on.
“When Huggs was talking about the coal miners who wanted to watch the Final Four so much they would put TVs down in the tunnels so they could watch it at work, our eyes would tear up,” Kilicli said, referring to one of Huggins’ well-known stories. “This year, when he would talk to us and tell us a story like that, a heart-felt story, guys would make fun of it.”
It obviously got to Huggins, who could not get through to his team.
It got to Kilicli, too.
“He taught me a lot of things, but I feel embarrassed to play the way we did because the people in this state don’t deserve that. They deserve effort and a lot of times most of the kids didn’t give that,” he said.
“That is a huge character problem with a lot of the guys,” he said.
“This year we could have done better. Those guys are as talented as the guys on the Final Four team, but some of them will never be at the same level of basketball that Devin Ebanks is or KJ (Kevin Jones) is or Da’Sean (Butler) was.”
Then he made his most cutting remark, one that really carries weight.
“Anybody who likes playing basketball, I hope they never play with those guys because it takes a lot out of you,” he said.
Put another way, he would not wish them on anyone.
“To make a long story short, last year was a huge embarrassment for me, but I learned a lot of things. I put the jersey on for four years. It really makes me proud to be able to wear the jersey with West Virginia across my chest. I’m honored I was able to do that for four years,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.