Throughout both the 2013-’14 and 2014-’15 Wisconsin men’s basketball seasons, a Nintendo 64 video game console almost always accompanied UW on its road trips. Large swaths of players would gather in someone’s hotel room for hours at a time as heated battles were conducted.
Frank Kaminsky often played as Kirby. And according to redshirt senior forward Aaron Moesch, he was just as likely to jump up and down in excitement as he was to throw a remote control in disgust. Redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ, then a redshirt player during Kaminsky’s senior season, recalls Kaminsky as being “just average” at the game.
That was almost the only thing Kaminsky was average at over his last two seasons in Madison.
Thursday night when the Badgers host Purdue, Kaminsky’s No. 44 jersey will get raised to the Kohl Center rafters. The only other men’s basketball number honored by UW is the No. 8 jersey worn by Albert “Ab” Nicholas, a two-time All Big Ten player in the 1950s and, later, a prominent booster.
But, for all of Kaminsky’s antics — and there were a lot of them — his work ethic and desire to be great are arguably more important parts of his Wisconsin legacy.
“He got tired of not being good enough,” head coach Greg Gard said when reflecting on what changed between Kaminsky’s sophomore and junior seasons. “He made a commitment to being great. He wanted to be great.”
Kaminsky got cut from his AAU roster at age 15, and when he was a sophomore in high school he could barely get off his team’s bench.
Assistant coach Howard Moore was the first Wisconsin coach to watch the future Naismith Award winner. In the summer before Kaminsky’s junior year of high school, Moore traveled to watch Kaminsky’s AAU program, the Illinois Wolves. He was in attendance, not to scout the future Badger big man, but instead, to see future Illinois Fighting Illini center Nnanna Egwu play. Moore, however, became enamored by Kaminsky over the course of his junior season, especially after his performance in the high school state tournament.
The Lisle, Ill., native remained a lowly three-star recruit and Moore convinced then-head coach Bo Ryan to offer the big man who looked as if he had never lifted a weight in his life a scholarship to play at the University of Wisconsin.
“All we talked about was his possible development,” Moore said.
When he arrived on campus in the fall of 2011, few could have predicted that Kaminsky would go on to become one of the best players in the program’s history. He averaged only 1.8 points as a freshman and as he sported goggles and a headband during his sophomore season, Kaminsky averaged a pedestrian 4.2 points per game.
Moore, who left the Badgers before Kaminsky’s freshman year to coach at University of Illinois-Chicago, occasionally texted the big man and gave him words of encouragement throughout his first two seasons.
Happ remembers that during Kaminsky’s sophomore year, Ryan would often tell Kaminsky, “Frank, don’t shoot the ball unless there’s a second left on the shot clock.” But, by his senior year, Kaminsky shot 41.6 percent from 3-point range.
It was between his sophomore and junior seasons that Kaminsky attacked the weight room and worked non-stop on his dribbling skills, shooting and post play. Gard said he returned to campus that fall like a “different person” with a “different mentality.”
“I was a frail kid with lofty dreams who wanted to achieve something great,” Kaminsky wrote on his personal blog just before the NBA draft.
Early confidence-building moments in Wisconsin’s preseason trip to Canada and a program record 43-point performance against the University of North Dakota helped set the stage for Kaminsky’s junior season. That year, he averaged 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds and played nearly three times as many minutes per game.
All the while, as he eventually upped his scoring average to 18.1 points in his senior year, the goofy, sleepy-faced forward’s personality started to come out. As his stardom grew, Kaminsky became more comfortable in his own skin and his off-the-court persona started to take shape.
Over the next two seasons, Kaminsky interviewed Will Ferrell and posed in front of a real military tank for a magazine cover shoot.
He led a dance party to Kesha’s “Die Young” in the locker room after beating Michigan in 2013 and flashed the Dirty Dub on a summer day with Scott Van Pelt at Dotty Dumplings.
Happ remembers Kaminsky once being so upset at himself for not making shots in an open-gym session that he cursed himself out and punted the basketball in the stands. Kaminsky went into the stands to retrieve it, but when he got the ball, he plopped down in the seats because he didn’t want to play anymore.
“I was like, ‘woah, this guy is nuts,’” Happ recalled.
Kaminsky wore a GoPro throughout his senior season, including out of the tunnel on senior night. And he caught confetti like they were snowflakes after Wisconsin defeated Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten Championship.
He pitched a sitcom, “It’s Never Sunny in Milwaukee,” after an NCAA Tournament win in the aforementioned city. He started his own blog, played FIFA with an ESPN reporter and, most importantly, led Wisconsin to its first NCAA Title Game since 1941.
Frank the Tank. The Moose. Sleepy-Faced Assassin. Kaminsky cycled through nicknames and dominated opponents.
“He’s obviously a poster child in terms of a player putting in so much time and such a commitment to develop, to make himself who he was, and is,” Gard said.
Thursday night, almost all of Wisconsin’s 2014-’15 Final Four team is expected to be in attendance for Kaminsky’s jersey retirement. Former Badger Vitto Brown alerted Happ that he’s going to bring the Nintendo 64 with him when he returns to Madison.
And while Kaminsky might be average for one night when playing as Kirby, on the court and off of it, Frank the Tank was anything but.