EL PASO, Texas — Dribble, swish, slam, fly and dunk. That describes Randy Culpepper —Conference USA’s 2010 Player of the Year.
Although the junior shooting guard at the University of Texas at El Paso didn’t start out wanting to play basketball, Culpepper has turned into one of the best players ever to don a Miner uniform. That is a great accomplishment in itself since an array of great talent has played at the school, including Nate Archibald, Bobby Joe Hill and Tim Hardaway.
Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., Culpepper originally started training as a gymnast long before touching a basketball. When he turned 10, he began playing organized basketball for a youth-league team named the Caperville Magics.
“At first basketball wasn’t my main focus. It was gymnastics until my brother put a ball in my hand,” Culpepper said.
Gymnastics and to a lesser extent basketball were the focus of young Culpepper’s childhood and the basketball world might have lost this spectacular player had he decided to choose only gymnastics. He did give up basketball for a while.
“It was kind of fun at first, but when I was little my main focus was on gymnastics and I stopped playing basketball for while, but I did start playing again” Culpepper said.
Ultimately basketball would win the battle when Culpepper began playing on the same team with his older brother.
“I started playing basketball with my big brother on the same team and it was fun playing with my big brother, the one who put the ball in my hand. He inspired me to keep doing what I was doing, which was playing basketball,” Culpepper said.
Height has always been an issue for Culpepper, his fans and his coaches, but only until he starts to play and they see him fly and dunk. Culpepper’s aerial rim attack appeared on ESPN’s Top 10 plays at least three times this season. But people don’t know that Culpepper started dunking in middle school. He would dunk running off the walls although he wouldn’t get his first true dunk until high school.
“My actual first dunk was my 10th grade year in High School. We were up probably by forty points and I was like ‘Hey we have a fast break I’m gonna go for it.’ I had gotten the steal and went up for a dunk and I’ve just been dunking ever since,” said Culpepper.
All his quickness and dunking got the scouts and coaches looking at him for a try at the college game. One of them was former UTEP coach Tony Barbee. Barbee had to work his magic because at the time Culpepper hadn’t even heard of UTEP.
“When coach Barbee came in and recruited me and told me about UTEP, I actually had thought that UTEP stood for the University of Temple. I don’t know why I thought that, I just did,” he said.
After hearing about UTEP’s history on the court Culpepper changed his mind about UTEP. “He told me the school was the University of Texas at El Paso; he told me of the 1966 Texas Western team and what they did and what they accomplished,” said Culpepper.
With that Culpepper was sold on coming to El Paso.
Fast forward two seasons under Coach Barbee. Culpepper inherited the leadership of the team. He was now the star, the main guy. Along with Julyan Stone and Isaac Gordon they formed the tri-captainship of the team. Their job was to push the squad to the limit.
High expectations funneled around this team and transfer forward Derrick Character brought the finishing piece to the puzzle.
“When we started the season, we set our goals. Our goals were to win Conference USA, the conference tournament and of course make it to the NCAA tournament,” said Culpepper.
Little did they know that they would end the regular season on a 14-game winning streak and become the first Miner team in 18 years to be ranked in the AP Top 25.
“As far as getting ranked, we had no idea it was going to happen. We’re a mid-major school and we don’t usually get the respect,” Culpepper said.
The Miners and Culpepper achieved their goal of getting to the NCAA tournament receiving a 12th seed and would have to face eventual National Champion runner-up number five seeded Butler Bulldogs. The Miners had all the momentum going into halftime and looked to be on their way to maybe advancing to the second round, but they lost.
Culpepper explained the loss this way:
“What happened was when we went into the locker room we went in thinking the game was over but we failed to realize that there were twenty more minutes of basketball left and unfortunately we came out playing not normally how we usually do and it came back and bit us,” said Culpepper. “There were rumors going around that at half time we were going after each other or at Coach Barbee. We knew he was about to be leaving, but that wasn’t the case for us losing. We were up six points at half.”
Coach Barbee would ultimately leave the Miner’s, but UTEP was able to lure former assistant coach Tim Floyd to coach the team. Floyd coached here under the late Don Haskins and Culpepper said he is excited to have him here.
“He has an outstanding resume. He’s coached in the NBA with New Orleans and Chicago and in college with USC. It was a shock to us, Barbee leaving, but it’s a business. Everyone, all the guys, like Tim Floyd. I think he’s the one who can take us to the next level,” said Culpepper.
Culpepper said he values his college education. If he doesn’t go pro, he still has an education to fall back on. “My mom and family always told me to get my degree and use basketball and not to let it use me. Get the free education while you can, they told me, and I always took that to heart,” he said.
That means Miner fans have one more year of Culpepper’s crowd-pleasing dynamic dunks.