McIntosh’s March legend Sheppard looks back

Before he went on to win Final Four Most Outstanding Player for the University of Kentucky in 1998, and even before he put McIntosh High basketball on the map, Jeff Sheppard honed his skills on the courts at the Braelinn Recreation Center in Peachtree City.

by Rob Grubbs

It is always interesting to explore the DNA of a dream and see how far reaching it can be. This weekend, the North Laurel High School Jaguars from London, Kentucky traveled to Barbourville, Kentucky to face Knox Central High, while the NAIA 3rd-ranked Campbellsville University Lady Tigers prepare for a matchup against 12th-ranked Shawnee State. While those might not be significant to the local sports in Fayette County, participants in those games, Reed and Madison Sheppard, can trace a part their basketball heritage back to the outdoor basketball courts at the Braelinn Recreation Center behind Oak Grove Elementary School in Peachtree City, where their dad, Jeff, learned the game.

Jeff Sheppard graduated from McIntosh High in 1993, where he was a four-year starter on the basketball team for Head Coach Steve Hale.

He first documented his dream when he was in elementary school in Athens, Georgia.

“I wanted to play professional basketball for the Boston Celtics, but first, I wanted to play in the Final Four at the University of Kentucky,” he shared in a story that he has told many times.

His family moved to Peachtree City when he was in the 7th grade, and he began to build his legacy as a McIntosh Chief. After breaking his collar bone and missing the eighth-grade middle school season, he showed up ready to compete and to lead. His time on the outdoor courts at the rec center served him well.

“We didn’t have an indoor facility to play, so we just met there every day and we played basketball,” Hale said at Jeff’s induction to the McIntosh High School Hall of Fame. “In the summer workouts, we knew we had something special.”

The Chiefs finished Sheppard’s freshman season 13-11, the first winning season in school history.

Jeff singlehandedly changed the culture of McIntosh basketball. He brought intensity to every practice and fundamental drill. All of this was not lost on a player a couple of year his junior, Jason Eisele, who graduated from McIntosh in 1995. Eisele has been the head coach of the McIntosh boys basketball team for the past 19 seasons and has vivid memories of those practices.

“He changed the culture of the program. He was that good and he worked that hard, and if you didn’t bring your best game every day, you would end up leaving embarrassed,” said Eisele. “No matter how early you got to the gym, Jeff was already there shooting jump shots.”

Many of Jeff’s games at McIntosh were legendary and are still talked about with reverence. He scored 31 points against 5th-ranked LaGrange as a sophomore. As a junior, he scored 18 in the first half against Morrow, and those are just the tip of the iceberg. He averaged 27 points per game as a senior and earned Mr. Georgia Basketball honors as the state’s best player.

Among all the accolades, he was always one to put team first. From that standpoint, the Chiefs overall record during his four-year career was 78-25, quite an improvement over their 21-46 before he brought the new-found work ethic.

His high school basketball career ended in a very Sheppard-like manner. After he fouled out in his last game against the 2nd-ranked Griffin Bears in a hostile environment, he immediately went to the Griffin bench and shook hands with Bear head coach James Martin. Sheppard was synonymous with sportsmanship, even in defeat.

At Kentucky, the Wildcats had just recovered from NCAA sanctions, and in 1993, Coach Rick Pitino was returning them to prominence. Sheppard committed with the Wildcats after a successful visit to their campus in October 1992 and several follow- up visits to Peachtree City by Pitino. Before leaving for Lexington, he left one last mark at McIntosh, he won the state championship in the high jump with a 7-foot jump.

Jeff Slonaker was the top assistant under Georgia Coach Hugh Durham at the time, and the Dogs made a serious run for Sheppard.

“We had a top recruiting class the year before with Carlos Strong, Pertha Robinson, and Shandon Anderson. We thought Jeff would be the key ingredient, but once Coach Pitino went after him, we knew he would go there,” remembered Slonaker. “About two weeks after he signed, I stopped by McIntosh High School around 6 a.m. to see if was there and congratulate him. Sure enough, he was all by himself in the gym working out. The kid had a key to the school.”

Just as he dreamed, he participated in not just one, but two Final Fours for the Wildcats and won two National Championships. In 1996, he played seven minutes and scored 2 points in their 76-67 win over Syracuse.

In November of 1992, Sheppard, with his parents Ralph and Kyle, signs his Letter of Intent to play at the University of Kentucky.

Maintaining his team-first mentality, Sheppard took an unconventional route and took a redshirt for what would have been his original senior year. Loaded with talent set to take off for the NBA, he waited his turn to take the reigns, and he saved the best for last. As a senior in the 1998 Final Four, he was named Most Outstanding Player as the Wildcats beat Utah 78-69. His performance earned him an honor very few received, when he graced the cover of a video game, when he was featured for “Fox Sports College Hoops ’99.”

It was a long way from the Alamo Dome in San Antonio where they cut down the nets to the courts in Peachtree City, but that’s the greatest thing about a dream, the only constraints are those you put on yourself. Distance is never a factor.

While he never got to play for the Celtics, he did spend one season with the Atlanta Hawks under Hall of Fame Head Coach Lenny Wilkens. On April 5, 1999, he started alongside Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo and had a career-high 8 points and 6 rebounds against the Charlotte Hornets in a Hawks’ 77-71 victory. His career would later take him overseas to play pro in Italy before returning state-side for a brief stay with the Toronto Raptors.

Sheppard holds the net aloft after leading Kentucky to the national title in 1998, earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors in the process. (Special Photo)

Before going pro, he married the former Kentucky Lady Wildcat player Stacey Reed, and they have been involved in several business interests after basketball. Currently, Sheppard is a financial advisor with Family Wealth Group in London, Kentucky. Using his own terminology, he is now helping to dream-shape his clients retirement years through financial security.

At his induction into the McIntosh Sports Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class in October 2011, Sheppard thanked all the people that helped him with his dream, and he challenged those in attendance to always be dream-shapers. His story is one of humility, faith, family, and hard work. That’s the formula, but it all starts with a dream.

If you asked him what he thought his legacy was here in Peachtree City, he would probably not talk about the big games and the headline moments, but instead the community that supported him and encouraged him along the way. To this day, that is still special to him.

“It really meant something to me to put that uniform on and represent McIntosh High School. Even today, I think about how cool that was.”

Which brings us to a final question, do we take a personal interest in others? Do we look to invest a little of ourselves to help someone else? Jeff Sheppard’s story is not about a young man who found success after he left Fayette County, it is about a young man who was equipped while he was here to take the next step. We owe that to the next generation, to our neighbors and to ourselves to be a dream-shaper, because there are many Jeff Sheppard’s here right now. Their dreams just need a little shaping and fertilizing for the journey ahead. That is the legacy Jeff leaves here.

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