DALLAS -- Here’s the thing about Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari that fans and critics and mortal enemies all have to concede: He makes you look squarely into the sun. It’s Final Four time, that wonderful time of year when basketball is played in enormous domes, when NCAA officials never say the word “athlete” without inserting “student” in front of it, when coaches cannot help but call their players “kids” inevitably prefaced by the adjective “special,” when the conversation is steered toward the joy of the college years ...
... and here’s John Calipari unapologetically coaching his Class AAA team of freshmen NBA prospects into the Final Four all over again.
Yes. Look right into the sun.
There’s a brazenness to the way Calipari coaches college basketball -- much like there was when Jerry Tarkanian coached at UNLV -- that makes many queasy, many others angry, many in Kentucky blue joyous. And Calipari’s way is probably every bit as honest as all that “student-athlete” blather that NCAA folks parrot repeatedly. College basketball is a big ball of disorder. Everybody should know this. There are, of course, many student-athletes, young men and women who are using the athletic scholarship they received to better their lives and prepare for a bright future that would not otherwise be possible.
And there are players who go reluctantly to college for a year because the NBA won’t let them play until they’ve done that.
There are many who come away from their college basketball years with life lessons that prepare them to be loving parents and successful professionally and the sort of neighbor who fills up your lawnmower with gas after borrowing it.
And there are a few who are paid under the table, fall into terrible habits, and will say they didn’t come away with anything useful from the experience. They felt used.
None of these are mutually exclusive, by the way. Some players who get paid under the table also learn great life lessons while in college. Some players who go to college determined to learn about life still make catastrophic choices and end up lost. Some players get used by the system. Some players find a way to use the system. Some do both. People are complicated, life is complicated, college basketball as we know it is complicated.
But this time of year, we tend to only hear one side. We get a lot of “One Shining Moment” music, and inspiring halftime speeches, and commercials about the educational crusade of the NCAA and close-ups of fresh-faced cheerleaders with tears staining the college logos painted on their cheeks. People will preach about the importance of amateurism and the relative innocence of college basketball ... then won’t even let rogue cups without the sponsor’s names anywhere near the Final floor. They talk about it being about the players but have written rulebooks the width of the panhandle to try and prevent any one of them from getting a dime. They keep grabbing for more and more and more and then preach that it’s all about the education of those kids.
And in that spin room, it’s oddly comforting to see John Calipari. There are no illusions with Coach Cal. Twice before he got to Kentucky, Calipari led teams to the Final Four. Twice, the NCAA invalidated those Final Four appearances, once because the star player was found to have been paid by two sports agents, the second time because someone else allegedly took the S.A.T. for a star player (the second player, Derrick Rose, still denies this happened). Nobody ever did officially connect Calipari to either scandal but then he was already at his next job when the judgments came down.
Perhaps more than the scandals, Calipari is known for taking advantage of the system -- not unlike those successful investors who sell short. For almost a decade now, the NBA has had a controversial age rule; a player has to be 19 to be eligible for the NBA draft. And of course, most players graduate from high school at 18. There are countless arguments to be had about the rule, but the upshot is that the very best high school players -- those who 10 years ago would have gone right into the NBA draft -- must now find something to do for a year before they can play in the NBA.
This yearlong vacuum created what people now call the “one-and-done” player -- the player who goes to college for one year and then goes to the NBA.
Calipari, the Steve Jobs of one-and-done, would like to market a different name.
“The thing that we have been talking about is ‘succeed and proceed,’” Calipari says to the Final Four media. “Succeed and proceed. You cannot proceed until you succeed. Succeed and then proceed. It will be on T-shirts.”
Sure, the succeed-and-proceed player. Yeah, that will catch on. Look, just about everybody gets into the one-and-done sweepstakes. All the legendary programs -- Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana, everybody -- buy their one-and-done lottery tickets. And, yes, it does lead to some awkward moments such as sophomore Marcus Smart partaking in Oklahoma State senior day because he stayed one more year (sophomore is the new senior) or Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, after announcing he’s going one-and-done, saying “College goes by so fast.”
Let’s be blunt here: Nobody should begrudge young men their chance to live their dream at 19 and make more money than most of us can even imagine. Few things are more infuriating than people complaining that a player should pass up millions and a dream because, well, they just should.
In any case, Calipari has made one-and-done -- or “succeed and proceed” -- into an art form. He insists that he does not recruit by promising high-level NBA preparation. He says: “Every player that I’ve recruited, and they will tell you, I say the same thing: ‘Don’t plan on coming to school for one year.’” But he does not have to pump his one-and-done credentials. Everybody already knows the first place to go if you’re pondering one-and-done. Heck, at this point, Calipari should have a Freshman Day at the end of each season, where he starts the freshmen and gives an emotional speech where he says things like, “You’ve grown up so much since November.”
But that’s the time in which we live. Five freshmen will start for Kentucky Saturday against Wisconsin. Those are obviously different from the freshmen who played last year, two who were drafted in the first round. And they were obviously different from the freshmen who won the national championship the year before that (three who got drafted, including the top two picks).
And, as much as some people around the game may not like it -- as much as people will undoubtedly praise the Florida team with seniors as somehow a more pure version of the game than Kentucky’s mercenaries -- the truth is that one-and-done works, especially when cast and directed by the manic and single-minded Calipari.
Look at this team. This year’s Kentucky team was hyped in the preseason -- led by super-recruit Julius Randle and the Harrison twins -- but they went through a somewhat agonizing season. They lost 10 games and just squeezed into the tournament as a No. 8 seed.
Then, ever since, they have been a revelation. They haven’t just reached the Final Four -- they have probably played the best basketball of anybody. It’s possible that we have already seen the two best teams in the country play when Kentucky faced Wichita State in the second round. That was a great game. Wichita State was a wonderful team, experienced, great guard play, ferocious inside, a team without a noticeable weakness. Kentucky’s freshmen beat them by playing better down the stretch.
And this is because Calipari can recruit the best players, he quickly can bring together wildly disparate personalities, he can reel in egos and fashion something that resembles team experience. It doesn’t always work. Last year’s team didn’t even make the tournament. But it almost always works.
This does take a unique coaching talent. Kansas’ Bill Self -- whose two one-and-dones Wiggins and Joel Embiid may go 1-2 in the NBA Draft -- has found it hard to build the sorts of teams he used to now that players often stay just one year. Calipari, though, thrives in this world. He, like Self, comes from the Larry Brown school -- Calipari was on the rather-extraordinary Brown staffs at Kansas that included, at different times, Calipari, Self, San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Calipari had come to Kansas after playing point guard for Clarion University, a bit up the road from his hometown of Pittsburgh. People at Kansas remember him as being a sure coaching superstar -- he had the patter, he had the charm, he had the coaching chops and, more than anything, he had the intense ambition to win.
He took the Massachusetts job and in his second year, he got those Minutemen to their first NIT in more than a decade. In his fourth year, he got them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years, and they promptly knocked off Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. Those teams were more scrappy than talented; the thing people talked about was Calipari’s ability to get the most out of his players.
Then UMass got Marcus Camby, a supremely-talented big man, and with him at the center the Minutemen went to three straight NCAA tournaments, concluding with their first Final Four and a tough defeat against a brilliant, pressing Kentucky team that had won their previous four tournament games by at least 20 points.
So Calipari could coach talent. This led to the one misstep of his basketball career -- he went to coach the New Jersey Nets. His team did make the playoffs one year, but it was clearly a mismatch. Calipari was (and probably still is) hypersensitive to criticism, which isn’t good for an NBA coach. He displayed a nasty mean streak (once using a racial slur against a reporter, other times calling writers’ bosses in a transparent effort to get them fired) and the Nets also started losing. He was fired when the Nets lost 17 of their first 20 and he went to work as an assistant for Larry Brown in Philadelphia until he could regroup.
And then -- he got the Memphis job. He showed almost immediately that he still had college magic. In his second year, Memphis won the NIT. In his third, they made the NCAA Tournament. From 2005-2008, Memphis reached the Elite Eight three straight years, the last of them the Tigers were in position to win the national championship only to miss some key free throws and lose on a furious Kansas comeback. That Memphis team showed the template -- it was led, inspired and driven by a brilliant freshman, Derrick Rose, who promptly went to the NBA like everyone knew he would.
So when Calipari went to Kentucky, he had his roadmap. With his own charm, with Kentucky’s great history and fan base, with the NBA age rule setting the agenda, Calipari found the best high school players in America -- led by John Wall -- and built a one-year team. Kentucky went to the Elite Eight, Wall was the first pick in the NBA Draft, other freshmen DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton also went in the first round of the draft.
Calipari called it a great day in the history of Kentucky basketball.
“The paradigm changed,” he would say. “It wasn’t like we planned it.”
Well, actually, he probably planned it. Calipari is anything but naïve. The next year, he recruited freshman Brandon Knight, named him captain, the team went to the Final Four, and Knight was taken with the eighth overall pick.
The next year, he recruited Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the team won the national championship, and the players were the first and second picks in the draft.
And people complain about it, people lament what has happened to the top end of college hoops, people will try to say that there’s something insubstantial about one-and-done teams (people have proclaimed Calipari’s system dead many times in the last two years). But the truth is that Calipari’s way works. The truth is he has found a way to ride the system. Hey, he’d love for the system to change. He has said many times that he would love for the NBA to raise the age limit so players could at least stay in school for two years. He has said that he would love to coach these talented players for longer -- what coach wouldn’t?
But as long as the system stays this way, Calipari will work it. This is college basketball in a time when the NBA refuses to fund a viable developmental league, when the NCAA refuses to budge on amateurism, when college athletes talk about forming unions and when the NCAA basketball tournament is a multi-billion dollar business. There was a funny little exchange in the Calipari press conference Friday when the Kentucky players joined Calipari on the stage. In a weird way, it kind of told the whole story.
“We’ll welcome the student-athletes to the podium,” the moderator said.
“Can I leave?” Calipari asked.
“I think you have to stay, coach,” the moderator said. “It will be fun.”
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