As midnight approached on Monday, Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari looked like a man who had just gone one-on-one with a grizzly bear in a dark forest. He limped to the podium on a bum right hip that burned like hell. The flesh under his eyes drooped like sandbags. Bullfrogs had slept more in recent days. Then his tired voice tried to explain what his 18-year-old kids had done in the NCAA championship game the last three hours.
“The job at Kentucky ages you,” said Calipari, 55 going on 60. “It’s not my hip. I look at the press conference I had five years ago — I didn’t look like this. It’s not my hip.”
OK, Mr. College Head Coach Guy, now do you want to build a new program around a bunch of freshman every year regardless of how talented they may be on a basketball court?
For his good and that of college basketball, one can only hope the answer is no, no, a thousand times no. Cal’s Kids were a game bunch in the NCAA Tournament, but as we saw in the title game, they weren’t ready for the main event let alone the NBA draft. Then again, grown men have been known to melt under the brightest lights on the biggest stages. How can any kid fresh out of high school be expected to meet that kind of challenge?
No matter how the CBS and TNT teams tried to spin it – after all, they did pay $10.8 billion for the broadcast rights – the event was not one shining moment for college basketball. Three weeks of average basketball was more like it. For serious hoops fans, the tournament has become a glorified AAU competition, one that lacks balance with its slew of three-point heaves and fundamental mistakes and overemphasis on backcourt play. Because the best college-aged kids have turned pro already, great individual performances are harder to find than Dick Vitale’s mute button. The best thing that can be said for the tournament is that it’s competitive, and as long as it remains that way, millions will continue to watch it.
The Connecticut Huskies make for a nice, little story – every NCAA Tournament champion does in its own way – but don’t mistake the Huskies for a great team. At least in body if not mind, this was the same team that lost eight games in the regular season. Louisville toasted them twice by a total of 43 points last month. The eventual champions were fortunate to avoid a one-and-done of their own, as St. Joseph gave them all they could handle out of the gate. In a rather sloppy championship game, they shot all of 42 percent in the field and 32 percent from beyond the arc yet still were able to cut down the nets.
No, these Huskies are not your grandfather’s UCLA Bruins. Or even your father’s Duke Blue Devils, for that matter. More like your average NIT champs back in the four-and-done days.
In no way is this meant to diss the impressive job that UConn head coach Kevin Ollie did his second season at the controls. I covered him as a player in the 2001-02 season, when he made a pit stop in Chicago, one of 11 in his NBA career. On a bad news Bulls team that ranked among the worst in franchise history, Ollie was one of the few winners. While teammates went through the motions around him, he played as hard as he did smart regardless of the opponent or situation.
Ollie grew up in Crenshaw, one of the bad-ass neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. The man known as K.O. has the bolder on his shoulder to prove it. At 6-foot-4, he never backed down on the court, and he’s not about to start on the sidelines. While I’m a bit surprised that the guy could pull off a national title so quickly, I’m not the least bit fazed that he made good as a head coach somewhere.
Yet while Ollie did the unthinkable in the tournament, it was Calipari who pulled off the darn near impossible – actually led a team of five freshman starters to the brink of a national championship.
Put down the violins for a moment. Calipari doesn’t care for the mandatory one-year stay, he says, but no coach recruits potential NBA talent more aggressively. Before the season, he said an unbeaten season was at the top of his to-do list, which made the target on his back that much bigger. He was paid a cool $5.4 million this season – and that didn’t include the $275,000 bonus he received for the Final Four appearance. That being said, the many Cali critics couldn’t deny that he slowly but surely turned in one of the most remarkable performances by any head coach in recent memory.
Sure, Calipari had all that talent around him, the kind that some coaches would commit and NCAA infraction to have in his locker room. As any parent call tell you, he also inherited the many problems that 18-year-olds bring with them. He spent the first four months of the season as a baby-sitter. He didn’t teach screen-rolls and halfcourt pressure but basics such as attitude and teamwork. Finally, after the lessons were learned 20-something games into the season, he became a basketball coach again. While elite head coaches such Kansas’ Bill Self and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski struggled to solve their own one-and-done puzzles, Calipari had his pieces in place come tournament time.
In the first five games of the tournament, the sweet Kentucky babes came together to play their best ball of the season. They survived pesky Kansas State, unbeaten Wichita State, rival Louisville, upstart Michigan and big cheese Wisconsin, too. It wasn’t their sheer athletic talent that was as impressive as their will to overcome adversity early in games and ability to execute late in them. McDonald’s All-Americans may jump higher and react quicker out of high school, but how many think better and believe more than the older guys?
Yet at some point in the tournament, one had to expect Kentucky to act it age again. Sure enough, in the championship game, in full view of a packed house and a national television audience, the Wildcats were wound tighter than a ball of yarn at the outset, none moreso than Julius Randle, their most gifted player.
If ever a match-up was made for Randle to showcase his skills in front of the NBA world, this one was it. On paper, the Huskies had no answer for their opponents but especially one 6-foot-9, 250-pound load in particular. Except that, in the first few minutes, the kid was so up tight that he nearly wet his pants. Three minutes into the game, his team behind already, Calipari had no choice except to sit him down.
“Duhhh. Because he’s a freshman and he was anxious,” Calipari said when asked how Randle could break down only seconds into the final game. “That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It’s normal. He got winded a few other times in the game. Folks, these kids did stuff, I think Aaron (Harrison) was a little winded. Same idea. I was trying to get them to focus on the court, on the lines.
“But let me ask you, if you were 18 and you had to be in that kind of environment, and everybody you looked at (on your team) was 18, how would you do? Oh, you would make every free throw and dunk every ball, especially with (Ryan) Boatright and (Shabazz) Napier up under you or somebody trying to block it. Or all of a sudden, the thing swings and we may lose. All of a sudden, you’re 18 and you got to react to that.”
Randle showed glimpses of what might lie ahead, but he never dominated in extended stretches when the stakes were highest. He finished with seven points on only seven field goal attempts. He bricked three free throws. Somehow, he had only one offensive rebound. Randle may be way ahead of the curve physically, but in terms of maturity and experience, he’s just another 18-year-old kid, yet another reason why he should return to college for at least one more year. (Yeah, right.)
In the end, the tougher, more experienced team with the better backcourt hoisted the trophy. “We had our chances to win,” Calipari said. “We’re missing shots, we’re missing free throws. We just didn’t have enough.” The wonder wasn’t that Kentucky lost the game. The wonder was that the Huskies weren’t arrested for child abuse. Years from now, we’ll look back on the 2014 NCAA Tournament and say to ourselves, “Kentucky did what?! With who?!”
Now the question is, does Calipari want to go through the same drill again?
The life of a high-profile college coach can be a glamorous and ridiculously well-paid one, but there’s a lot more to it than the rest of us know. We don’t take the many recruitment trips across the country. We aren’t privy to the countless telephone conversations, conference calls and face-to-face meetings with the kids’ parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, would-be agents, friends and those who pretend to be friends, all of whom have vested interests in their NBA careers.
There’s also the new coach-killer called social media. Twitter reared its ugly head only hours before tip-off in the biggest game of the year, when ex-Kentucky star Rex Chapman claimed that Calipari to the Los Angeles Lakers was a #DoneDeal. The coach barely had time to dry off when a reporter asked whether the rumor had any merit at all. “The Lakers have a basketball coach,” he said calmly. “Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.”
Yet I have to wonder if Calipari is headed to the pros again. Have wondered about it for months, in fact. After four Final Four appearances and one national championship, there’s nothing left for him to accomplish at the college level. At his age, does he really need the stress and scrutiny that comes with it seven days a week, 12 months a year?
Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni has one year left on his contract, but when the highest-paid player on the roster questions your leadership as Kobe Bryant did not long ago, that probably means you aren’t long for the job. The team is a wreck right now, but since when do the Lakers stay down for long? Calipari and LeBron James also happen to be good friends. If Calipari could somehow convince James to head west as a free agent this summer, the Lakers would become an instant contender. And Calipari could finish the NBA business he left behind in New Jersey two decades ago. In the likely event that James couldn’t be persuaded to leave Miami, he would be crazy not to listen to what the Lakers had to offer, anyway. His leverage will never been greater than it is at present.
For now, Calipari has something more urgent on his agenda. It’s a date with the surgeons who will perform his second replacement surgery. No sooner will he be wheeled out the front door than it will be time to jump aboard the kiddie-go-round again. “I think these kids are coming back,” he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “So I think we should be good.”
I think a future with 18-year-old kids or one with the 35-year-old Bryant is no decision at all. CoCal in SoCal has a nice ring to it, I kid you not.