They are being watched on television by the largest college basketball audiences in two decades, in a monstrosity of a studio/stadium that quite possibly will be re-inhabited by aliens and launched into space when the national championship game is finished. But please don’t forget amid this compelling drama that the prime performers, young and old, are human.
And that each of them, at Kentucky and Connecticut, are overcoming very human obstacles that could have buried them.
You see Aaron Harrison become a fearless, buzzer-beating legend, with yet another three-point missile beating Wisconsin in much the same way he beat Michigan and Louisville the previous weekend. But you don’t realize how low he and his twin brother were less than a month ago. Kentucky had lost again, blown out by Florida, and with creepy haters in the commonwealth and beyond all but threatening their lives on social media, their father, Aaron Harrison Sr., decided to leave the family home near Houston and pay an urgent campus visit to Aaron and Andrew. They spent several days together in Lexington, shooting jump shots as a family in the mornings, and a concerned father advised them to shed the self-pressure of having to win at a blueblood program and jump directly to the NBA as freshmen while remembering why they play the sport.
For joy, he told them.
“You could definitely call it a turning point,” said Andrew said, per the New York Times.
“I got a big burden off my shoulders and just started playing basketball again,” Aaron said. “I wasn’t thinking so much about missing. I was just thinking about shooting the ball.’’
Since the paternal drop-in, Kentucky has been the best team in America and finds itself one Monday night victory from making history as a hoops-youth revolution. We saw the Fab Five rock at Michigan, with their fashion-changing baggy shorts and hip-hop swagger, but they never won a national title and were tarnished by a booster payment scandal. We saw Kentucky win a national championship with a freshmen-oriented team two years ago, but Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were helped by a valuable senior, Darius Miller, and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. This Kentucky team starts five freshmen, and they look unstoppable, suddenly equipped with an equilibrium symbolized by Aaron Harrison’s cold-steel daggers.
“He was smiling, like he knew he was going to make it. He’s crazy. I don’t understand him,’’ said Andrew, whose pass to Aaron set up the shot. “He’s a big-time player. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Third or fourth grade, he hit one to win the national championship,” said Aaron Sr. after the game, per ESPN. “That’s just his personality. He believes he’s going to make every shot he takes. That’s just him. That’s who he is.”
Care to explain yourself, Michael Jordan imitator? “You can’t be scared to miss, and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shots,” said Young Aaron, who fired from 25 feet and wasn’t contested closely enough by Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser. “Coach said he wanted me to take the shot, my teammates have confidence in me, and I just fed off that.’’
The coach, of course, is John Calipari, who is closing in on his greatest professional triumph while never looking worse for wear. After having his left hip replaced 10 years ago, he needs the same surgery for his right hip, upon which he walks with a pronounced limp. If he is starting to look much older than his 55 years, Calipari knows why. “The job at Kentucky ages you,” he said. “It’s not my hip. I look at the press conferences I had five years ago, I didn’t look like this. It’s not my hip.’’ He has been to hell and back this season, scorched by critics — myself included — who asked if he’d lost his coaching touch with freshmen. As the polarizing coach known as Mr. One-and-Done, Calipari has corrupted the college experience by using “student-athletes’’ for one year before shipping them to the NBA. And when he entered this NCAA tournament with 10 losses, the howls were loud and mean.
“There are a lot of haters and bullies out there,” said Calipari, referring to fans and media. “Does it make me mad? Yes, it does. Oh, yeah. Because some of it is personal. Some of it is agenda-driven, where guys want to hurt the program and they’re taking it out on these kids. And it’s not right. But (the Kentucky players) withstood it all.”
You don’t have to like Calipari’s raw, cold form of exploitation. But when one national championship jumps to multiple conquests, then we’re forced to pass grudging praise upon the mad scientist who created this kiddie monster. Since 2006, according to the Associated Press, his 13 one-and-done players have made more than $181 million collectively in NBA salaries. Writes the AP: “And if all of them play through their current contracts, that total would surpass $460 million — nearly equaling the gross domestic product of the island nation of Tonga — even with several of them playing out relatively paltry rookie contracts. That figure doesn’t include endorsement deals, either. Throw in the millions they’re paid for hawking sneakers, apparel and everything else, and the total closes in on a billion.’’
Some people laud Calipari for his honesty on this topic, particularly amid the raging debate about whether college athletes should be unionized and paid as employees. He tries to cover his ass in every press conference, saying in Texas that he’d prefer a two-year requirement in college before a player jumps to the NBA. So far, he has had 29 players drafted by the NBA. “It’s between the NBA and the players’ association. Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA,” Calipari said. “So I just think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt. Kids are going on to the league from us and performing. And I’m proud of that. Would I like to have had them for four years? Yes. But I also like what’s happened for them and their families.” The Harrisons, it should be pointed out, grew up in a six-bedroom house in a well-off neighborhood. There was no mistaking it, then: The Kentucky-Wisconsin game was a morality play, with 66-year-old Badgers coach Bo Ryan, whose program has one of the country’s best graduation rates, seemingly taking a shot at Calipari’s methods when he said of Wisconsin fans, “They know these are student-athletes who are actually here for the education first and basketball second.’’
Yet it Harrison and Kentucky making the killer shot before Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson missed a game-winning attempt at the buzzer, thwarting the concept that an experienced, curriculum-driven COLLEGE team could beat the one-and-done raw talents of a FACTORY.
“He has that clutch gene,’’ Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker said of Harrison.
“They know I believe in them. Aaron knows,” Calipari said. “If you’ve watched us, we have a bunch of stars on this team.’’
He will need all of them to complete the mission and beat UConn, which eliminated heavily favored Florida thanks to a healthy domination by guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright and another big offensive game by DeAndre Daniels. The Harrisons, for all the attention they’re receiving, will be at a distinct disadvantage in the positional matchups Monday night.
“One more to go,’’ said Napier, who was helping UConn to a national title as a freshman in 2011, back when the Harrisons were high-school sophomores. “We’ve been in a lot of dog fights. We are just an experienced group. We believe in each other and continue to believe in each other. … We are going to win. That is what we do.”
That would be a guarantee, I believe. And Napier has cred, because he promised his mother he would stay all four years and graduate even after UConn was banned from last year’s tournament because of poor academic performance in the program. Who helped convinced Napier and other players to stay when the NCAA ban and retirement of legendary coach Jim Calhoun could have driven them away?
Meet another survivor, Kevin Ollie. When Calhoun recommended him for the coaching job in 2012, Ollie never had been a head coach, had just two years of experience as an assistant and had bounced around the NBA as a player for 13 years. Just 40, no one knew what to expect. Shockingly, here he is, with Calhoun still hanging around in north Texas as a proud mentor and helper. “I can’t be Coach Calhoun,” Ollie said. “I can’t build this program up like he did. I can’t do that. But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and forge my own program.’’
That said, I repeat: Ollie is in his second year as a head coach. Has anyone with less experience on the job ever reached a national championship game? Has anyone done a better job with a team this season, including Calipari? Calhoun, who won three national titles at UConn, knows that answer. “The greatest test is not building, the greatest test is maintaining. To sustain greatness, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do,’’ he said. “To watch these kids now having a chance to go Monday night and get another one for us, I mean, that’s pretty special. It’s going to be glorious to watch the look in those kids’ faces. It’s a great honor and a great privilege to have your kids, our kids and our program, in that position and watching these guys do wonderful things. How much greater things can you ask in a program than you have all the dreams you have for them about to come true again? It’s wonderful.”
Ollie says he picked up coaching skills as a player. “I always prided myself as being a coach on the court,” he said. “I didn’t really pride myself to looking over at the coach for the play. I wanted to be the extension of the coach so he didn’t have to call the play. I knew exactly what he wanted on the court every minute of the game.”
Like Kentucky, UConn was blown out at the beginning of March, seeking answers after an ugly loss to Louisville. Their young coach has guided them to the final Monday while making sure Napier wasn’t required to do too much, spectacular as he has been in this tournament. “I don’t know if you all keep thinking it’s a one-man team, but it’s not,” Ollie said. “Shabazz is the first one to tell you, and I keep telling everybody: It’s not just him.”
Off the court, there is added motivation. The coach’s mother, Dorothy Ollie, was inside AT&T Stadium for the Florida victory and is expected to be there Monday night, feeling strong after March 24 surgery for stage 2 breast cancer. “She was cleared to fly, she has been going through chemo at home, and it’s going to be great to see her,” Ollie said. “She wanted to come to Madison Square Garden (for the East Regional), but I was like, `No, save your energy for the Final Four.’‘’
A common thread weaves through all these precious stories.
Perseverance, it’s called.