Don’t bother conducting a scientific poll. Without debate, John Calipari is the most loathed man in college basketball, primarily because what he preaches is not college basketball but something you’d have seen Kevin Trudeau hawking about college basketball on a 3:30 a.m. TV informercial (Note: Trudeau was just sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence for consumer fraud). Under the phony premise that his players are his only real priority as a coach — his leadership book, to be strategically released in time for the Final Four, is called “Players First’’ — Calipari is on an evangelical soapbox to prove he can point one-and-doners immediately to the NBA while they try to win a quickie NCAA championship for Kentucky.
Of course, all he’s doing is playing to the soft academic weaknesses of teenaged hoops prodigies — “Gee, if I play for him, I can blow off school and be in the NBA the following June,’’ goes the thought process — so St. Cal can pick the players he wants and annually reload his assembly line of talent. Once he won a national championship with two such one-and-doners (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) two years ago, Calipari had his street cred. He entered this season with eight high-school All-Americans on his roster, including a class of six freshman generally hailed as the best-ever recruiting class in the sport’s history.
“We don’t just play college basketball,’’ St. Cal announced as the season began. “We ARE college basketball.’’
No, you are a feeder system — for the grateful NBA, for ravenous and demanding Kentucky fans and for the enormous Calipari ego. And until this past Sunday, a whole lot of us were delighted to see Kentucky, a season after failing to reach the NCAA tournament, struggling with maturity, cohesion and listening issues and appearing ready to exit early from this year’s tournament. Imagine: Only months after suggesting his team might be the first ever to go 40-0, St. Cal was taking 10 losses into the Midwest Regional. He was a walking embarassment — petulantly blowing off a post-loss press conference, complaining his team was “the most overanalyzed team in the history of sports’’ (didn’t he suggest Kentucky might go 40-0?), then complaining that his players were “counting on me too much.’’
Wait. Players First, right? And those same players were counting on Calipari too much when they needed him most? Opinions were mounting that he was the next one done at Kentucky, eyeing the New York Knicks. Some were demanding his ouster, sensing St. Cal was much more a recruiting con man than an actual coach. His daughter, Erin, defended him on Twitter: “People saying my dad should be fired, he won 81% of his games @ UK. Coach K 79% Duke. Roy Williams 78% @ UNC. Pitino 74% @ UL … #forreference.’’
We waited for the crash.
Instead, Calipari’s parachute opened.
As if a season’s worth of tongue-lashings and ass-kickings finally were resonating in a single two-hour sound chamber, the Kentucky kids melded as one against WIchita State and suddenly looked like championship contenders. While presumed future NBA stars Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were flaming out of the tournament with eyesore performances, Calipari watched in bliss as the embattled twin brothers, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, combined for 39 points and lottery pick Julius Randle contributed his usual double-double in eliminating a 35-0 force that nearly won the national title last April. Calipari, understand, has a bad hip. It didn’t stop him from leaping and hopping by the bench as the buzzer sounded.
“I’m whistling and skipping,’’ he said.
The purists almost had their man nailed to the wall, at long last. They’d just about run him out of college basketball and taken back the game.
Now, the bad guy has life again. If he beats his bitter rivals, Rick Pitino and Louisville, in a classic Sweet 16 matchup Friday night in Indianapolis, then reaches the Final Four, St. Cal will be the talk of the sports world, if he isn’t already.
“If wins are relief, it’s time for me to retire. This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I’d hoped,’’ Calipari said. “This team and what people said about this team — all we’ve done all year is continue to get better. Like every team, you hit a hole when you don’t play well. But they believed in themselves.
“I just wish we had another month of the season, because we’re getting better every day.’’
That is bad news for Louisville and the rest of the field, loaded as the brackets are with power contenders such as Arizona, Michigan State and Florida. Remember, Kentucky rallied and nearly stole the SEC title game two weekends ago from Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and clear favorite to reach the Final Four out of the South Regional. There might be seven NBA futures on this team. Nothing is more dangerous in March — and April — than pro-skilled players emerging as one with the stakes at their highest. It was Willie Cauley-Stein, the sophomore forward, who said last week that Kentucky would “shock the world,’’ adding, “There’s a lot of people that don’t think we can make a run at it. And you know, a lot of people don’t want to see us make a run at it.’’
St. Cal didn’t like hearing that. Only he can make the public proclamations, you see. But he must love the burgeoning confidence.
“We just felt so good beating a great team,” said Andrew Harrison, who injured his elbow in the second round but played through it. “It shows how much work we’ve put in, how much we’re getting better.”
“Here’s what happened with my team,’’ Calipari said. “They now are putting themselves in a position where they’re accepting roles how they have to play. So we’re becoming a better team. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they’re playing better and more confident. And the other thing is, because we’ve been through so much throughout the year, they’re stronger. So a little lull in the game doesn’t affect them. They’re been through all that. Their will to win, to stay with it — all that, they’ve been up against.’’
We love most March stories because they are embraceable, charming. Nothing is warm and fuzzy about St. Cal and the rise of his one-and-doners. Do not forget that he is the only coach who had to vacate two Final Four appearances because of NCAA rules violations, the first at UMass because Marcus Camby took money from an agent, the second at Memphis because Derrick Rose allegedly had someone else take an SAT test for him.
At the center of Calipari’s self-righteous rampage through the sport is a familiar question: Should college athletes be paid? Again, they are being rewarded with full-ride scholarships that, if they chose to stay the full four years instead of one, are worth beyond $200,000 at many schools. They also have a regularly televised resume for their next employer, something the science major and music major don’t have. They also live like kings in beautiful residence and training complexes, as Kentucky players know. Should they also be paid a stipend out of the disgustingly mammoth pot now shared by the NCAA, the TV networks and the programs themselves? Certainly. But that won’t stop the cries of 21st-century slavery.
And that won’t stop “heroes’’ like John Calipari from swooping in and protecting these kids, Players First, even when you know and I know that he’s another scam artist trying to win in a filthy sport.