John Calipari inspires strong emotions on all sides, but Oliver Bateman thinks we need to put emotions aside and acknowledge that this guy is very, very good at preparing his players for the next level.
Recently, I found myself watching the Los Angeles Lakers play the Oklahoma City Thunder on my friend’s enormous TV. After two weeks spent scrutinizing the sort of junkball that characterizes the NCAA Tournament, I was struck by the easy grace of the overpaid professionals who ply their trade in the NBA. Effortless cuts, well-executed screens, three-pointers sunk with impressive style (even by notoriously brick-happy ball-stopper Kobe Bryant), and plenty of “Boom-shaka-laka”-worthy alley-oops. And then I asked myself: where had I just seen this?
In the recent Kentucky-Indiana and Kentucky-Baylor games, that’s where. The former was a thing of beauty; the latter a tour de force against a tremendously talented team coached by the brother of the guy who took The Shot. After watching those games, I concluded that this is not only the best John Calipari-coached team to date, but quite possibly the most dominant college basketball team since the ’89-’91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every single college will turn into a clone of Kentucky, because that’s impossible. There aren’t enough good players in America for that to happen. But Calipari’s scheme will become standard at a handful of universities where losing at basketball is unacceptable: North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, UCLA, and maybe even Duke. These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen, but they’ll have to go further; they’ll have to be as transparent about their motives as Calipari is (because transparency is the obsession of modernity). If they resist, they will fade. And the result will be a radical amplification of what the game has already become: There will be five schools sharing the 25 best players in the country, and all the lesser programs will kill each other for the right to lose to those five schools in the Sweet 16. It will skew the competitive balance of major conferences and split D-I basketball into two completely unequal tiers. Final Four games will look more and more like sloppy pro games, and national interest in college basketball will wane (even if the level of play technically increases). In 10 years, it might be a niche sport for people like me — people who can’t get over the past.
Roland Emmerich-grade apocalypticism, huh? The good folks at the Basketball Prospectus–who adore the Kentucky Wildcats and their freakish 1.30 points-per-possession average–offered a careful rejoinder to Klosterman’s rash over-Gladwellization:
I blame Klosterman’s unseen and nefarious editors for this vision of Lord Calipari and Empress Judd laughing maniacally in 2022 as helpless college basketball fans from the rest of Division I toil in UK’s underground sugar caves.
Editors love Grand Sweeping Narratives. Last year we had the least chalky Final Four ever, so the GSN, not surprisingly, revolved around A New Dawn of Parity. (Ah, memories.) Do we have any reason to believe this year’s GSN will have a longer shelf life?
Not really. Calipari’s hegemony is not only real (no other program’s been to the last three Elite Eights), it’s old news, and it poses no threat to the competitive balance of the sport. To say his hegemony’s degree or duration depends greatly upon whether he wins the national championship this weekend rather underestimates Calipari (who’s on a remarkable personal run of seven consecutive Sweet 16s), while greatly overestimating the immediate return on a national title (just ask Duke and Connecticut).
I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to add to this, however, by explaining exactly how Calipari’s wholesale embrace of the one-and-done philosophy makes him a “Good Coach.”
For starters, the guy builds teams that play like pro teams–and that play well enough, by some metrics, to have better-than-50% odds of beating the Charlotte Bobcats when playing at home in Lexington. Senior stars like Draymond Green and Tyler Zeller deserve our respect, but the rogue’s gallery that Calipari has assembled during his short stint at UK–John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight, and the truly extraordinary Anthony Davis (who may turn out to be nothing but the second coming of Charlie Villanueva in the pros, although who cares)–is jaw-dropping. Over his checkered career, the man has sent 22 players to the NBA, with at least five more to follow from this current team.
Now here’s the thing: when we’re talking about major American professional sports (MLB/NHL/NBA/NFL), a field of endeavor where maybe 20-25% of the competitors have college degrees, getting to the next level is what matters. If the pro leagues want to use the NCAA as some sort of glorified semi-minor league, the amateur ideal will remain the stuff of DIII. Even many mid-major scrubs (a category to which Calipari himself once belonged) aspire to become graduate assistants, gym coaches, and the like. Thus, the columnist Lewis Grizzard’s modest proposal to let schools offer degrees in the various sports that the students are playing (football, basketball, soccer, etc.) makes perfect sense. Since they’re certainly “studying” harder than most of the regular undergraduates, given that what they’re doing is incredibly rigorous, why must we perpetuate the fraud that they’re anything but students of their chosen games?
Calipari recognizes this and has turned one of the nation’s most storied (and, at one time, most racist) programs into an accelerated Ph.D. program for the nation’s basketball prodigies. He has slicked-back hair and wears fancy suits, but otherwise he’s no different than the cutting-edge early 20th century college coaches who won their big rivalry games by enrolling tramp athletes for a week or two. He’s no different than the extraordinarily uptight dentist/Pitt Panthers football coach “Jock” Sutherland, who for all his personal probity still recruited a team of players that went on strike for higher wages before the 1937 Rose Bowl (they got their raises and proceeded to shut out the Washington Huskies).
Maybe I’d feel otherwise if the NCAA hadn’t scrapped its policy of four-year guaranteed scholarships back in the early 1970s. Maybe I’d be more tolerant of the “coach-as-father-figure,” the Darrell “Big Daddy D” Royal who employed the cruelest tackling drills to get players to renounce those four-year grants or the Frank Kush who forced one of his defensive ends to continue practicing with a compound fracture of his thumb, if the players still had some form of job security. But they don’t: they’re on one-year renewable grants, and most of them are fungible commodities for universities that allow them to return to straitened circumstances after profiting off their sweat, likenesses, and compound fractures.
Calipari, sleazy or no, stands alone because he’s unafraid to make us see the truth about the college athletics we can’t seem to stop watching. And you know what? The truth, as embodied in that Indiana-Kentucky matchup in the Sweet 16, is a heck of a lot more beautiful to watch than that last year’s Butler-VCU Final Four game. Even more importantly, the truth–as captured in this felicitous phrasing by the aforementioned Lewis Grizzard–will set us free:
In a perfect world, a university is only for scholars. In the one we live in, which is imperfect, it ought to be for everybody, for whatever they can get from it.