By Jason Keidel
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When we see coaches become super successful, we assume their ascent is the product of talent, temerity, or both.
But not with John Calipari, who seems to wear the widest black hat of any coach in recent memory. And I’m not sure why.
Is it fair to assume Calipari has always played by the rules? Of course not, as evidenced by the flaming wreckage he left behind at UMass and Memphis. But Calipari was never charged with NCAA infractions and his former empires aren’t the only ones forced to vacate their Final Four appearances. Not by a long shot.
There seems to be a teamwork attack on Calipari this season, forged by fans and media, spawned by the Kentucky coach’s lethal use of the “one-and-done” players who use the college classroom as little more than a chalkboard funnel toward their first sneaker deal and NBA contract.
So what? This kind of corporate symbiosis has gone on forever. College basketball – a billion-dollar enterprise – uses the college player for entirely selfish, monetary purposes and the kid gets to audition for the NBA. Indeed, the college coach’s contract is signed on toilet paper with invisible ink, shredded the moment the coach gets a better gig somewhere else, while the player who is disgruntled with his current campus hasn’t nearly the latitude to switch schools.
The NCAA title game tonight is seen as a treatise on the ails of the sport, and Anthony Davis is Exhibit A. Davis it seems, has violated the old ethos of the student-athlete, using Kentucky as an embellished basketball camp until he’s old enough to enter the NBA draft. It seems Davis is awfully ungrateful for the privilege of the collegiate paradise.
Well, we can thank David Stern for that. The NBA commissioner, evidently fatigued from watching teens flood his draft board, tweaked the rules to prevent high school seniors from biting their slice of celebrity. And thus he created Derrick Rose and the aforementioned Davis.
And why is it all right for Jennifer Capriati to become a star at 14 – and a drug-addled mess at 18 – but Rose, Davis, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who have done nothing illegal (that we know of), to play by the very rulebook their bosses wrote?
S.L. Price wrote a gripping (if not searing) profile on Calipari in Sports Illustrated about a year ago, replete with all the amoral dealings with AAU front men and other dirt under the devious coach’s fingernails. But as Omar Little famously said in The Wire, “It’s all in the game.”
Do I know if any of Calipari’s prized recruits or their parents pocketed some spare change to help with expenses? No. But I do know that if they did, Calipari didn’t invent the practice. Renowned Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom said he was often asked for pizza and gas money by prominent members of Michgan’s famed “Fab Five” – another program forced to take a giant eraser to their team’s scoreboard. So even in the vortex of an invalid entity, not everyone is on the take.
If you watch the game tonight you’ll see a commercial, sponsored by the NCAA, asserting that there are 400,000 student-athletes, nearly all of whom won’t specialize in professional sports. So why worry about the handful who will? You’ll get a phalanx of physicians, scientists, teachers, and a couple of NBA stars. Sounds like a fair trade to me.
In a few months, Anthony Davis will have more money than the can spend (unless he becomes Mike Tyson) and, if he stays healthy, will provide for his family for life. Why is this a bad ending?
If you long for the comfort of substantial college careers and miss the mythology of the great athlete who actually doubled as a student, I’m with you. There’s a reason we can’t name 95 percent of the players on college rosters: all the good ones flee at the first scent of NBA money. Tim Duncan is the last of the college titans who stayed four years and actually graduated.
But don’t blame John Calipari for that. The coaching gypsy and master salesman, who should win his first national title tonight, has merely molded a corrupt system to find talent, fill his wallet, and win games. And if I had a stud of a son who could dunk from the foul line, I’d be first in line to sign the dotted line at the Calipari camp.
And I can think of no better place for Calipari to bag his first ring than Kentucky. Where better to highlight America’s class warfare? Between the galling poverty of coal mining country and the aristocrats sipping mint juleps under their bonnets at the Kentucky Derby, perhaps no state in the union dug a more gaping chasm between the haves and have-nots. At least Calipari is trying to bridge that gap, even if it serves him first.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you think Coach Cal abuses the system? Be heard in the comments below…