By Jason Keidel
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We’ve long debated dynasties — what makes one and if they’re essential.
Addressing the former, Kentucky basketball is clearly a dynasty. It’s a hybrid empire, with mutating parts every year plugged in by the program’s only monolith: John Calipari.
Imagine if kids actually played in college like they did in that nauseating netherworld we call “back in the day.” Imagine Anthony Davis on this team. Or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. No, it’s too much to process. As of now, let’s just say that the best team over the last quarter-century didn’t even win the title — the UNLV squad that lost to Duke in the 1991 Final Four, falling just two games short of a repeat. Now Calipari and Kentucky have a chance to make their case for the archives.
Calipari is rolling through March with the hardwood equivalent of the Borg. The Wildcats are great at just about everything, but what separates Kentucky is its depth. Some have argued that their bench would be the second-best team in the nation. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it speaks to how good Calipari is at bagging the best 17-year-olds in the nation.
People have long lamented Calipari. He left two schools in flames. He jumped to the NBA and then jumped back down to college when he felt he couldn’t make it in the pros.
He’s the ultimate gypsy, nomad and mercenary, hopscotching the nation for more glorious and lucrative work. He was the first in line for the one-and-done prodigies, who see the classroom as little more than a chalkboard funnel for their first sneaker deal.
People hate Calipari because he’s arrogant and unapologetic. And because he wins. And we don’t like when people we dislike prosper. Calipari is a composite of all the talent and tawdry qualities that make up the opaque world of college sports, which has even less loyalty to the athlete than Calipari allegedly has to his employers.
And he’s also great for the game.
No matter our preferences, the head coach has become the new college basketball star; the mainstay, the emblem of the sport. Since the sport has become forever transient, the coach who spins the turnstile of recruiting now lords over the game.
Coach K, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Calipari are the graybeards who make the game familiar. Grant Hill and Tim Duncan were the last great players this writer can recall who actually stuck around long enough to leave with a sheepskin.
But the vitriol toward Calipari is special. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t tethered to a particular place. His wanderlust, curiosity or avarice lead him to more profitable pastures. Or it could just be his unabashed approach to victory.
To use a boxing analogy — not about hooks and uppercuts, but personas and perceptions — think of Calipari as Floyd Mayweather Jr. For every Mayweather apologist you’ll find five people who say they can’t wait for the truculent champion to get splattered across the canvas.
But you watch. Because they win. And they do it with an inherent hubris that they make no effort to hide. Winning is a cultural membrane that we created. All Calipari has done is make the most of it. We don’t get angry at the NCAA for creating the very anarchic climate that made the one-and-done so polarizing. We get mad at Calipari for perfecting his pitch to the young man, for having the best tuning fork for the kid with one eye on college and the other on the pros.
We give such credence to the final score that character becomes peripheral. Not to say that all winners are miscreants, but we tend to forgive transgressions and transients when they win. It’s true on all levels of sports.
And whether we’re rooting for or ardently against a team or coach hardly matters as long as we punch the right channel at the right time. And the truth is, Calipari is damn good for business.
Ratings for March Madness are up around 15 percent. Why? Because Calipari is in it. Sure, it helps that other, traditional powers are still around. But there’s something about chasing perfection that leaves us spellbound. The Patriots were splashed across every sports page in America when they came within 60 minutes of a flawless season.
And now fans, pundits and blowhards are wondering if Calipari will flee for the NBA if his Wildcats finish with a perfect record, the first since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers went undefeated.
Calipari wouldn’t necessarily be bad for — or bad in — the NBA, but his departure would truly harm college ball. In the NBA, Calipari would just be the latest yarn in a mural of silk suits, slick hair and millionaires. He would have no real power and his success would be acutely dependent upon his best player, which he would have no direct control in obtaining.
There’s nothing special about being an NBA coach, unless you have the best player. If you’ve had Duncan or LeBron James, then your genius — or at least your access to it — has improved exponentially.
But what would Calipari learn or gain in any NBA city that isn’t perfectly contoured for a title run? And if the team is aptly suited for a title run, why would it need Calipari? He’s got no NBA rings or ringing endorsements based on his turn at the Nets’ helm.
Some people are perfect where they are. And no team, town and coach is more perfectly married than the Kentucky Wildcats and Calipari. Even if they don’t finish with a perfect season.