If you have read one story about this, you have read a hundred -- Kentucky is a "farm team" for the NBA, John Calipari "rents" his players, blah, blah, blah. Every Kentucky fan has had to read and listen to this sort of media trope all year long, and I think we'd all by lying if we didn't admit some irritation.
You will hear one other thing as an oft-repeated musing -- how does Calipari do it? How does he get all this NBA talent to play together with each other and not go all Renardo Sidney at Kentucky, leaving mayhem in their wake and the school on probation or with APR issues by not going to class? How does he convince these young bucks, who have been the Big Man On Campus in their high-school or prep school or wherever he seems to find them?
I was asked this question last night in a radio interview, and I had to admit -- I don't know how he does it. If we are all being honest with ourselves, we would all be forced to admit that it looks like black magic at times. We are used to seeing super-talented kids suck up all the shots on a given team, refuse to share the ball at crunch time, and basically make themselves the reason for the win or their teammates the reason for the loss.
That doesn't happen at Kentucky. Ever. Why not?
As I said, I'd be lying if I said I knew. But I do have a theory.
My theory is that Calipari is extremely selective in the players he recruits. Most Kentucky fans will note that Coach Cal, contrary to popular belief, doesn't always sign the #1 star out of high school, or all the top 5 every year. Some of that is due, no doubt, to the fact that other coaches have done a better job recruiting them, or they want to go somewhere else for whatever reason. There are a number of those -- proximity to home, a lifelong dream to play for a particular college -- the list isn't endless, but it's pretty long.
My theory, though, is Calipari is looking for something specific in these guys before he offers them scholarships -- a certain level of character, some particular behavioral characteristic -- something they've done in high school that he uses as an indicator of how they will mesh in a Blue and White uniform. Many people don't realize that there are a lot of top players Kentucky is said to be recruiting, but really aren't. Some of those recruiting reports are just inaccurate. Calipari is using some kind of criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff, and what he is winding up with is high-quality young men, not just talented basketball players. Coach Cal can afford to be selective at Kentucky, although not so much when he was at Memphis, at least not until near the end of his tenure. Combine that with his considerable skills in communication and persuasion, and by the end of the season you have what you see now at Kentucky.
All of us in the Big Blue Nation have seen this happen three straight years now. At first, we marveled at it just like the press does, and I think the overwhelming sentiment early on was that Calipari is just a lucky guy who stumbled onto a fortuitous combination of personalities. But after three years running, the old saying, "Once is luck, twice is coincidence, three times is skill" comes into play. They say great skill, or science when sufficiently advanced, are indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps we should check Coach Cal's office for evidence of Bacardi and Jobu.
No matter what, its marvelous to watch Coach Cal take these young, talented, "I wanna talk about me!" guys and turn them into a championship-caliber basketball team that shares the ball and puts their teammates before themselves. It is a story that is starting to get more and more play, and this amazing and perhaps unmatched talent that Calipari has may well be unique in college coaching.
Yes, I'm sure there are a lot of coaches who would like to try to coach these kinds of players. My advice -- make a beeline for Lexington when Calipari eventually starts to make retirement noises. Yes, I said retirement, and all you guys out there that are positive (because, don't lie, you need it to happen to validate your opinion of him) that Calipari is bound for the Knicks, the Heat, or the Nets, just keep dreaming. Because, at least for now, that's all it is.