Kentucky Basketball: When Winning at All Costs Isn't

You da man, coach! Love that tie.

So many articles. So little time. As Gandalf said in the Lord of the Rings, "Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time." It would take three hundred lives of men to discuss the raft of articles only two measly days removed from Kentucky's 8th national title (God, I love writing that!), but we will look at a representative few.

The first is this one from Dan Wolken writing for The Daily. Now I know that many of you will reflexively feel your gorge rise just at the mention of Wolken, who used to write for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and was a notorious Calipari detractor while he was there, and even beyond -- one of the people Coach Cal labeled, "the miserables." Bear with me, though, there is much truth to be found here.

Wolken writes this piece from the perspective of sneering at Kentucky, not at Calipari ... well, no more than you'd expect, anyway ... but the article is not what I have come to expect from Wolken. Yes, the title "Win At All Costs" is absurd, but bear with me. Here's the first point we'll be examining:

Kentucky fans won’t remember now, but they were saying all the things people from opposing schools said about Cal in those days. He gets all his players from the mysterious World Wide Wes. He’s slick. He’s more of a used car salesman than coach. God forbid a school with our blueblood tradition ever lowers itself to hiring someone like that.

Let's be honest, people. This is right. I can speak only for myself and for the countless Big Blue fans I have read on the Internet or spoken to in person, but based on the vast number of times that we had seen Calipari's name taken in vain, or at least sniffed at when he was at Memphis, this was probably the majority opinion of him among the Big Blue Nation prior to his being contracted by UK.

I, for one, know I held just this opinion, although William Wesley did not really factor into it much. I have always thought Wesley was a pure media-created bugbear, and I think history so far has completely validated that opinion. Yes, many of us were very leery of Calipari, but not for the reasons Wolken states.

What Wolken fails to understand (and to be fair, how could he?) is the agony of Kentucky fans back during the dark days of the Sutton Catastrophe. It ripped the still-beating heart from the chest of the Big Blue Nation, stuck it in a blender and hit "frappe," then burned the remains to ash. It made us understandably cautious about any coach with a "reputation," deserved or not.

That's what's dishonest about this article. Kentucky fans of course want to win, but Wolken, either deliberately or intentionally misapprehends the motivation behind Kentucky's concerns. He figures us as high falutin, landed gentry types sipping on our mint juleps looking down our noses at that city slicker, Calipari. What he fails to understand is that while most Kentucky fans may desire the status he imputes to us, we live in the real world, across the full continuum of economic status from the genteel estates surrounding Keenland, to the middle-class suburbs of Louisville and Lexington, to the trailer parks of Mt. Washington all the way to the ramshackle houses in the depths of the Appalachians. And contra Wolken's perception, the vast majority of fans in this relatively poor state are ... you guessed it ... relatively poor people.

Even though Wolken gets that part wrong, consider this paragraph:

Jim Boeheim has had seasons vacated at Syracuse. John Wooden’s nine championships at UCLA were largely won on the backs of players funneled by booster Sam Gilbert. From Jim Harrick to Steve Fisher to Jim Valvano, Calipari joins a long list of title-winning coaches who have had a black mark on their resume. If he’s the villain of college basketball, then who exactly are the good guys?

See what I mean? Even while he gets things wrong above, and it may be an honest mistake, Wolken gets a lot right. This is something we have been saying for years distilled down to one paragraph. It genuinely guts the media portrayal of Calipari as some kind of evil wizard, and puts his NCAA troubles in the proper perspective.

The Kentucky name, the tradition, the banners, the Big Blue? They were all meaningless. Players didn’t care about any of that. College basketball had changed a lot in a decade, but Kentucky was still clinging to the past. Calipari, with a renegade reputation and an NBA-centric approach, had begun to leave those kinds of programs in the dust.

Again, penetrating and accurate. And painful. Those of us who stand by Kentucky tradition have had to face the withering of it's significance in the age of the, "one and done" and, "If you like it then you'd better put a ring on it." Tradition matters only to us old-timers, and none of us old-timers are in line for a basketball scholarship at UK.

Today's kids could care less about what UK has done; they only want to know what UK can do to further their dream. That's honest. That's the truth. As usual, the truth hurts, but UK fans have come to the decision that they prefer a tradition of winning to a tradition of tradition, where winning takes second place to some kind of faux moral superiority.

Calipari is selling what today's best players want to buy, because he understands that Kentucky tradition is no longer in style. It's a nice add-on, like a sunroof or navigation console on a new car, but it doesn't sell a thing by itself. Tradition has become a thing for players to point to in media interviews as a big reason for their matriculation rather than having to cynically tell the truth, which is that UK is the most likely path for them to get to the first round of the NBA.

So chalk us UK fans up as idealists recently converted to the reality of pragmatism, but that's not the hypocrisy Wolken seems eager to ascribe to us. Again, I am not sure if that was intentional on Wolken's part, but even if it was, it doesn't render the rest of the article invalid.

There are a lot more articles like this in the queue, and more being written every day. We'll get to some of them in due course -- let's face it, we have the time. Winning a national championship has a way of making the world slow down for fans, because let's be honest -- it has been a long time coming and we are all due for a little celebration.

A random thought -- will Thayer Evans and Bobby Knight be getting together to cry in each other's beer now? God, I'd like to be a fly on that wall ...

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