Kentucky Basketball: Sympathy For Charles Pierce

Andy Lyons

Charles Pierce of Grantland just can't find much good to say about John Calipari.

You knew after Charles Pierce once again took up his poison pen to excoriate John Calipari and Kentucky over at Grantland that a response was likely forthcoming. Obviously, if I responded with an article directed at every John Calipari critic, I'd have no time to write about the other, more important things surrounding college basketball. But Pierce has been such a vocal and persistent scold that I thought a few paragraphs in response would be useful, if for nothing else an exercise in analysis.

Pierce takes on what he calls the "pure, obvious absurdity" of college basketball, and from a cynical viewpoint, you can say that he has a point. The silliness of the NCAA's sponsorship enforcement — forcing people to use sponsor-approved everything from cups to snacks, the spectacular corporate logo assault from front to back, the 9,000 TV commercials — I can see why someone like Pierce would consider that absurd. The NCAA spares no effort to wring every penny out of the tournament, and does so unabashedly. It looks like, and is, overkill.

What is not absurd is the use to which the money is put, which is to fund scholarships at NCAA schools. That money goes primarily to non-revenue sports such as field hockey and, in Kentucky's case, rifle, swimming, gymnastics — you get the idea — student athletes, mostly ones who perfectly fit the NCAA ideal as exemplified in the commercial, "Most NCAA athletes go professional in something other than sports" or however it goes. The reality is that basketball and football largely fund those things, and the extreme revenue-grabbing, as absurd as that seems to Pierce, mostly serves a noble purpose.

Let's now examine some of Pierce's specific complaints about Coach Cal:

Marcus Lee is a 6-foot-10 freshman from Deer Valley High School in California. He was a McDonald’s All American and a Jordan Brand All-American. He came to Kentucky along with eight other freshmen. Going into Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup against the Michigan Wolverines, Marcus Lee played 126 minutes. There were brooms in Rupp Arena that had seen more floor time than he did. Lee had taken two shots in Kentucky’s previous five games, and he’d missed both of them. And, Sunday night, before a hysterical final six minutes that led to Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-point shot and a 75-72 Kentucky victory over Michigan, it was Marcus Lee who came off the bench and kept his team close in the first half. What made this remarkable is that it was not considered remarkable at all, for what college basketball team doesn’t have a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All American stashed away at the end of the bench, probably behind the Gatorade bucket, just for such an occasion?

So it's funny to Pierce that Kentucky happens to have more McDonald's All Americans on their team than others do? I'm not getting the humor there. Calipari is able to show these guys (and Sunday was abject proof of the honesty of his pitch) that if you come here, play hard, and be ready, you'll play on the biggest stage in America. Pierce finds that funny, I guess, because it's absurd for Kentucky to have so many players of this quality available. No, it isn't. It simply speaks to the quality of John Calipari's recruiting, something Pierce is evidently unable to grasp, or at least, attribute to something as noble as skill. The persistent comparisons with Jerry Tarkanian kind of give you the idea of what Pierce thinks of Calipari in that vein.

Before we get back to the heavy stuff about how Kentucky and John Calipari have gamed the NCAA rules and are now, amazingly, getting wide credit for being forward thinkers, and not simply opportunistic talent-hoarders, we should go through the last six minutes of Sunday’s game, because that’s the reason people still tune in to this absurd, wonderful event.

There are so many things wrong with this sentence, it beggars belief. Because Calipari recruits better than anyone in America, he has "gamed the NCAA rules" and is an "opportunistic talent-hoarder." This is slander. Calipari has scrupulously followed the rules, and he's just that good. Pierce evidently finds this offensive, somehow, because it just isn't fair, or so I suppose. At least we agree that this is a wonderful event, although his use of "absurd" renders his sincerity in that characterization highly suspect.

It’s what they count on — all the advertising sharks, and sponsorship remoras, and the seemingly limitless herd of buffet-grazing dilettantes that are the primary off-court phenomena at this annual rodeo. They count on all the greed and artificiality — and, yes, all the pure, obvious absurdity — to be redeemed by the play of the kids themselves. And this Midwest Regional final was nothing if not a contest of the remarkably young. There were only three seniors on both rosters. Kentucky started five freshmen, and Michigan started three sophomores and a freshman. This is the world the one-and-done rule has created. Even in defeat, one of the first questions asked of Michigan sophomores Stauskas and Robinson was what their immediate plans for the future might be. They both fobbed it off, but it hangs over almost every team in the field now. It is so omnipresent that John Calipari is currently getting credit as some kind of exemplar of honesty just because he embraces the new paradigm more ardently than anyone else. Before the weekend’s games began, he gave another extended lecture about how he is merely a delicate feather buffeted by the winds of change, about how he’s only a man trying to get by in a world he never made.

I think the first part of this paragraph is relatively uncontroversial. No doubt, all that he says about the sponsors and their ilk are true — after all, that's why they sponsor the tournament — it brings them revenue. This is simply capitalism in America, and I can hardly see how that is particularly offensive. All one need do is look at the Super Bowl to see how that works, and this is different only in that the teams are not professionals.

Pierce's characterization of Calipari, though, is pure cynicism wrapped in scorn garnished with classic elitist disdain. Calipari has always been honest about his feelings about early entry, and he has no power to change it. But apparently, Pierce and his true believers would have him stop recruiting so well, it just isn't right in their world. It's just wrong, somehow, to have all these talented kids, unlikely to stay in school for more than the minimum amount necessary to get noticed and drafted by the NBA, on one team.

What he fails to notice is that this desire is reflected in nearly 100% of Division I basketball players, not just the stars for Kentucky or Michigan. Do you think Marcus Lee doesn't aspire to be in the NBA? I hope to shout. Derek Willis? Darn right, if he can get there. Michigan's bench? You bet. Most college basketball players, however, are self-aware enough to know that isn't their likely path, but if they suddenly grew nine inches like Anthony Davis, that would change in a nanosecond.

Truth be told, I’ve been watching John Calipari operate since he was an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, and I still wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a thoroughbred.

And why not, Charles? He has proven himself trustworthy. He has been honest where others have been deceptive. He has been truthful where many have dissembled, and placed their own priorities over that of their charges. Shouldn't you call them out instead of Coach Cal? One would think.

But this has never been about reason, logic, or honesty. Pierce doesn't trust Calipari because he is incapable of escaping his view, and I confess I am inferring this from his writing and not a statement or obvious disclosure (okay, the Jerry Tarkanian thing might qualify as obvious), that Calipari must be doing something wrong to succeed this well. It's just too good for him to believe, and he's trained himself to dislike people who are too darn good at their job. I makes the rest of us look bad by comparison, and nobody in his world should feel that way.

He can't assail Calipari from an academic perspective — he's forced to admit his kids do too well for that. Out of ammunition, Pierce decides to deride the whole spectacle of college basketball, appealing to anti-corporatism and an idea of fairness somehow violated by Calipari's excellence as a recruiter. Then he just sets Coach Cal up as the high priest of all this and declares him untrustworthy and implies it's all evil and risible. He describes the wonderful efforts of the players without appreciating them in the least because of the ends he thinks they serve, and the fact that they don't meet his ideal of what college sports should be about. In effect, he suggests they are just as wicked as the rest, guilty by association and lack of academic élan.

In my view, this is a narrow-minded, jealously elitist, and dim-witted perspective. In a way, I pity Pierce, because there is no way a person could hold this view of exalted purity as mandatory and enjoy college sports, or anything else. Pitiable, indeed.

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