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NBA Basketball: Kentucky Connections Everywhere in the LeBron James Saga

Hype, or hope for the Heat?
Hype, or hope for the Heat?

This story by Adrian Wojnarowski lays out an absolutely fascinating look at the LeBron James saga.  It is a fairly long article for Wojnarowski, but it is full of interesting things.

The first interesting thing I discovered was that LeBron James, a player I had long figured to be pretty mature for a kid who joined the league right out of high school, was actually an immature jerk who is largely disliked by everyone in the NBA except those in his immediate circle of friends, even after seven years in the NBA.  

I can only compliment the remarkable job that his advertisers, ESPN, Nike, and all the other commercial interests who feed of James' talent have done for making me believe he was a sharp cookie and a good teammate.  Wojnarowski paints a radically different picture than my perspective:

From Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski to managing director Jerry Colangelo to NBA elders, the issue of James’ immaturity and downright disrespectfulness had become a consuming topic on the march to the Olympics. The course of history could’ve changed dramatically, because there was a real risk that James wouldn’t be brought to Beijing based on fears his monumental talents weren’t worth the daily grind of dealing with him.

Quite frankly, this isn't the worst thing written about James in the article.  James is presented as a conniving jerk who's hubris knows no bounds whatever, even to the extent of making Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's intemperate screed look almost justified.  Almost.

But even more intriguing to me, as a Kentucky fan, are the depth and breadth of the Kentucky Wildcats connections in this story.

Pat Riley, former Rupp's Runt, comes off looking like a genius.  Riley, according to the article, literally plotted this coup for up two two years before James became available:

No one had more intelligence and better monitored the disconnect between James and the Cavaliers than Miami Heat president Pat Riley. He had informants and spies everywhere, including his own star, Wade, who had been telling Riley for most of two years they could lure James to South Beach. The Heat had everything they needed to sell James, except for what finally arrived on the eve of the NBA draft: salary-cap space.

That's remarkably forward-thinking stuff, and I suppose this kind of careful cultivation and calculation of circumstances, and nurturing of potential opportunity, has largely defined Pat Riley's remarkable record of success at every level of the NBA.  This guy doesn't let the present get him down, he just figures out ways to make the future of his team better, whether he's the president or the head coach.  Consider this:

Riley ran the Heat franchise in a bold way. He had two things to sell the best players in the NBA: South Beach and his bigger-than-life persona. The Heat don’t bother scouting internationally. They didn’t believe much in the college draft. They constantly planned around free agents and trades, a high-risk, high-reward way to steer an organization.

Riley has never steered away from risk.  To the contrary, he has often steered right into it, and trusted his intelligence and ability to persuade to navigate the treacherous waters and get him safely to the destination he had in mind.

Make no mistake -- if Wojnarowski paints an accurate picture, there is no person in NBA basketball who earns his salary as much as Riley does, no matter what he makes.  Of course, if the Three Amigos Experiment turns out to be a bust, he may not look quite as sharp, but it still amazes me that he was able to create a situation which allowed these three great players to come together in the prime of their careers.  These aren't developing players he has brought in in James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but two superstars and a just-below superstar.  If he can mix in some shooting talent and keep them reasonably healthy, there is no reason he can't win several more championships from the front office.

Of course, not everyone is so enamored with Riley's machinations.  Real GM reports that at least one NBA front office is demanding an investigation:

A top front-office executive believes the NBA league office must investigate whether Pat Riley and the Miami Heat organization made promises of employment and benefits to members of James' inner circle.


John Calipari also figures into the article, of course in connection with William Wesley:

Wesley wanted the commission on Calipari’s pro contract, but no one wanted to hire him. James did have a strong bond with Calipari, but ultimately he was much more interested with the ownership, front office and talent on the floor. James understood that coaches were easily disposable, but the rest had more staying power.

Not very flattering, I guess, if you are Calipari.  If Calipari had Wesley out looking for an NBA spot for him featuring LeBron, it had to be a real ego-buster to face up to the fact that nobody wanted him, even with his LeBron friendship.  It also points up the fact that I mentioned at one point in this whole drama that NBA coaches get fired on a moment's notice, and even if Calipari came, why would James care, since Calipari could be fired more or less immediately after the ink was dry on James' contract?

All in all, it is quite the tour-de-force in cool calculation on the part of Pat Riley and self-aggrandizement on the part of James and his inner circle.  Even World Wide Wes comes off looking like a sage by comparison, and Maverick Carter, James' childhood buddy and partner in his LRMR marketing firm, looking like an amateur.

Kentucky fans may find the snub of Calipari by the NBA surprising, but I don't.  Calipari had his shot at the NBA, and NBA people really have little respect for coaches who fail for whatever reason and then succeed in college but don't win NCAA championships.   Maybe when Calipari proves he can win the NCAA tournament and get to Final Fours in bunches, that will change.  But so far, Coach Cal has not developed the chops that Pitino, Izzo, or even Billy Donovan had when the NBA offered them jobs.

All this is not to impugn Coach Cal.  He is trying something at Kentucky that is new and different, at least as a persistent strategy.  If it works and UK wins four or five championships, he could come off looking like a wizard.  Even if Kentucky just manages one championship and a number of Final Fours, it would have to be considered successful.

In spite of all his success at UMass, at Memphis and now at Kentucky in only one year, Calipari has yet to prove he can win the big one, and get all the way to the promised land.  It is unlikely the NBA will come calling on him again until he does.

Wrapping all this up, Pat Riley comes off looking like a mastermind, LeBron James a talented, narcissistic, cantankerous child, Maverick Carter a petulant twerp who's only talent is maintaining a friendship with James, and John Calipari as a guy in whom the NBA is not interested.  

All in all, at least that last is pretty good news for Kentucky fans.