By Jason Keidel
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Of all the Bruno Magli men who stomp the sidelines, the slicksters who roam the hardwood like hungry, angry grads on the chaotic floor of the stock exchange, there is one master salesman who makes this weekend’s Final Four worth every second.
Even by the subterranean standards of college athletics, where the notion of a student-athlete is a joke to everyone but the people who hire them, there’s something beautiful about John Calipari.
HBO recently ran a “Real Sports” segment about college graduations, and how some athletes not only don’t attend class, but some can’t even read. Yet they graduate with vivid colors.
Calipari doesn’t care about that. Nor should he. In the most dishonest endeavor north of Cosa Nostra, Calipari is perhaps the most honest man in the bunch. Because he embraces the sordid system, uses it, and dominates. He doesn’t pretend he’s taking kids for the leafy campus life, for the diploma that will never arrive, or even for a few classes. He wants talent. And talent he gets. And talented he is.
During his press appearance this week, Calipari said he literally slid into a casket, was wheeled before his players, popped the box open and assured his troops that they were still alive. He regurgitated the exhausted mantra that we counted Kentucky out, that no one believed in them except the poor young souls in the locker room.
But cliches aside, Calipari has a pulse on his team, town, and the entire, duplicitous apparatus that has made him so professionally rugged, rich, resourceful, and unremorseful.
Calipari is the emblem of the exaggeration, the excess, the slick, sick duplicity of college athletics. Yet when one of his successful seasons is wiped off the NCAA map he is seen as the man in the black hat, when, in truth, he was wearing the weaves of the NCAA. It is the NCAA that pretends college sports are about the college experience.
HBO spent time with a young man who recently played linebacker for North Carolina. Instead of hitting the hard books of philosophy or physics, he reached under his bed and plucked several Dr. Seuss books. He literally taught himself how to read AFTER he got into college. And not any college. North Carolina is considered among the finest public universities in the South.
And, for some reason, this is John Calipari’s fault. Whenever the world moans over the mess of college sports, Calipari is branded Exhibit A, the symptom and the disease. CCNY fixed games before Calipari was born, yet we’re supposed to think he invented the clashing impulses of play and profit.
Calipari is the de facto face of the one-and-done era of college basketball – a rather nomadic endeavor where classrooms are replaced by turnstiles through which whisk a number of hardwood savants, under no pretense that they plan to attend college in any profound sense. The NBA can’t decide how dogmatic they want to be with age restrictions, then that becomes Calipari’s problem. In the parlance of social media…SMH
But it’s hard to take the NCAA deities seriously when they coat the college experience with Phog Allen pieties. Not only do they look the other way while schools shamelessly graduate kids with sixth grade reading levels, they also selectively enforce the rules. They drove Jerry Tarkanian into retirement for doing the things almost every other coach committed. Even the sainted John Wooden was in the same area code as Sam Gilbert, even if the two never met.
No, it’s not pretty when Coach Cal leaves a program in fading embers, like he did with UMass and Memphis, always an arm’s length ahead of Johnny Law, while the program he abandoned breaks under the hard fist of infractions.
Calipari, like Tarkanian and an army of coaches before him, stretches the NCAA’s already dubious sense of justice and runs as far as he can with it before the rubber snaps.
After a few teases, Calipari finally broke through two years ago, when he trotted out an absurdly gifted crop of freshmen, led by Anthony Davis, who will be a ten-time NBA All-Star, and Michael Kidd Gilchrist, who was a top-five pick. Can you imagine if John Wall, already owning the NBA at the time, had stayed in school? Kentucky may have challenged Wooden’s eternal winning streak that Notre Dame famously snapped in the ’70s.
But Calipari doesn’t have time for theory, speculation, or sentimentality. He’s a huckster and a shuckster and could unload Enron stock – today. A prosperous college basketball coach must wear so many masks it probably feels like Halloween six days a week.
He must promise parents that their kids will be cared for and educated, knowing full well the latter is incidental or accidental. Calipari has the innate talent for making people feel special, as if their lives were the only ones he thought about from noon to night.
And let’s be honest, while any parent would love to see his or her son get an authentic education, they know that the truly great ones are on campus for a few injury-free months before their first sneaker deal.
All sports need stars. And considering the transient anarchy of college basketball, the coaches freckle the collegiate universe. We barely learned Andrew Wiggins’ name before he bounced to the NBA. Calipari’s conga line of comets is legendary, from Derrick Rose to Wall to Davis to the beast he has out there this weekend. Julius Randle is a man, ready for the rigors of NBA life.
Kentucky isn’t favored to win this weekend’s slate of games. But it’s hard to bet against them. Not just because of the talent on the court, but also the talent on the bench. Maybe John Calipari isn’t the most virtuous man in Bruno Maglis, but it’s hard to think of a more talented one.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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