Roy Exum: Calipari’s Big Dilemma

Monday, April 7, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The University of Kentucky’s “Kiddie Kats,” a stunning basketball team where every starter was still in high school this time a year ago, is on the threshold of the national championship. UK will face Connecticut in the Final Four finals at 9 p.m. tonight (CBS) in what will doubtlessly be recorded by historians as one of the Wildcats’ greatest seasons ever.

Kentucky, now 29-10, came into the tournament as an eighth seed while UConn, a seventh seed that hit a record 19-of-20 free throws in Saturday’s 63-53 win over a Florida team that had previously won 30 straight, is also a bracket-buster that fought its way to the final dance. UConn is scrappy but Kentucky may be invincible after three wins in this year’s NCAA gauntlet have been by 3 points or less.

What Kentucky has done since March 1st is every bit as “ridiculous” as the incredible arcing three-pointer that Aaron “The Assassin” Harrison made with 5.7 seconds remaining late Saturday night that staggered and daggered a good Wisconsin, 74-73. The biggest crowd in college basketball history, 79,444, was the eye-witness at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and you can evermore bet they’ll be back tonight.

The reason for Kentucky’s blinding success, aside from an abundant supply of diaper-rash ointment, is the dazzling John Calipari. “Coach Cal” has now master-minded 11 straight NCAA tournament wins, including the 2012 title run and, ironically, his last loss was in the 2011 tournament when UConn beat the Wildcats in the final game, 56-55.

Calipari, who won the 2012 NCAA title with another set of freshmen, has been roundly criticized for the “one and done” way Kentucky has won repeatedly since Calipari has been head coach since 2009. Critics say he “uses” his players, allowing them to play just one year before bolting for the green (money) of the NBA but in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Calipari says that’s not true at all.

“Coach Cal” has a book coming out on April 15 that he has written with the help of author Michael Sokolove. It is titled, “Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out” and on the dust jacket is a blurb that reads in part: “While no coach treasures a win more than John, this terrific book reveals his greater purpose—to lead his young players to better lives, and then challenge them to give back to others." —President William J. Clinton.”

So what the Wall Street Journal did Friday was to print an excerpt of Calipari’s new book and here is part of the WSJ’s excerpt where the Kentucky coach explains the “One and Done” dilemma in his own words:

* * *

In 2005, NBA owners, players and their agents hammered out a compromise on a collective bargaining agreement that put us where we are now: one and done.

Players can't go to the NBA until one year past their high-school graduation. So they come to Kentucky or one of the other top programs. They play one season. And then the best of them leave.

I've made it work for the teams I coach—and for the players—as best I can. But I don't like it one bit. Some people say I'm renting players or I'm working the system. Let me make this very clear: I want to coach players for four years. Very few of the young players are truly ready for the rigors of the NBA. All but a handful would benefit from more time playing college basketball, more class time and more time on a college campus.

Notice what I didn't say: that if we changed the one-and-done rule it would be better for college basketball. I hear people talk like that and sometimes I want to laugh. It sounds so high-minded, but what is college basketball? Can anybody tell me? Is it something unto itself that exists on its own, with a soul and a heart that beats? Is college basketball just a spawn of the NCAA? Or when we say that we care about "the good of the game," are we talking about its history?

I don't think it is any of these things. I want us to do right by the players. And we're not doing that right now.

What I propose isn't that radical, nor should it be difficult. All that it would require is that the NBA come together with the players association and agree that no player comes into the league until at least two years after his high-school class has graduated.

The benefit for our players would be greater than most people realize. When we sign a kid out of high school, he's on our campus just about immediately after his graduation—taking college courses and beginning to accumulate credits. By the next May, if he has done what he's supposed to do, he has more credits than a normal freshman.

So what happens if we require a player to stay two years? He has already taken summer courses right after high school. He goes through his freshman year. He takes more courses the following summer. Then he completes his sophomore year. So even if he puts his name in the draft and goes to the NBA, he should be about a year from graduation. He's a year from his degree, not three years.

Some people think players don't care about the academic aspect. That is nonsense. We get kids with a range of abilities in the classroom, but nearly all of them want to do well. Some tell me when they get here that they don't like being students, and then they end up changing their minds.

But what these kids are faced with is having a big pile of money put in front of them for something they already love. People jumping at money isn't particular to basketball. Or sports. It's what most people do, given the opportunity.

Nobody makes a big deal of it when baseball players turn pro out of high school. I don't recall an uproar when Tiger Woods left Stanford for the PGA Tour. Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs made it all the way through college.

We're not keeping these NBA-quality players for four years. Those days are gone. My point is there is a middle ground.

* * *

I think Calipari is right and the NCAA should team with the NBA to find that common ground. There are 17 of Coach Cal’s former Kentucky players in the NBA and no one can deny they shouldn’t be there. On the other hand the Harrison twins’ father is nervous that his sons, at age 19, will not only be split apart but each made into a millionaire by this year’s NBA draft.

But before that vexing problem is met there is a basketball game in Texas tonight at 9:10 p.m. and my best guess is that UK will avenge the 2011 defeat to UConn by a score of 68-64. Trust me, the game will be a great one and who was it that just said, “Those Kentucky freshmen are playing like sophomores!”

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