Big Blue genius

John Calipari appears to have done the impossible: Please Kentucky's demanding fanbase

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John Calipari has never won the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Coach of the Year Award, and you suspect that deep down that’s just fine with him. If the USBWA ever did give him the Henry Iba Award, Calipari would have one less log to throw on the raging “the world is against us,” fire that seems to drive him and forge him and motivate him to scream insanely at a player when Kentucky is up by 27 with two minutes to go.

Still, this little fact is pretty amazing. In 1996, Coach Cal — as both his critics and fans call him, only with emphasis on different words — coached UMass to the Final Four. That’s UMass. Before he took over that program, the school had made the NCAA Tournament exactly one time — they didn’t make the NCAA tournament even when they had Julius Erving, for crying out loud. Calipari in his book “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out,” calculates that UMass was the 295th ranked college basketball program.

In 1995-96, Calipari’s Minutemen — with Marcus Camby playing the starring role — won their first 26 games, jumped to No. 1 in the country, reached the Final Four and made Coach Cal the hottest college coach in the game. He went to the NBA. That didn’t work out as well.

The Henry Iba Award that year went to Purdue’s Gene Keady, whose fine team won the Big 10, lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and does not even get a mention on the Purdue basketball Wikipedia page.

In 2008, Calipari’s Memphis team won its first 26 games and rolled to the national championship game. Before he took over that program, the Tigers had two losing seasons and two different coaches and a zero percent graduation rate. Zero. Coach Cal got some kids to graduate, rebuilt the program, and that year recruited Derrick Rose, put him together with Chris-Douglas Roberts. The Tigers won what is still a record 38 games in a single season.

The Iba Award went to Keno Davis at Drake. That is not a misprint. That Drake team would promptly lose to Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

In 2012, Calipari was at Kentucky, and he coached what was essentially a team of freshmen — led by the magnificent Anthony Davis — to a national championship. That team went a perfect 16-0 in the SEC, won every NCAA Tournament game by at least eight points, finished with 38 victories and was No. 1 more or less the whole season. Many consider it the best college basketball team of the last decade — at least until this year.

The 2012 Iba Award went to Missouri’s Frank Haith. Yeah. Missouri’s Frank Haith.

So this year? Right. Calipari’s Kentucky team is on pace for the greatest season in college basketball history. The Wildcats are undefeated and overwhelming. The began Thursday four victories away from a 40-0 season, another national championship and an almost undisputed spot as the best college basketball team ever. Of course, people will dispute it — there are many around Lexington who believe that several KENTUCKY teams of the past could beat this one — but in practical terms there is no arguing with 40-0.

This year’s Henry Iba Award winner was Virginia’s Tony Bennett. It was the second time Bennett has won the award.

Of course, John Calipari would feel persecuted anyway. Like the scorpion that stings the frog, it is in his nature. That the Basketball Writers Association so openly refuses to acknowledge him is, for Coach Cal, just a happy bonus.

* * *

The closest I’ve ever come to understanding the unique passion that grips Kentucky basketball fans was when Hazel made a voodoo doll of me. Hazel Guynn Porter was 80 years old then, and she was not so much a legend of Kentucky fanhood as she was the essence of it. She once offered a referee her glasses. During a game at Rupp Arena, she once made a rather rude gesture toward Chuck Culpepper, a sportswriter she dearly loved, because he had not been quite as enthusiastic as he might have been in the morning column. And she made that voodoo doll of me.

I had it coming. It was 1996, and I had written that Kentucky would not win the national championship.  This lack of faith (and dreadful prognosticating — Kentucky did win) so disturbed Hazel that she cut out my photo from the paper, attached it to a voodoo doll of her own making. She would occasionally poke it or give it a particularly angry glare. The first time I saw her after Kentucky had won and I had conceded defeat, she hit me.

And here was the thing: Hazel LIKED me.

The fervor for Kentucky basketball is not easily compared to anything else. Yes, of course, there’s Alabama football and Red Sox baseball and Texas everything and, well, in my life as a sportswriter I have seen extreme connections to every college, every team, every program. I don’t think Kentucky fans love Kentucky basketball any more than Ohio State fans love their football or people in Montreal love their Habs or San Antonio Spurs fans love their hoops. The word is not “more.” Yes, every seat sells out at Rupp Arena, and 10,000 people stick around to hear his postgame radio show, and four thousand showed up in a supermarket parking lot in Owensboro just to shake Coach Cal’s hand. But there are a lot of stories like that around the country. It’s not a question of “more.” It’s just different.

“As a state that has had its hard times,” one of Kentucky’s many superfans Ashley Judd writes, “basketball has given us something to distract us from hardships, from coal mines and strikes and poverty, and given us something positive about which to dream.”

Yes. Dreams. They say that for Brazilian soccer fans, victory is not enough; the soccer must be beautiful. There’s something like that with Kentucky basketball. Fans don’t just want the Wildcats to win. Obviously they DO want the wins, but that is not quite enough. They want the basketball to be transcendent, the games to take them into another dimension, the Wildcats to be larger than life. Kentucky had some of this when Adolph Rupp was winning with runts from the Kentucky mountains and tough young men who wanted a life outside the coal mines. Kentucky had some of this when Rick Pitino was having his players press full-court and fire three-pointers from all over the court (the sound of “THREE!” would fill Rupp Arena).

But other times, winning has just not been quite fulfilling. Kentucky fans liked Tubby Smith, but as a group never quite loved him though he won a national championship and won a lot of games after that. Some said it was because Smith is African-American, and you can never take race out of the American story. But Smith was also boring. His teams were often excellent but always conventional — after a while they just kind of bled into each other.

I remember a talking with a hardcore Kentucky fan who liked Tubby Smith but just couldn’t find it in his heart to love him.

“I miss the show,” he said.

So many feelings swirl around the Kentucky basketball program. So many emotional investments are made. So many voids to fill. A friend from Kentucky recalls that minutes after one of Kentucky’s singular victories, an absurd comeback against Duke in the 1998 Tournament, he called his father expecting to share his joy. Instead, his father complained about Kentucky’s rebounding.

Another version of the same story: In the 1993 SEC Tournament, Kentucky beat Tennessee 101-40. It was the single most dominating performance I’ve ever seen from any team in any sport. Tennessee shot 23 percent — its best player, Allan Houston, went 1-for-15. The Volunteers had THIRTY turnovers and SIX assists.

After the game, we were listening to the postgame radio show. The first person to call in said this: “Well, if we don’t get more than 11 points from (Jamaal) Mashburn, we’re going to be in trouble.”

This is the hunger, the ravenous hunger, of Kentucky basketball fans.

“They’re crazy,” Calipari writes in his book. “They watch more film than me.”

In so many ways, Kentucky basketball coach was the part John Calipari was born to play.

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* * *

No, of course you can’t possible write the John Calipari story without mentioning the bad stuff. You are no doubt wondering how it took this long to mention. There’s the NCAA wreckage left behind at UMass and Memphis. There are the wins taken away from his programs (and from Cal himself, as he would reluctantly discover when Kentucky tried to throw him a premature 500th victory party). There was the time that Bob Knight openly wondered how the heck he still had a job. A year ago, Calipari found himself on Sports Illustrated’s most disliked people in sports list, there with Donald Sterling, Alex Rodriguez and Bill Belichick.

“What’s that tell me?” Coach Cal tweeted. “I probably shouldn’t run for office.”

The perfect Calipari response. There are rebuttals to the various charges against Calipari; you never have to go far in Kentucky to hear them. The UMass violations involved Marcus Camby and money from an agent — no connection to Calipari was found. The Memphis violations built around Derrick Rose’s suspiciously precise SAT test; it was determined that someone took the test for him. Coach Cal, again, was not linked. The NCAA has never sanctioned Calipari.

Then, people don’t dislike Calipari for what has been proven, for what they know to be true about him. Instead, people dislike him for what they suspect to be true — bags of money, academic deviousness, cynical dealings, shady sidestepping. How does he get all these amazing freshmen? Why has he left programs just as they were about to be slammed by the NCAA? How could he possibly have put together a team as talented as this Kentucky team without doing some questionable things?

Coach Cal lives inside an odd three-pronged conundrum.

1. People believe Calipari is too slick to get caught no matter what he does.

2. He never gets caught.

3. Therefore, people are convinced he must be getting away with something.

Some of this, frankly, is Coach Cal’s persona. Yes, playing the Google Game is pointless but it is still true that Googling “Calipari” and “snake-oil salesman” triggers more than 35,000 results. That early 20th century term, “snake-oil salesman” seems so absurdly outdated, like milkmen and cobblers. But for writer after writer, fan after fan, critic after critic, it seems to be the only image evocative enough to summarize Calipari’s act. He’s glib, he’s defiant, he’s got his hair slicked back and he’s wearing an Italian suit. Snake-oil salesman.

Does this bother him? Yes. No. Yes.

“I’m a black hat,” he writes. “Perfect for the role. I talk a little fast. I took a downtrodden program and quickly elevated, so that’s suspect … People said I wore expensive suits, as if that mattered or I were the only guy who tried to look good on the bench. … When you’re cast as the a black hat, that’s your role for life.”

That is his role, no question. And so, now, he embraces it. Sort of. He likes it. Maybe. He says that he doesn’t like the one-and-done nature of college basketball these days — where the very best players go to college for just one year to reach the NBA age minimum — but no one is even in Coach Cal’s airspace when it comes to recruiting one-and-done players and meshing them into a team. He claims not to read the criticisms, but he has been known to call sports editors when he feels like his record has been cooked so that it looks like he’s a renegade. He turns his sensitivity into fuel. It’s us against the world. This speaks to his players. This especially speaks to those deeply passionate Kentucky fans. Us against the world.

When Kentucky held that 500th victory celebration for him – the one the NCAA shut down because they had officially vacated 42 of his victories – Coach Cal was given a basketball. They can take away the victories. They can’t have that basketball.

“I keep it on a prominent shelf in my office,” he writes. “When you walk in, it hits you right in the face.”

* * *

This year’s Kentucky basketball team is a miracle. Nothing less. It is a team that has at least seven players who are projected to go in the NBA draft. The Wildcats will likely have nine players drafted by some point. None of the nine are seniors, of course. Four players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles — will likely be lottery picks this year. Three of them are freshmen.

So think about this: Calipari has one more time put together a temporary team of spectacularly talented young men recruited by more or less every major basketball program in America. Those young men have been told how great they are most of their lives. They all know they will be in the NBA soon; college is a weigh station. He does not just know that many of them will leave after this season, he WANTS them to leave — a big part of his pitch is that he will get them ready to play in the NBA in one year.

And this group of players does not lose.

More than that, this group plays impossibly hard. They play intense defense. They play crazy unselfish basketball. Calipari plays some of the best players in America just 20 to 25 minutes a game.

Towns, who is potentially the first pick in the NBA Draft, plays 20 minutes a game and averages 10 points.

Booker, a supreme shooter who on another team might be challenging for the NCAA scoring title, averages 10 points a game.

When Florida coach Billy Donovan talks about what makes Kentucky such a handful, he talks about how 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles plays small forward and no one in America can match up with him. Lyles averages 8.5 points a game.

This is not coaching. It’s witchcraft. These are young men with egos, with accomplishments, with brilliant futures. Coach Cal sends players in four at a time, he dramatically yanks underachieving players out of games with arm waving flourishes, he screams at them more or less every minute of every game.

Sometimes they despise him for it. “They’re 18- and 19-year olds,” Calipari says. “They’re going to talk under their breath: ‘Oh, who does he think he is saying that to me?’ That’s what they’re going to do.

“I told them, ‘I know some of you are mad at me. You go to your room and you cuss me, I know what you do.’ … But I tell them, ‘My job is to get you to be your best. And I’m not settling for less than that.’”

And they play together. For him. For Kentucky. This sort of obsessive perfectionism speaks to Kentucky fans. Yes, there is always the worry that Coach Cal bolts for the NBA. But, in the end, here is a coach who so obviously cares as much as they do, who might even care more than they do. And Kentuckians will fight for a man like that.

There is no sure way to determine how this Wildcats team would do against, say, Bob Knight’s 1975-76 Indiana team, the last team to go undefeated, or Dean Smith’s 1982 national championship team with the freshman Michael Jordan, or Jerry Tarkanian’s great UNLV teams of the early 1990s, or one of Mike Krzyzewski’s great Duke teams or Rick Pitino’s championship Kentucky team or even Calipari’s own Kentucky national champion.

Here’s a guess: Some of those teams probably could beat this Kentucky if both teams were playing their best. These Wildcats are not invincible. Georgia had them on the ropes just this month. Two so-so SEC teams — Ole Miss and Texas A&M — took the Wildcats into overtime.

The thing is, though, none of them beat Kentucky. And that’s because on the Wildcats’ bad days — when shots aren’t dropping, when energy is lagging, when the ball doesn’t bounce right — they are too deep, too versatile, too determined to lose. Calipari prods and pulls and pushes until he finds the right five players for the finish. And Kentucky finishes like no team in memory.

That makes them just about as sure a thing as college basketball has had in a long, long time. John Calipari built them that way. Of course, Kentucky fans know very well that sure things sometimes lose in the NCAA Tournament, and so they watch supportively as Calipari uses every doubt, slight, snub, insult and accusation to stoke his own fire and propel those players.

And then, however it ends, this remarkable team will disband, scatter to the NBA wind, and Calipari will start all over again, with critics at his back pushing him higher. Already next year’s recruiting class looks amazing. Up in heaven, I suspect, Hazel Guynn Porter has a whole series of voodoo dolls for all those people who doubt Coach Cal.