A gray tempest settled over New Orleans in the hours before college basketball's national championship game. Lightning bolts flashed from the bulging clouds blowing gray over the concrete pod of the Superdome: gothic flickers at the mouth of the monstrous river emptying into the sea.
Beneath that massive dome, surrounded by 70,000 spectators—an enormous, brightly colored crowd towering over the custom-painted slab of polished maple—lightning struck for one of college basketball's purebreds, Kentucky, and its coach, John Calipari, as his Wildcats suppressed a relentless, heart-driven Kansas Jayhawks' team, 67-59, to capture the school's eighth national championship.
That Calipari is now head coach of the finest amateur basketball team in America was but a matter of time these last 16 years; since the days he led UMass—from a dry-dock rot—to five consecutive Atlantic 10 championships and into the 1996 Final Four, where its season ended at the bloody maw of the Wildcats' program he now leads.
But the run made by the '96 team was not some freak chance of circumstances. Calipari re-built and re-charted the course of the Minutemen's ghost ship beginning the moment he was offered the helm as a 29-year-old coaching phenomenon.
Those days at Amherst, Mass., the way his squads attacked and defended with principled cohesion—Calipari pacing the deep crimson sideline of their parquet floor, his jacket off, black hair swept back, sweating like a fighter, shouting and flailing, caring more than anyone, taking everything as personally as an Italian mother watching over a battle field—made a deep impression.
It was also—from a perspective that looks on basketball as a game comprised of fundamental skills which must be mastered, philosophies and principles which must be instilled and executed—a pleasure to watch.
The sport was altered by the undeniable force of Calipari's presence, in the way an erupting volcano can reorganize the elemental composition of an atmosphere. This effect, a human force of nature doing what he must do in the way he feels he must do it, teaching a system which refuses on principle to accept being altered or vanquished, no matter the foe, contributed to making Calipari a target for some of the most ludicrous criticism of an obviously huge talent that I've ever heard.
The most common charge yawped into the abyss by the armchair fan is that Calipari can't actually coach. This school of critics claims, often describing the type of ultra-athletic, inner-city black players Calipari recruited during nine seasons at Memphis, that he turned the floor over to "thugs" and allowed them to play some kind of rough, improvised playground game. I've listened as some of these same people attempted to light it into beauty, like it was the genius understanding of a young tactician: give the field over to the savages and let them destroy the enemy as they found fit. He couldn't coach, in other words, he just deployed the most talented and ruthless forces.
Calipari may be Machiavellian in that he accepts on its own terms the rampant corruption, cynicism and greed festering within many of the parasites attached to high school and AAU basketball, but he is the opposite of a figure-head coach who unleashes teen-aged "street kids" onto the floor to play the game by instinct.
I've stopped having the debate. To hear someone describe Calipari's teams that way after watching them play is something like hearing a man say Rossini couldn't write music, but needed an orchestra of prodigies playing instruments built by Stradivarius to carry off his effect. As if somehow it is a coincidence that Rossini's music sounds the same 140 years later, and Calipari's college teams are among the most dynamic and structurally sound units in America every season, wherever he's coaching. It's gotten too patently stupid to indulge, even for the sake of argument.
The commonest criticism hurled by sports columnists, (those self-appointed moralists of college athletics), and Bob Knight, the former martinet head coach—(called The General, after his hero, Patton)—is that he's a sleazy recruiter and unscrupulous operator, generally. They like to cite the facts that a growing number of Calipari's best players have left school to play professional basketball after a single college season, and that both the Final Fours at UMass and Memphis were vacated, erased from the record books by the NCAA, for by-laws violations involving players.
The annihilation of two separate Final Fours were severe public censures and blights against Calipari's record, without any doubt. But it is important to bear in mind, for people who care about judging a thing on accurate evidence, that at both schools the violations began and ended with a single player, and it was nowhere charged that a virulent disease had infected either program. At UMass, nothing Marcus Camby did had anything to do with the basketball program, or even the rest of his team. He's said his mistakes haunt him to this day.
And further, Calipari was not personally censured at the end of either investigation. So, despite the best efforts of college athletics governing body, the head coach in both cases could not be held responsible for what had happened, and it could not be proved he had any knowledge of the transgressions. I'll leave the NCAA's byzantine Committee on Infractions, then, to defend its sentences against the UMass and Memphis basketball programs, and on the almost wanton official annihilation of a history witnessed by millions.
But it's on dubious "moral" grounds that Calipari is pilloried for building college teams with athletes who aren't going to spend four years in college. In any other career field requiring university training, the objective is to compel a student to understand and execute certain necessary tasks competently. When the faculty determines the requisite arc of instruction has been completed, the student is awarded a degree and released from school to seek professional employment. Physically and emotionally mature athletes may not require four years to prepare for professional athletics, and a good coach, like a good faculty instructor, will tell them when they're ready to go. Players who need four years to develop will; players who don't will move on as opportunities present themselves.
The vast majority of Division I basketball players are not talented enough to play professional basketball. These athletes, most of them at school on an athletic scholarship, have the unique opportunity to continue playing the game they love, and work toward a degree worth, at minimum, $50,000 to the regular student. There should be less moral hand-wringing over athletes moving on when they're read to professional occupations paying millions of dollars in their first year of employment. A university education should do as much for everyone.
The truth is that a substantial amount of the anguished clamoring over kids leaving school early is generated by the serious fan upset by fewer opportunities to watch "his" team develop over three or four seasons, culminating in a tense, everything in the balance Crusade through the national tournament. That's the way it used to be, is what they say. And they're right; but in those days freshmen weren't allowed to play, either. The way it used to be is not the way it is, no matter how badly they want it; change is a merciless wench.
Calipari comprehends the modern athletic mindset better than any other coach: the player's future is considered first in today's game. A coach like Knight with an inveterate, almost 1950s world-view will never understand or accept the new reality. In Knight's day players came to his program for four years of drilling, almost as young recruits into the Army, and were released afterwards at his mercy or by exhausting NCAA eligibility limits. Calipari has said over-and-over again his player's professional earning potential comes first in terms of decision making. The players have vouched for his sincerity. Calipari is so confident in his talent as a recruiter and coach that he believes he can assemble a formidable team every season with new parts if players are good enough to leave. So far, he's been right.
But though the players come first in one way, in another they are compelled to conform to the strict roles assigned them on Calipari's squads, often not what they were used to doing in high school. That Calipari can keep those two considerations in solution, the good of the team over the course of what may be a single season together, and the imminent, million dollar ambitions of supremely confident young men, is a trick of emulsification that should impress anyone who takes the time to consider it.
At Amherst, Calipari built structural teams, relentlessly fundamental and grinding with an underdog's mentality, until Marcus Camby came, and they became a legitimate force. At Memphis, he deployed a wing of attack helicopters. His 2008 team was an all-out assault squad as a result of explosive athleticism installed into Calipari's dribble-drive offense. Those teams carried out savage raids from the point and wings using high-flying, forceful players. When a jump shot arced toward the basket, what looked like a swarm of angry gunships buzzed the rim to hammer down any rebound. They played aggressive man-to-man defense; all of his teams do.
His Kentucky groups—there have been only three—show all the signs of a master coach working flush through his most creative and productive period. The balance, camaraderie and selflessness drilled into the highest-profile prep players in America has been amazing to watch. While other Mt. Rushmore programs have struggled badly with the ego driven, thinking-about-the-future selfishness of "one-and-done" players, Calipari has thrived using them almost exclusively.
In his teams one can see the professional mindset: win a championship. The attitude embraced is to do whatever it takes to get the job done, your personal statistics and feelings be damned. Somehow Calipari gets his very young players to understand that to do whatever it takes to win a team championship in college will prepare them to make their best personal contribution to a professional franchise—where the only goal is championships and teammates police themselves.
After what Calipari managed to build at UMass and Memphis, the first school a ghost of a program since Dr. J finished-up in 1971, and the next a respectable second-tier institution, look what track he's on with Kentucky's blue-and-white bloodlines to sell. In three years, it's been an Elite Eight, two Final Fours and a national championship.
Kentucky is one of the half-dozen or eight programs that look most comfortable, most at home in the Final Four. Something elemental in college basketball is right when Kentucky trots onto the floor and starts through the layup lines at a national semifinal. For the rest of college basketball, the present looks a lot like the past: the benchmark for excellence has once again been set in Lexington, Kentucky, and it looks to stay that way for awhile.