ARLINGTON, Texas — Moments after Monday’s loss to Connecticut in the NCAA title game, the Kentucky Wildcats fielded questions about their futures.
Not just the players.
But the head coach.
Calipari indicated after the game that he wasn’t going anywhere.
“No, I’m right (here) at Kentucky,” Calipari told ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards. “I’ve got the best job. I’ve got a good group of kids, love what I’m doing. Speculation? That’s every year I coach.”
Asked again, point blank, if he would be coaching Kentucky next season, Calipari said: “Absolutely.”
Calipari may be telling the truth.
But there’s no rule that says he can’t change his mind.
As long as Calipari is winning games and commanding the national spotlight in college, there will be a buzz about whether he’ll return to the pros. And I don’t care what Calipari said after Monday’s loss. If an NBA team calls, he’s going to listen.
Especially if it’s the Lakers.
This isn’t the Charlotte Bobcats we’re talking about here. It’s not the Orlando Magic or the Milwaukee Bucks. This is Los Angeles Frickin’ Lakers, winners of 16 NBA titles, with a roster featuring Kobe Bryant, located in one of the best cities in America. Coaching the Lakers isn’t one of the best jobs in the NBA. It’s one of the most coveted jobs in all of sports.
I’m not saying Calipari would take the position if it's offered to him.
But to dismiss the possibility of it happening, even after his denial on Monday, is simply irresponsible.
Lakers spokesman John Black told Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times that the rumor about Calipari was untrue, and that very well may be the case at the moment. But Chapman’s tweet originated from somewhere, and it’s worth noting that Chapman spent time during Final Four weekend with coaching agent and Calipari confidant William Wesley (aka “Worldwide Wes”).
Not saying that’s where Chapman’s information came from. Just stating a fact. Speaking of facts, here’s a few more, as noted by Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel: The Lakers will have a high draft pick this summer, and Los Angeles is one of the most attractive places for standout free agents. LeBron James can become a free agent this summer. Would he want to play for Calipari, a friend?
How about a roster featuring Bryant and James and maybe one of the stars from this year’s Kentucky squad, perhaps a Julius Randle or James Young?
It may never happen.
But I’m guessing the thought is at least being entertained by both sides.
Calipari may be right when he says he has the best job in college basketball. But that doesn’t mean being Kentucky’s coach is easy. Recruiting is a grind, the pressure is immense and the fanaticism of the Wildcats fans, frankly, can be a bit over the top. It’s what makes Calipari’s job great and difficult at the same time. Chapman was only half joking when he tweeted this:
I don't live in some dream world & have alwys called it straight. Alwys will. Let's not 4get, 6-wks ago many in BBN would've walked Cal 2 LA— Rex Chapman (@rexchapman) April 8, 2014
Chapman is referring to the angst that permeated throughout Lexington after Kentucky lost to Arkansas (twice) and SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina.
It was right around that time when I spent four days behind the scenes of Kentucky’s program. The Wildcats had yet to develop the chemistry they displayed during their NCAA tournament run, and fans had been all over Calipari and his team. As we ate breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, Calipari talked about how much the Kentucky job had aged him and wondered how long he could continue under such an intense spotlight.
“You push so hard, and you’re held to a different standard here,” Calipari, 55, said. “It’s a different level. Every day is a grind to get these kids ready. If I can’t keep up the pace for these kids, then I’ll be cheating them and I won’t do it anymore.
“Seriously, I don’t need the money. I’m not trying to get 1,000 wins. If I can’t keep giving everything I have, I’ll walk away.”
Two months later, Calipari hardly appears to be at a breaking point. If anything, this year’s NCAA tournament run was his finest hour. Over the course of the season, the Wildcats, who started five freshmen, went from being a group of McDonald’s All-Americans with no chemistry to one of the most cohesive, unified teams in college basketball.
“We were teammates when we first got to Kentucky,” shooting guard Aaron Harrison said. “Now we’re brothers.”
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart was effusive in his praise of Calipari following Monday’s loss.
“What he did was so hard,” Barnhart said. “If there was ever a doubt that this guy...I mean, so many people say, ‘Cal just rolls the ball out there (and doesn’t coach).’
“Well, he doesn’t just roll the ball out there. He’s an absolute, dynamic coach. He coaches the game, he teaches kids how to be better ballplayers. If you didn’t see that in the last month, then you weren’t watching the same thing I was watching. He’s a very, very good basketball coach, one of the top in the profession.”
If Calipari indeed has interest in the Lakers job (assuming it opens up), leaving Kentucky now would make sense as far as timing. The conventional wisdom is that five Wildcats (Randle, Young, Willie Cauley-Stein and Andrew and Aaron Harrison) will enter the NBA draft, leaving Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress as the only returnees with significant experience. And heck, they could turn pro, too.
Just like he did this season, Calipari will attempt to mold another freshman-dominated team into an NCAA title contender in a span of sixth months. If, of course, he’s still around.
I think he will be—but I won’t be shocked if he’s not.
“I’ve been with Cal five years now,” Barnhart said. “I think I know him fairly well. I think if there was anything I needed to be concerned with, he and I would’ve had a conversation. We haven’t had any of those conversations.
“He looks great in blue.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.