An amazing thing about sports is how reputations stick, no matter how dated they've become. In seven-plus years at Kentucky, John Calipari has made four Final Fours, won a national title, had a historic 38-1 season and had 28 players selected in the NBA draft—yet you still hear the haters who see Coach Cal as the one-and-done guy, the great recruiter who rolls the ball out and lets them play.
The truth could hardly be more different. The college basketball landscape is littered with coaches and teams that have failed to successfully incorporate one-and-done talents the way Calipari has.
Calipari is more than just Kentucky's coach. He's a chemistry professor, someone who has the rare ability to get uber-talented, NBA-bound teenagers to come to Lexington and buy in to the concept of sacrificing for the team.
He's also more than just the head of one blue-blood program. John Calipari has become, in his stint at Kentucky, the most forward-thinking mind in college hoops, someone willing to take ideas that once seemed absurd—a team comprised of one-and-dones? A preseason NBA combine for Kentucky players only? An SEC tournament in the preseason instead of the postseason, as he recently lobbied for?—and give them currency in the sport.
I sat down with Calipari the morning after a Kentucky road victory—a too-close win over Mississippi State that still had the coach fuming—to talk about all these things, as well as about his new book, Success Is the Only Option: The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent.
Note: The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Bleacher Report: There's this idea of "Coaching Extreme Talent" that you wrote about. I'm curious: Who do you see as the first extreme talent you ever coached, and when did the idea of bringing all these extreme talents together to see what would happen really come to you?
John Calipari: The first one was Marcus Camby [who played for Calipari at UMass from 1993-96 and made the Final Four in '96].
B/R: Did he change the way you think about coaching?
Calipari: I coached him different. With Marcus, he grew all those inches, but he was way behind physically. In all my years, the weight-strength coach was us. You were academic support, the weight-strength coaches and you were compliance. You did everything in those days.
So you had to bench 200 pounds, just get it off your chest. You had to do 10 dips. And you had to get through the conditioning. The conditioning was what we called 20-20s. In 20 minutes you had to do 20 suicides. If it was 35 seconds, then you had 25 seconds to rest. The clock went up to 20 and just ran.
So here comes Camby. He can't lift the barbell, which was 75 pounds. There's no way he can do a dip. So all the guys are looking at me. He couldn't do the 20-20s either.
So with the dips, we had a new thing where if he bent his legs, we would help him. We changed lifting from group lifting to individual lifting. And then on the 20-20s, instead of putting it up on the clock where everybody could see, we had it on a stopwatch. He was a little self-conscious, but we made it so he wasn't.
I told my staff, "This is how we get to a Final Four. We got all these other kids who are terrific players, but without him, they're Top 20. With him, they could win a national title."
I don't want to call timeouts. I want them to fix it because it's not this game—it's a bigger picture. And with [Camby], every timeout was based on him needing a break. He raised his hand. I'd be on the sideline. "Coach!" I'd look away, act like I couldn't see him. Then he'd run next to me: "Cooooaaaach!"
"OK, I got you, you need one? OK, timeout." I was doing stuff differently because I knew his talent, his extreme talent. But I was still hard on him. He still was coached.
When your best players are really good guys, it's the best. All my best players have been really good guys, which means I can coach them. Karl Towns—coached the s--t out of Karl Towns.
B/R: I was there for a couple of practices before the Bahamas trip [in the 2014-15 preseason]. You were brutal on him.
Calipari: Hard as s--t. But I told him, "You're going to be the No. 1 pick." Everybody laughed at me. He was the 12th-rated or ninth-rated player in the McDonald's [All-American] Game. All this stuff: He was the No. 1 pick before he came. Shut the [heck] up! Enough! It was the kid from Duke [who was supposed to be picked first].
B/R: Something that kept going through my mind when I was reading your book was this: Will John Calipari ever run for office? Is that something that's ever crossed your mind?
Calipari: People come up to me and will say that. But at my age? [Calipari turned 58 on Feb. 10.] I just got done reading a book. The book was Life Word. And part of it was creating in your life a word that fits you. So I'm reading the book and thinking, "What would my word be?" And the word I thought about was just "hope." Creating hope for other people.
Some of that means the players I'm coaching. Helping them reach their goals and creating hope for them and their families. You're in the position I'm in, being able to go to a hospital, being able to make a call—someone's sick, you go and pray with them. For me, that's where I am in my life at this point. I probably wouldn't have said that 20 years ago, 15 years ago.
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B/R: In theory, politics would be the perfect place to give people hope.
Calipari: Yeah, but here's the other thing: This is a tough business. That's a nasty business. That s--t is nasty. At this point, I have no desire to do any of that. When you get in the thing I'm doing now, I'm never thinking, "OK, what's next?"
B/R: Do you think an NBA team made out of your ex-Kentucky players could win the title?
Calipari: Oh yeah. But it could never happen, and it would have to be hypothetical, because they'd all have to be, what, eight or nine of them, max players, and you can't pay them that. Let's say this: If they were all max players and they were all making their money, oh, you could win a title. There'd be nothing except, "Let me fit into this." But you couldn't do it. You could have maybe two or three max players and the rest would have to take less.
B/R: OK, let's say it's completely hypothetical then. Who's your starting five? I got my five right here.
Calipari: Well, Anthony Davis. John Wall. Karl Towns. I'd probably play DeMarcus Cousins and let Anthony be a 3. And what would the last position be? Shooting guard? I'd probably say Devin Booker.
B/R: Yep, that's my starting five too.
Calipari: But you still have Brandon [Knight]. You still have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is the X-factor, and he would be included on that team. You still have Eric Bledsoe, who, there may be games that he starts, just because of who he is. You still have Julius [Randle]. You still have Trey [Lyles].
But as I'm telling you all these names—Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Julius Randle. They're all max guys. You'd have a team of 10 or 12 max players. It can't happen. But here's what I'd like to have: My goal before I retire is 12 guys in the All-Star Game.
B/R: What's the most you've had in an All-Star Game so far?
Calipari: Four. I'm including Derrick Rose [who played for Calipari at Memphis in 2007-08], so we've had four. But now it's gotta be, let's get Devin and Karl in there. Now you're at six. Now you get the wave of guys that just got in. Where does Trey go with this? He's not getting the minutes yet. What about a Jamal Murray when he's playing big minutes? Does he have a chance? Then you have another wave of guys going in. And all the sudden you're saying, man, maybe he could get to 12.
B/R: Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox could be in that group someday.
Calipari: We've got another wave. Bam [Adebayo]. We've got another wave of guys coming through here. That would be neat. That is not hypothetical. That is real.
B/R: What do you think is the ideal NBA situation for DeMarcus? Coach, team, circumstances, all of it.
Calipari: First of all, it's gotta be an organization and a coach he respects. And it's gotta be an organization and a coach that are not afraid to coach him, that are not afraid of him, that want to coach him and make him be the best. And then it's a situation where you can win.
Now would he have to be the main guy? No, but he'd have to be one of those two. It'd be him and somebody else, and he'd have to accept what the other guy is, and take great joy in—let me say this!—John Wall's success. Or Eric Bledsoe's success. He did it here. If it's that kind of environment, yeah. And I think USA Basketball proved that. It did. But he's gotta really respect what's going on.
The problem with my guys, all my guys, they come in and improve themselves so fast in college, they go from He's this and this to That kid is the first pick or second pick. Four. Five. Seven. Tell me about those teams: not great. So my guys are walking into bad situations. And those teams are lottery picks for a reason. It's not just their players or their coaches—it's the organization doesn't get it right.
B/R: How do you feel about Derrick Rose right now? I'd think the past few years, what's happened to him, has gotta break your heart, this guy who was on top of the world but has really gone through some stuff.
Calipari: The best thing that came out in the last week, one of the players in Chicago, [Taj] Gibson or somebody, said: "Everybody loves the dude. We all loved him." When he got hurt in Chicago, when one of your weapons is your absolute dead speed and your explosiveness, and a little bit of that is taken away, some of it physically and some of it mentally ... the reason he would get hurt is because he would stretch himself. He would go so hard and your body can only go so far—so [the injury] pulled him back a little bit where he was afraid to go as hard as he went.
I think the change to New York is perfect for him. They gotta let it ride out. He's still young. There are games he's showing signs. New York is not an easy place. He had a hiccup, left the team to go home. And it was an emergency. He texted me that night. I texted him, "Are you OK?" He said, "I'm OK, Coach. You know my mom—I had to get back here."
We didn't go into, "Why didn't you leave a message or anything?" I just wanted to make sure he was OK, and he was. Again, they gotta let this ride. It's OK. You've been bad for how many years now? Let it ride and see. I don't believe he's the issue there. If you're talking point guards, he's still in the top half of the NBA as a starting point guard, and he might be higher than that.
B/R: Big-picture question about college basketball: I wrote about Hamidou Diallo and called it the "one-and-a-half-and-done" and how that's another example of you being innovative and forward-thinking. This new CBA makes the D-League more viable. International basketball is becoming more viable for kids for that one year out of high school. Ten years from now, how do you see the landscape of college basketball changing for these types of extreme talents?
Calipari: Here's my worry about society, the bigger picture of this. I'm not worried about basketball. What are we doing for these young people? The NBA has a [D-League] team for each team. If they're using that to have more players who are already in the NBA to have opportunities to make a little money and maybe sustain it for a little while, I think it's the greatest idea. It's more opportunity. If they're doing it to get high school players to go directly to the D-League and bypass college, I got an issue that is societal.
I'll make this statement up front: Whatever they do is not going to affect Kentucky. We will eat first. Whatever's left, we're going to eat first. I would love to coach kids for four years. I would have a ball. I'm doing this because it's the environment and it's kind of played into my hand.
If they do that [allow high school players to go directly to the D-League], what do you think these ninth- and 10th-grade kids are thinking about—going to calculus class or just saying, "Screw it, I'm just going to go to the D-League anyway"? And let's talk about this: What race are most of those kids?
B/R: Urban black kids.
Calipari: So we want to pile onto this issue and say, "We're going to try to get these ninth- and 10th-graders to think about playing basketball versus getting their academics right." And let me say this: The issue we have is the head of the NCAA probably wants them to [go straight to the NBA]. He probably wants that! Versus why wouldn't we want all of these kids in college?
B/R: Some people look at one-and-done and say it's a sham. But you'd say, "Those kids grow up during that one year in college."
Calipari: And they can come back and finish up! They can do it whenever. Tell me what the issue is with that. And let me tell you this: For you that thinks what we're doing is a sham: What if it were your child? Would you think it's OK then?
Here's what'll happen if they take high school kids, just so you know: This isn't Single-A, Triple-A, Double-A baseball where you can stay 15 years. This is gonna be: Here's our high school guys, we're going to know within the first month whether they got a chance or not.
That young man will get $80,000 to $100,000. Say he gets $120,000—half goes to taxes, so he gets 60. He's in heaven. Then he gets cut. He has $20,000 left to his name. Good luck with your life. Good luck with your life. They're not going to give you eight years. You're going to have one or two years to prove that you're either an NBA player or we're bringing in another wave of people. That's what I'm against.
If you want to bring them in the NBA as high school players, do it! Draft them. Give them their $15 million and let them go out of high school. Don't do this. Let the D-League be for players who have been in the NBA, who are on the fringe, and that want to fight like heck to get in the NBA. They should have a living wage, not $17,000 to $25,000. A living wage.
I did this with Hami [Diallo]—I put Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox and Hami on the baseline. Middle of practice, I stopped it: "We're gonna race! You guys are racing from there to the top of the key!" One, two, three, go. This is what it looked like: Poof! They all tied. And I said, "If you're that fast, Hami, you're gonna be running that fast in practice." He never ran that fast in his life!
These kids are high school kids. They came from AAU or a high school team where they're the only player. There's not a high school team where there's five other good guys! They were the only guy. This is all new to them. We can't be afraid to coach them. When I stop really challenging you, I'm basically saying: "Go to the back of the bus. We'll get you next year." You don't want that one.