Sunday, March 30, 2014

Salute to John Calipari...

Before going any further, let me acknowledge:

  • The idea that the competitors in big-time college athletics (i.e. men's basketball and football) are student-athletes is a joke.  When there's a game on a Wednesday night in the middle of the school year between UCLA and Michigan St. in Madison Square Garden, to take an example I am making up but is based on reality, it's apparent that academics are not a particular concern.
  • One of the most annoying parts of the NCAA set-up is how it makes mega-size stars out of the coaches, who make millions while the players just get their "education".
  • Perhaps the most clearest manifestation of these problems is the men's basketball program at the University of Kentucky under John Calipari, where star players are recruited, typically play for just one year, then move on to the NBA.
Having said all that, it is difficult to deny that this process, however corrupt it may be, produces an extraordinarily entertaining product, and that John Calipari has mastered this peculiar game.

As anyone who has watched any kind of all-star game knows, people who were star players do not naturally play well together as a team.  Particularly stars who are angling for their position at the next level.

What Calipari does, is convince several of the best high school players in the country to come to Kentucky, then he gets them to play basketball in a way that they can compete at the highest level against teams that have been together for years.  And then he does it all over again the next year.

I agree this isn't what college basketball "should be," and it turns the idea of college athletics into a farce.  But I also have to acknowledge the great difficulty of what Calipari does year in and year out, and admire his skill in pulling it off.

There was a time not long a go when I couldn't stand Calipari and rooted against him at every opportunity. But I've softened.  It's not his fault the rules are what they are, and it's conceivable his program offers the best deal for these players. He doesn't pretend to be anything but what he is.  If I had a basketball star son, would I prefer he spend four years at Duke or Stanford than one year at Kentucky?  Absolutely.  But if he's determined to get to the NBA ASAP, Kentucky may be the best place to spend a year.
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