Calipari Plays the LeBron Card, Finally Wins Me Over

Cal-LeBronI spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to decide what I wanted to talk about in Lexpatriates’ inaugural post.  And although part of me admires my own dedication and passion for a blog that no one will read, part of me realizes it’s a bit ridiculous to spend so much time on something that, as I mentioned, no one will read.  But regardless of readership, I wanted my first post to be something I’d already given plenty of thought.

I toyed with the idea of a look back at the last seventeen years of Kentucky Basketball:  Starting with the Christian Laettner shot (my earliest vivid UK Basketball memory), into UK’s return to prominence via Rick Pitino (still the most fun I’ve ever had watching basketball), the hiring of Tubby Smith (I assumed we wouldn’t miss a beat), the slip into mediocrity (infuriating), Tubby’s subsequent exit (sad), the hiring of Billy Gillispie (embarrassingly, I thought he was the PERFECT guy for the job), followed by the disaster that was the last two seasons, right up to the present, with the hiring of John Calipari.

Upon further consideration, I decided that 1) said article would take me roughly 13 years to write (and, frankly, Lexpatriates just won’t tolerate that sort of snail’s pace) and 2) that really isn’t all that interesting.  Everyone has memories and a POV unique to those times, and as much as I’d like to think it, mine isn’t particularly special.

So I decided to go in a different direction.  I wanted to talk about the here and the now of Kentucky Basketball; specifically, I wanted to talk about the mind-blowingly good job Calipari has done since he’s been at Kentucky. To take it a step further, I wanted to talk about the mind-blown-out-the-back-of-my-fucking-skull-good job Calipari has done in the Public Relations department since taking the job.  I mean, seriously, he’s like a well-oiled PR machine.  You name it, he’s owned it:  Introductory Press Conference?  Check.  Sportscenter?  Check.  PTI?  Check.  Midnight Madness?  Check.  Jeanine Edwards, the woman his predecessor verbally assaulted on national television? Check.  The guy’s not just batting 1.000 right now, so far, he’s knocked everything he’s seen out of the park.

I should stop to say now, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was—at best—on the fence when it came to hiring Calipari.  He struck me as sleazy in a Christopher Moltisanti-kind of way, and I hated his Memphis teams almost as much as I’d hated his Camby-led squads at UMass.  They always came off thuggish and generally unlikable, and they seemed to implement the style of ball I hated most:

1) Recruit the best players.

2) Let them do whatever the hell they want.

Also, like just about everyone who watches college basketball, I’d heard myriad stories about his never-ending salesmanship (a word I hate when applied to a person’s core personality) with players and fans.  I’d seen this quality of his in action on shows like PTI, Jim Rome, and—most strangely—after his National Title Game loss to Kansas.  I’d never seen someone enjoy giving themselves a verbal horsewhipping so much in my life.  I mean, the guy was radiating just after losing a national title game he should’ve won.

This made me nervous.  People who need constant attention just to function are my least favorite in the world, and he struck me as one of them.  He was a schmoozer, an attention whore, and a politician all rolled into one, a timeless recipe for what I like to call A Guy Who Can’t Be Trusted.

To top it off, the guy didn’t exactly have a squeaky clean track record.  We’ve all heard the same stuff, but just to recap:

–          He has two vacated Final Fours—one because of Marcus Camby accepting money from an agent while still at UMass, the other because of Derrick Rose not being able to do much more than spell his name on his SAT.

–          He works the recruiting gray areas unlike any other (see the SAT-created mess he found himself in at Memphis, and his hiring of Milt Wagner as Memphis’ Coordinator of Basketball Operations, when his son—and eventual Memphis Tiger—Dajaun, was the National High School Player of the Year).

–          He bolted both UMass and Memphis just in time to avoid any penalties handed down by the NCAA, conveniently upgrading his coaching position in the process.

–          He uses the mysterious and powerful ‘Worldwide Wes’ in mysterious and powerful ways that may or may not include an SAT Test Taking Service For Good Basketball Players set up in Detroit, MI.

–           He is, in general, the worst thing that ever happened to college basketball.

I wasn’t sure how much of that criticism was justified, but what I was sure of was that the negative publicity wouldn’t magically stop if he were to become head coach at UK.  If anything, it’d only get worse.  I didn’t care how many games he’d won or Five-Star recruits he’d signed, that didn’t—at least to me—outweigh the proverbial storm cloud that would follow him to Kentucky.

But for all his negatives (and I admit, he still has plenty), he has one enormous positive in his corner: The guy gets it.  And by gets it, I mean he embraces it.  And by it, I mean all the nonsense that comes with being the Head Coach at the University of Kentucky.  Whether it’s the press conferences, the speaking engagements, or the interview circuit, the guy has handled it all like some sort of PR god.  He hasn’t just been good for UK, he’s been perfect.  Moreover, he’s been exactly what Kentucky needs.

Cal-LeBron-Seated

You see, Calipari views himself as a big-time coach, and rightfully so.  He’s won ten regular season conference championships (five each from C-USA and the A-10), nine conference tournament championships (five from the A-10, four from C-USA), been to two Final Fours, won 403 career games (at a nearly 75% clip), and done it all without the help of a marquee program.  UMass and Memphis are fine little schools, but Calipari’s been waiting his turn to get a chance at a legitimate basketball institution for some time now.  His name popped up in a few premium coaching searches (Kentucky two years ago & Arizona last year, just to name a couple), but for whatever reason everyone passed.  Maybe it was because of his reputation; maybe it was because of how his tenure came to an end at UMass.  Regardless of the rationale behind it, Calipari’s name seemed to be on some secret blacklist for big-time college basketball schools.   But not anymore; now, in his eyes, he’s finally got the kind of big-time program he deserves.  And his actions over the past few months showcase the mind of a man who’s had plenty of time to think about what he’d like to do given the chance at a premium job.  Just to recap:

–          Calipari intends to infiltrate the Far East. He vocalized his plan to transplant the UK brand into China, going so far as to say he would like to sign a player from the land of dragons and below-average human rights.  His logic is simple:  China is huge, and for whatever reason, no NCAA teams pay any more attention to it than they have to.  By showing them inordinate fascination, it gives Kentucky 1) a recruiting edge in China (because at least one good player has to come out of there eventually), and 2) a marketing and subsequent monetary edge in Asia.  Know why Yao Ming’s jersey is among the best-sellers every year?  Hint: I’ve never seen anyone from the U.S. wearing it.  If Kentucky ever signs a big-time recruit from China, you can guarantee the blue and white jerseys will suddenly experience a rise in sales.

–          Calipari wants to play everybody who’s anybody. He not only wants to keep Miami, North Carolina, Louisville, and Indiana on the schedule, he’s expressed an interest in adding Cincinnati, Xavier, Memphis, Louisville again, the entire ACC, the Chicago Bulls, the Spanish National Team, and the 1986 Boston Celtics.  He has a fondness for neutral site games, openly stating his desire to play Duke in Atlanta, Ohio State in Cincinnati, and Kansas in St. Louis.  He already got UConn in New York, and wouldn’t mind adding a couple more Big East teams to the out-of-conference slate.  The purpose of these games is multidimensional:  They not only give him a chance to test his finished product against the best competition, they also create Made For TV-showdowns for which networks like ESPN and CBS are willing to shell out absurd money.

–          Calipari is a social networking God.  As I am writing this, Calipari’s twitter page has just over 928,000 followers.  He tweets at a seemingly cocaine-induced rate (sometimes as many as 15/day), which range from the inspirational to the informative.  He’s also no stranger to Facebook, at least not since his daughter’s attempted homicide via Status Update against ESPN.com writer Pat Forde following a string of negative articles against her Pop.

–          Calipari has his ear to the streets.  He invited recording artist Drake to Kentucky’s Midnight Madness, sparking an article showcasing the Big Blue on MTV.com (a web publication that has, historically, not shown Kentucky much love).

And as great as all of those things are, they don’t even come close to my favorite Calipari move so far:  The recruitment of LeBron James.

I should start by saying that LeBron James isn’t just another good basketball player.  No.  LeBron James is already a great basketball player and only getting better.  But what’s more important than his preternatural basketball gifts is his otherworldly marketing appeal.  Along with being an athletic leap in evolution, he also happens to be smart, charismatic, and—most importantly—cool.  Like, really cool.  He’s the Michael Jordan of our time; not just in terms of the way he plays, but in his seemingly endless range of appeal.  People, and in particular, kids, love LeBron James.  But they don’t just love him, they want to be him. Or at least be like (read: shamelessly emulate) him; which should be of special interest to Kentucky, because John Calipari is doing everything in his power to make it look like the University of Kentucky is LeBron’s favorite college basketball team.

LeBron-KraftCenter

Calipari and LeBron’s relationship was already formed before Cal came to Kentucky.  LeBron supposedly stated that he wanted his kids to play for Calipari, which Calipari made a point of mentioning in a press conference or two upon his hiring.  But since his move to Lexington, Calipari has done a masterful job of making his relationship with James as visible as possible:

–          As mentioned earlier, he’s shown no qualms with dropping James’ name in his interviews.

–          He has been photographed with James numerous times, including once in the Joe Kraft Center, National Title banners displayed in the background.

–          One of his first orders of business—and this was a product of Gillispie’s incompetence probably more so that Calipari’s genius—was to distribute and sell the LeBron-inspired  ‘Witness’ t-shirts commemorating Jodie Meeks 54-point game.

–          Calipari’s announced plans for Kentucky to wear a special LeBron shoe at some point during the season, to go along with a special uniform.  Still no word on whether this might be accompanied by a special appearance by a special Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player.

–          Finally, Calipari’s hiring of James’ lifelong friend Brandon Weems as a graduate assistant.  As Rival’s Eamonn Brennon pointed out, Kentucky now has the most dangerous recruiting tool in America.

The hiring of Weems is the most recent, blatant, and hopefully effective of Calipari’s efforts to make James an unofficial Kentucky Alum so far.  His friendship with James was probably enough to lure recruits that might be impressed by such a relationship, but his new G.A. adds another level of credibility to the James-Kentucky connection.

And Calipari deserves all the credit in the world for this.  Say what you want about guys of his ilk, but it’s the direction college basketball is going; recruiting is a cutthroat endeavor, and you either evolve with it or get left behind.   You think Calipari is the only coach in the country that that hires and/or associates with people to benefit recruiting?  What he’s done with Weems is no different than what Rick Pitino did with Shabaka Lands, Billy Gillispie did with Glynn Cyprien, or what Scott Drew tried to do with Dwon Clifton.  Calipari’s just been the most far-sighted and creative.

The college basketball game—especially with the advent of the one-and-done rule—has become a beacon for corruption.  Never for the life of me will I understand how you can force a kid, who currently has (and one year from now will still have) the opportunity to make millions of dollars, to attend school and expect him and his program to keep their hands totally clean for the twelve months he’s on campus.  Agents are on those kids like sharks that smell blood in the water, and anyone that thinks different is just delusional.

But that’s another rant for another day.  Just suffice it to say it bothers me when the NCAA allows such a drastic rule change to happen without making any adjustments to an antiquated rule book that should account for the changes in recruiting that inevitably occur.

I suppose what I’m getting at with all this is that given the environment in which college basketball exists, John Calipari does what you have to do better than just about anyone else.  With the exception of Roy Williams, it’d be tough to list anyone above Calipari when you’re talking about consistent coaching jobs over the last five years.  The guy has fused a system players want to play in (the DDM) with a program that is starting to feel more and more like a sort of NBA Light.  The sum of those parts is a product that Cal can sell to the best of the best (i.e., players that are expected to play in the real NBA—something Kentucky hasn’t had in awhile).  Everything from the uniforms to the playing style to the people he associates with the program, it’s all part of his grand design to make Kentucky, and previously Memphis, seem like THE place to play college basketball.

So say what you want about the guy; I know I did.  Call him dirty.  Call him sleazy.  You can even call him bad for the game.  You can say all that, but just keep one thing in mind: The guy’s killing it right now.

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2 Responses

  1. […] know.  Should I be flattered that they’re fans of the site?  Or offended by their unapologetic thievery of my material? I am genuinely […]

  2. […] on their back, to honor their old assistant, they’ll wear ‘James,’ to honor the guy who’s making it so trendy to root for Kentucky again.  Or maybe not.  It’s just a thought. What do you think, […]

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