John Calipari: The Salesman. In essence, those four words are the reason that I’m still, no pun intended, not sold on the guy. My argument is this: people like Calipari (i.e., guys who shape, craft, and code their every word to either overtly or covertly make a point, which almost always serves to improve your opinion of them) are the people I respect the least in my everyday life. You can’t trust a word they say, and there’s a sleaziness and a desperation to it that turns me off immediately. No small part of this distrust stems from the last salesman we had as our head coach, Rick Pitino, and I don’t think I need to remind anyone how things turned out with him.
Calipari has both a personality and a history that supports this kind of behavior, and since he’s come to Kentucky I’ve constantly grappled with the idea of embracing and rooting for a guy that is so blatantly calculated. I go back and forth. Hell, the very first thing I wrote for this site was a fawning, overly-long catalog of all my favorite Calipari sales ploys. Drake, LeBron, the Social Media Revolution, even the incessant It’s not about the money, it’s about Kentucky-line (which I ate up as much as anyone) that he dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of eleven-million times in his first week on the job. All that stuff was a sale. He used Drake to sell Kentucky to a certain crowd. He used LeBron to sell it to a different crowd. His fascination with Twitter gave him a platform to make his pitch to a viral audience on an as-often-as-he-wanted basis. And his It’s not about the money… line was his initial (and genius) sell to the people he would have to continue selling himself to for as long as he stayed in Lexington. Calipari realized something from the get-go that Billy Gillispie and Tubby Smith never did: Kentucky fans want a guy who holds this job in the same esteem that we hold it. Almost as much as a winner, we want a guy who understands the privelage of being here. Calipari came out of the gates singing the job’s praises (the anecdote about being in Rupp for the first time and knowing right then and there that this was where he wanted to coach some day, telling his Memphis team that Kentucky was the ‘Notre Dame’ of college basketball, his constant references to National Championship banners hanging above his head, etc.) and we couldn’t get enough of it.
Before that press conference, I wasn’t in favor of having him as our next head coach. Afterward, he had me eating out of the palm of his hand. “This guy gets it,” I said repeatedly to myself in my one-bedroom apartment.
It was exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it the most.
For a salesman, what’s more important than knowing how to sell to your customers is knowing what to sell to them. A guy selling you a car isn’t just selling you on four-wheel drive and gas-mileage, he’s building rapport, pinpointing doubt, and subsequently alleviating your concerns. It’s a subtle art that is easy to spot yet hard to ignore. I see Cal up there tugging on my heart strings with all his ‘Roman Empire’ talk, and I know exactly what he’s trying to accomplish, yet I can’t make myself turn away. There’s a powerlessness that comes with hearing what you want to hear, even when you know the speaker knows exactly what they’re doing.
And as I already mentioned, Calipari came into Kentucky knowing what we needed to hear. We’re a narcissistic fanbase; essentially, we’ve got a giant ego but low self-esteem. We like to think of Kentucky as a premier program, but we’ve been known to set the bar a tad high and get a bit of an inferiority complex when we don’t measure up. Before Calipari came here, we were playing second fiddle to Louisville in the state, not to mention being left out of the conversation entirely when it came to best programs in the nation. Those were tough times for a fanbase as proud as us. But Calipari’s big talk and recruiting prowess cured that instantly. But just one year later, after an ugly loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight and five of our best players bolting for the NBA Draft, that pessimistic side of our personality started to rear its ugly head.
So what does Calipari do? Again, he sells us exactly what we need: optimism. Enter the newest Wildcats: Brandon Knight and Michael Gilchrist, the two best players in each of their respective classes.
All of the sudden, the mood of the fanbase does a complete 180.
Sure, we just lost the nucleus of the best Kentucky squad in over a decade. So what? Now we know we’ve got another, maybe better one coming in. No more John Wall, the best college point guard prospect since Jason Kidd? That’s alright, now we’ve got Brandon Knight ready to take his place. How will we make up for all the scoring we lost to the NBA? Michael Gilchrist, the best wing player to come out of high school since Kobe Bryant, is a pretty good start.
The best way to make someone forget about the past is to make them look forward to the future.
Again, exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it the most.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not claiming to be the first person to say this. Lots of people saw it for what it was. However, I can assure you that none of them have a greater appreciation for it than me.
I could talk for days about Knight and Gilchrist. I won’t (mostly in the interest of you, the readership – all eleven of you), but I will say that I’m (sort of) surprised people aren’t making a bigger deal out of this than they are. Do these talking heads at ESPN and CBS not realize what they’re witnessing right now? This is one of the great recruiting coops of our time. He’s in the midst of putting together (indisputably) the best recruting class ever for 2011, putting together another blockbuster one for 2010, and doing it all after putting together (arguably) the best recruiting class ever in 2009. I can guarantee you this, if Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams had done it, your ears would be bleeding as a result. But Calipari isn’t Coach K or Roy, so when he signs guys like Wall and Cousins, they suddenly become guys that “could only play for someone like Calipari.” I’m torn between laughing at and punching people who produce this sort of word-vomit.
You know who else recruited guys like Wall and Cousins, and now Knight and Gilchrist? Every motherfucker in the country. If Wall’d gone to Duke (which he almost did) been a one-and-done (which he would’ve been), and gotten a 3.4 GPA in the process (which he did at Kentucky), you’d be reading a thousand stories about how, despite being an extraterrestrial-type talent who knew his time at this level would be short, he treated the college game with the integrity it deserves. But since he plays for Calipari at Kentucky, people are writing stories and posts like this one, in which they imply, with absolutely no basis, that Wall and Cousins are not finishing out their semesters. (And this is another post for another day, but if they aren’t, so what? Integrity in college sports went out the window when the NCAA did nothing to combat the NBA age-limit, and essentially opened the door for corruption and offered it a drink.)
But fuck those guys. Calipari’s doing it his way and he’s doing it in a way that only he could conjure: build it up, tear it down, then rebuild it in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. The best players from two separate recruiting classes on the same day…has anything close to that ever happened before? And does anyone believe anything other than that it was completely of Calipari’s creation?
What I’m getting at with all this is, of the numerous Calipari sales since coming to Kentucky, the great Knight-Gilchrist heist of April 14th, 2010 may go down as his greatest yet. Brandon Knight and Michael Gilchrist, the #1 rated player in the 2010 recruiting class and the #1 rated player in the 2011 class, both committing to Kentucky on the same day, just over sixty minutes apart.
Exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it the most.