Ah, the college basketball offseason. Things are so much simpler when there's actual hoops to watch.
Alas, that's not the case, which means posts that begin with headlines like the one above, headlines fraught with all manner of potential irritation. The Kentucky commenters, the outraged John Calipari haters and everyone in between will have an opinion on the Eric Bledsoe story and what that story says about college basketball, college basketball fans and the people who cover both.
Which brings us to this piece from SB Nation's Andrew Sharp, a former colleague and one of the more thoughtful young writers working anywhere today. Sharp asks: "Why do people hate John Calipari?" He levies the idea that though there's very little in The New York Times' big piece on Bledsoe to tie Kentucky or Calipari to any wrongdoing, the reaction to the story has been all Calipari, all the time. This is true, sort of. But not for the reasons Andrew thinks.
What reasons are those? Andrew opines (warning: longish blockquote ahead):
We could play this game with hundreds of college players and programs across the country, but Calipari gets a closer look. Why? Because he does things differently.
His tenure at Memphis represented a shifting paradigm next to college basketball's conventional wisdom. For Calipari's teams, you could argue that the name on the front of the jersey isn't always as important as the name on the back. His offensive system is relatively simple, and designed to highlight individuals, spitting in the face of college basketball's traditional, team-first ethos.
Equally galling, while the rest of the country shuns some of the shakier one-and-done prospects on the market, Calipari makes no apologies for accepting all-comers. [...] And as far as the Bledsoe allegations are concerned, this philosophical tension is moot.
But it does explain why certain writers might want to connect the dots to Calipari in this case, and turn a blind eye elsewhere. Because Coach Cal, even if he's playing it strictly by the book, inherently undermines the whole system in college basketball. And now he's plying his devilish trade at the most hallowed basketball program in the country?! "Inviting rappers to Rupp Arena? Sitting courtside with LeBron James' entourage?" "Who is this guy?"
It's an interesting take, and it's a pretty good stand-in for those who are wondering why, exactly, this Bledsoe thing has become such a big deal. Which is fair. Plenty of people are wondering the same thing. If a player had issues in high school, and his mom had some strange agreement with a school to transfer, and the school fibbed on Bledsoe's transcripts to make sure he got eligible for college basketball, and the man with one arm gave Bledsoe a B on his D-worthy chemistry final, what does that have to do with John Calipari and Kentucky? Why the intense reaction?
I can't speak for every college basketball writer in the world. (Nor, for the love of all that is holy, would I ever want to.) Maybe there are some writers who are turned off by Calipari's style. Maybe some don't like the non-traditional leanings of one-and-done players. Maybe some just can't stand the dribble-drive.
It's all possible ... but none of it seems very plausible. As far as I can tell, most college hoops writers actually kind of dig the dribble-drive offense. It's new, it's inventive, it's fast-paced and exciting. At the very least, I've yet to read a takedown of the style as the perversion of hoops as we know it. (Quite the contrary, Grant Wahl's 2008 piece for Sports Illustrated on the newfangled offense was as enthusiastic as most readers' receptions. "Hey, this is cool!" Etc.)
Nor would I argue that Calipari infuriates college hoops writers by taking on one-and-done players. Why? Is Kentucky the only school to take risks on one-and-done prospects? Not in 2010, that's for sure. And I didn't see too many writers claim that John Wall was any less of a "pure" college basketball player in 2009-10 than, say, Evan Turner or Scottie Reynolds, both multiyear veterans.
If anything, college hoops writers should be selfishly happy they get to cover this kind of talent for a year. Imagine covering LeBron James and Dwight Howard as one-and-done players! That would have been awesome. That's where we are now, and if certain writers are disgusted rather than excited, they must be in the minority.
No, the reason Calipari draws more heated reaction and intense speculation than anywhere else is because this has happened before. Calipari has been at two schools before Kentucky, both of which saw the end of Calipari's tenure coincide with NCAA violations and vacated seasons. When UK hired Calipari, the calculus was clear: He could be a major success, but it's also a risk.
Whether that's fair or not -- again, Calipari has never been implicated by the NCAA -- is up for debate. But it makes sense. As a matter of explaining why people would take an intense interest in evidence that may or may not prove a Calipari player was ineligible during his first season at the school (which just so happens to sound quite familiar to Memphis' issues with Derrick Rose's fake SAT during Calipari's second to last year at the school), well, isn't that enough? Do people have to hate rap music and the dribble-drive offense, too? Isn't this easy enough to explain already?
Calipari is a guy who recruits the best players in the country and who has overseen two programs that were later punished by the NCAA for violations. Fans and media's interest in this should be obvious: It's an incredibly interesting story. Simple as that.
Whether it's right or wrong is an entirely different matter, of course. Calipari may be unfairly maligned -- there's a decent chance the Bledsoe stuff amounts to nothing, and even if it doesn't, is it really Calipari's fault in the first place? All valid topics to debate. And in a final analysis, the idea that anyone would hate -- literally hate -- a coach because that coach may or may not seem ethically sound to them is completely silly.
But if Calipari is derided by college hoops fans -- certainly many seem to dislike him, but do they dislike him any more than, say, Coach K? -- and if the college hoops media seems particularly interested in his recruiting exploits, it's not because everybody's terrified by an ethos of individualism or excessive hair gel or the dulcet sounds of Drake.
It's because Calipari is a story. A good one. Win or lose, NCAA infractions or clean bill of health, well, everybody loves a good story. Don't you?