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Thursday, March 1, 2012
John Calipari explains UK's 'great myth'

By Eamonn Brennan


If I've said it once, I've said it at least 25 or 30 times: No coach in college basketball is better at communicating with his fan base and the larger public than Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Much of this communication comes from his massive following on Twitter, but Calipari also does something most coaches never do: He writes. On his site, coachcal.com, Calipari frequently discusses team development and strategy, updates players' progress in practice, and even, as he did in December, solicits feedback from fans on the composition of UK's nonconference schedule. Calipari's skills as a Web 2.0 savant are dwarfed by his ability to recruit and congeal the best players in the country, of course, but even so, he's a pretty good blogger.

Those skills were on full display Tuesday. That's when Calipari, seeking to undercut the notion that Kentucky is a one-and-done NBA prep program concerned solely with churning out prospects each season, penned a column-length explanation of his feelings on the one-and-done rule and his philosophy on draft decisions and player development. Headlined "The great myth of our program," Calipari's piece -- which sparked a discussion of the rule on Thursday's edition of "Outside The Lines" -- begins with a simple insistence: Calipari doesn't like the one-and-done rule. He thinks it should be changed. But until it is, he's going to do the best possible thing for each of the players in what he has frequently called his "players first" program:
But every kid is on a different timetable, and when I coach young people, it’s not about me. It’s about them. We’re not doing anything that’s unethical, illegal, immoral or against any rules. There is a rule that needs to be changed, and if that rule doesn’t change, my only two options are recruiting players that aren’t good enough or convincing young people to put their dreams aside because the university and our basketball program are more important than their dreams.

Which would you rather me do?

Calipari wrote that he would love if all his players stayed all four years and earned their college degrees, but that it's not always the best thing for those players, the same way it isn't the best thing for pro tennis players or, say, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. (Not exactly the best examples, but you get the idea. Also, can you imagine if Anthony Davis stayed until his senior season? Because I can't. When I try, my brain feels like it might explode.)

He also cites examples of his players being ready for the NBA (three former UK players were in last week's NBA Rising Stars Challenge, more than from any other school), as well as the classic hypothetical risk of turning down NBA cash only to suffer an injury, as well as the opportunity players have to come back to school and earn their degrees after the fact.

Calipari won't "chase kids out," he writes, won't "hold them back so I can win more games or so our fan base can enjoy more wins. It’s not about that."

John Calipari
Is there a coach in the nation better than John Calipari at preparing players for the NBA?
If you're a college hoops fan, you've heard all this before. The impression, and it's not entirely incorrect, is that "players first" translates to "if you want to go to the NBA, come to UK." It's part of the reason Calipari cited the 2010 NBA draft, in which five UK players were selected in the first round, as the "biggest day in the history of Kentucky's program." As hard as it is for Calipari to even slightly anger UK's fans, this worked. Legendary Wildcat Dan Issel bluntly summed it up:
"The dumbest thing I've ever heard," Issel said at the time. "If the goal is to be a feeder team for the NBA, maybe that was the greatest day. I thought the goal was to win a national championship."

Point well taken. Kentucky's fans are plenty happy if UK is recruiting and preparing ultra-talented players for the NBA, but that's not their main interest. They want to win a national title. Correction: They want to win national titles. Plural. And the impression Calipari has occasionally given (and for which Texas coach Rick Barnes has likewise been criticized in the past) is that the ultimate priorities are just slightly misplaced.

But Calipari knew exactly what he was doing in 2010. Recruits saw him beaming with pride at the draft. They heard him place the emphasis on the NBA. And they listened. His past two recruiting classes have been the nation's best, and this year's might be the best he's ever had. Top-10 recruits want to be successful in college, sure, but they have one real goal in mind: NBA riches. Calipari has long since positioned himself as the best possible route to achieving that goal, and he's reaping the benefits of that position even as we speak.

In this week's blog post, he's merely attempting a clarification: Yes, we want our guys to achieve their NBA dreams. Of course. But more than anything, we want them to make the best possible decisions for themselves and their families. And every decision is different. That's the long and short of it.

(A quick aside: The timing here is somewhat interesting. Calipari implies that this impression of his program -- as an NBA feeder team -- was recently brought to his attention. Of course that can't be true. But now, with his best team gearing up for what could be a dominant March run and an ultimate coronation, he suddenly seems eager to counteract that notion. Then again, with two sophomores and a senior, Darius Miller, playing big minutes, now's probably the right time to do so.)

In any case, perhaps the most interesting thing Calipari writes is his proposal for one-and-done reform. Calipari puts the onus on National Basketball Players Association union leader Billy Hunter to go to work on a change, followed by his prescriptions therein:
And if I was at the table negotiating, here is what I would say:

These kids get a stipend -- and more than $2,000.

Their insurance, which they have to pay for right now, would be covered by either the universities or the NCAA. (Update: To clarify, I am talking about the NCAA’s Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Program.)

If they do stay in school, their families get to tap into a loan program after the first year that is capped.

Lastly, on the NBA side, if a young man stays in school, he can renegotiate his rookie deal faster than someone who comes out sooner, plus the pay scale goes up the longer he stays in school.

The first three are under the auspices of the NCAA. With all the acrimony over the $2,000 stipend and four-year scholarship commitments, it seems likely any changes of this type will be a long way down the road, if they ever happen.

Only the last one falls under something Hunter and the NBPA could attempt to negotiate with NBA ownership. It's a swell idea in principle, but I have no idea whether it would actually work. What I do know is this: The NBA agrees with Calipari. The NBPA does not. David Stern and his owners would like nothing more than for players to stay another year in school. It would require even less early development from NBA franchises, it would reduce (at least in theory) the amount of mistakes dumb general managers who just can't help themselves would make and it would provide an annual wave of ready-made stars whose "brands" had been forged in the high-profile glare of the NCAA tournament.

The NBPA disagreed with the one-and-done rule in 2006, and it argued against a rule change in the recent CBA negotiations, too. Players tend to believe that players should have the opportunity to come to the NBA when they want. If a player isn't ready, that's his fault. If a GM makes a bad mistake on a high school guy, it's the same as a GM signing a veteran to a bad maximum deal: No one is forcing you to pay me too much money. Better luck next time.

Whether you find that attitude distasteful or right on point, the one-and-done rule isn't going anywhere. If it was ever going to change, it was during the 2011 lockout. It was a bargaining chip in brutally tight negotiations. But it survived unchanged anyway.

Calipari might not love the one-and-done, but he can't exactly hate it, either. After all, no coach in the country has had more recruiting success since 2006 than Calipari. Frankly, it isn't even close. So for as long as the rule exists, the UK coach will continue to play by it, and people will, rightly or wrongly, tie negative assumptions about the rule and its usage to his success at UK.

Calipari says he wants to change two things: the rule, and America's casual understanding of Kentucky basketball. As long as the former exists, the latter will be no easy task. But communication like this is certainly a start.