Kentucky NBA Combine is part brash, part brilliant — like John Calipari

 

LEXINGTON, Kentucky – This weekend, Kentucky will be holding a two-day on-campus NBA combine, where scouts from all 30 teams will watch another John Calipari juggernaut – this one with nine McDonald’s All-Americans – prove why there’s no place better than Lexington if you want to go to the NBA.

You could hear the guffaws around the basketball world after the most recent Coach Cal recruiting innovation was announced. Those guffaws got louder when it was announced that the combine will be nationally televised Friday on ESPNU.

“We’re just there as B-roll for his recruiting videos,” one NBA executive told Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports 1 NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski.

Here’s the thing with Calipari: If you’re a college basketball fan and you live in one of 49 states, you hate him. Hate him with a passion. Hate him without having ever met him. Hate him for how he embraced the current one-and-done age of college basketball sooner and more completely than any other big-time coach.

You hate him because he wins, sure, but you also hate him because you see him as a car salesman and not a college basketball coach, hate him because you assume he cheats (evidenced by a 2012 poll of nearly 100 college coaches that called him the biggest perceived cheater in the sport), hate him because he symbolizes everything that’s supposedly wrong with college basketball.

And I’m not here to tell you that your hatred is misplaced. This is sports. As Bob Huggins once told me, just like in old Hollywood westerns, we all feel the need to name certain folks “black hats” – the villains – and certain folks “white hats” – the good guys. This is especially true in the sports media, a landscape often lacking in nuance. Calipari is a black hat; he has been since he was the young, brash, upstart UMass coach.

But what I am here to tell you – or at least those of you who don’t live in Big Blue Nation, where instead of being reviled Calipari is revered for returning Kentucky basketball to the nation’s best program, and where the sport’s most diehard fans reflexively and vehemently defend all slights against Cal – is that Cal doesn’t really care if you hate him.

If fact, he seems to prefer if you do.

He’s one of those people who seems to need enemies, someone who thrives on all slights – whether real or perceived or conjured up – someone who is just fine in his role of helping you hate him a little bit more. In a way, by hating him, you might be helping him.

“Sometimes I’ll walk out at exactly the time that the other team is coming out to see if they’ll boo me more than they’ll cheer their team – to see how bad they really want to beat us,” Cal told me in a wide-ranging offseason interview that will air on FOX Sports 1 in the week leading up to the season.

It takes a lot more energy to try to discern a man’s deep-seated motivations than to just take the reflexively cynical view. If you’d like to peek behind the curtain, I’d suggest his insightful new book, “Players First.”

Most of all, though, I’ve come to think of the defining characteristic of John Calipari as this: More than being the best recruiter this sport has ever seen, Cal is someone who better than anyone accepts college basketball’s current realities for exactly what they are – and who unapologetically takes advantage of them.

Think of him as a car salesman if you want. But he’s the best damn car salesman there is.

Remember in 2010, when five players from Calipari’s first Kentucky team were selected in the first round of the NBA draft? Calipari called it the greatest day in Kentucky basketball history. Kentucky fans and alums, remembering legendary Adolph Rupp and Kentucky’s seven national titles, were aghast at this newcomer.

The rest of us laughed at this blowhard.

Think of him as a car salesman if you want. But he’s the best damn car salesman there is.

But you know what? I asked him about what he meant when he said that. And I kind of love the place that thought was coming from. Because in a college sports world that often preaches purity but practices hypocrisy, his answer was strikingly and refreshingly different.

“I say this over and over: If we won the national title and no one got drafted, I’d be disappointed,” Calipari told me. “I’d be disappointed because I benefited, my staff benefited … they’re now millionaires … the school benefited.

“So everybody benefits and the players come back to school? Oh, they’ll get their education, (but) I’d rather them be millionaires.”

When Cal’s players put on their show for NBA scouts this weekend, people will snicker and call Kentucky an NBA factory, not a college program. Other college coaches will be either annoyed or pissed off – because Cal is the only coach who’d truly be able to pull this off but also because Cal is the first coach who thought of it and had the balls to do it. People will think about the offseason reports that he was deep in talks to become the next head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers and wonder how dedicated he really is to these college players.

“There’s something that moves me in college basketball right now, and this job has done it to me,” Calipari told me in the offseason. “I have a chance to truly make a difference in families’ lives.”

Want to take those words and put them in the college basketball villain box, assume that this is a man preaching altruism while in practice is only helping himself? Cal isn’t going to stop you. He might even prefer you think that way. He needs the motivation of his enemies.

But remember this, too: When these players spend their one year or two years or three years or, yes, sometimes even four years in Lexington, Cal succeeds more than any other coach in the implicit promise of big-time college hoops: That if you bring your five-star talents here, you’ll get better, you’ll get exposure, and you’ll make that next step from these glorified minor leagues to the lucrative big leagues.

Which is exactly what Cal says he’s been doing all along.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.