It’s only fitting that on the eve of one of the biggest recruiting nights of his tenure at Kentucky, John Calipari only wanted to talk about the future. While others might prefer to linger in the afterglow of last season’s National Championship, the school’s eighth and Cal’s first, Cal only has eyes for the next step, which in this case, is the Harrison Twins.
Could you blame him? The 612 women in the audience (an NCAA record, by the way) certainly didn’t. If anything, we wanted Cal to get back to the mysterious phone calls in his office that delayed his introduction. The biggest indicator of Cal’s increasingly narrowed focus? Instead of treating fans to a practice like last year, he decided to take us all on an in-home visit, complete with a top-secret highlight reel that we had to promise not to video tape (more on that later).
Cal broke the visit down step-by-step. First thing’s first: connect with Mama. “I spend very little time talking to Dad. I’m talking to Mom, and that is her baby. And listen, that little boy is going to listen to his mom.” (Oddly enough, we haven’t heard much from the Harrison Twins’ mama, have we? Smart lady.) Cal and his staff spend the beginning of each visit talking to recruits about their goals, aspirations and dreams. Then, he begins the list of things those recruits must do if they want to play at Kentucky:
1) Commit to finishing your education…at some point
Cal’s no fool. He knows most of the players he’s bringing in will only be at Kentucky for a year. But, in order to wear Kentucky across their chests, players must commit to finishing their degree at some point. To all those who think Cal and the program could care less about academics, Cal has these stats for you: last year’s team had a 3.2 GPA, with nine players having a B-average. Cal’s players will be the best on the court, but not at the expense of academics. Once parents hear their son commit to finishing his degree, they instantly become more comfortable with the process. Oh yeah, for all the Bobby Knights out there: you know who else was a one-and-done? Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Tiger Woods. Yet, like Cal said, “You only hear about our basketball players.”
2) Pledge to be a team player
There are many astonishing things about Anthony Davis, but one of the most remarkable may be that he was the number one player in the draft despite taking only the fifth most shots on the team. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, number two in the draft, took the fourth most shots. These two players are special; one might go as far to call Davis a “once in a generation” talent, yet, he achieved all of that by being a team player. Cal courts the best of the best, but in order for them to become part of “La Familia,” they have to promise be a team player, even if that means taking less shots. How a player answers Cal’s question of “Is it your dream to shoot the most shots or is it your dream to be drafted high” determines if they get an offer.
3) Accept the responsibility of being a rock star
One of the best parts of the clinic was watching the players interact with the fans. Even though some of them have only been on campus for a few months, they are already pros, patiently signing autographs and taking pictures with whomever wanted them. I think that may be what impressed me most about this team: their poise. They seemed completely at ease with their rock star status, which is not surprising since Cal said that is a requirement. “You want to drink, smoke, go crazy? Don’t come here.” With a sly wink, Cal continued, “You can do that down the road.” (Down I-64 perhaps?) In a moment that gave me some serious dÃ©jÃ vu from high school, Cal preached the old familiar line “Nothing good happens after midnight” to the murmured assent of the moms in the crowd.
Cal impresses upon his recruits the severity of the spotlight that comes with the fishbowl lifestyle. Any indiscretion will not only be documented, it will be on TMZ, ESPN, Around the Horn, etc. When you come to Kentucky, you will be a rock star. And you have to be able to handle that. Cal acknowledges that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. “We’re the hardest place you can be, and you’ll understand about being in the best shape of your life, mentally and physically.” Old lines such as “We are everyone’s Super Bowl” rang true more than ever in light of last year’s loss at Indiana: “If we lose on the road, it’s a commercial for the rest of the year.” Speaking of, at Kentucky, you can’t even take a day off. Right, Terrence Jones? Cal mentioned Terrence’s “bad day” in Bloomington, which people talked about “all year.”
If a recruit thinks he can’t handle that (DaJuan Coleman?), Cal doesn’t take it personally. He doesn’t have to. The biggest difference between Kentucky and everyone else? “We’re not begging.” We don’t have to.
What if it is for you? When you’re wooing the top talent in the nation, one of the biggest topics of conversation is going to be playing time. Cal’s resume speaks for itself at this point. He’s started 29 freshmen, but that doesn’t mean that he can promise recruits that they’ll start, no matter how many stars they’ve got after their name. The most mind-blowing stat of the clinic: “Every starter and every sixth man I’ve had since I’ve been at Kentucky has been drafted.” Boom. Case closed.
These ladies, who are teachers and avid KSR readers, came armed and ready with a ruler to measure Nerlens’ flat top.
The best highlight reel known to man
Cal finishes each in-home visit up with a highlight reel of his time at Kentucky. And, as someone who has watched a LOT of highlight videos over the years, I was blown away. It seemed similar to UKCAT8FAN’s videos, but Cal talked about it like it was an in-house production. It included clips of each top player’s announcement to attend Kentucky, followed by that season’s highlights and each player being drafted into the NBA. Interspersed with clips of Cal’s “State of the Program” speech at his first Big Blue Madness and culminating with “One Shining Moment,” it was an impressive retrospect of how far this program has come in three short years. For ten minutes, six hundred women not only relived the glory, but saw the program as a prospective player might. At the end, I felt that special feeling reserved only for Kentucky basketball: an overwhelming rush of hype, hope, emotion, and above all, excitement.
If the sniffles and standing ovation were any indication, I wasn’t alone. Cal said he recently showed the video to DeMarcus Cousins to inspire him to recapture the joy in his game: “I had DeMarcus come in and we watched the first part of the tape with him, and I said, ‘Where’s the joy, DeMarcus? If you want to be an All-Star, you have to recapture the joy.’”
“Recapture the joy.” That’s exactly what Cal’s done since he set foot on campus.
So what about this year’s team? While we didn’t get to see them practice, we did get to see them go through a variety of drills. After the opening remarks, the clinic was broken into three different parts, with each group reporting to a different gym to observe three sets of drills. My group stayed in Memorial Coliseum, where assistant coach and emcee of the evening, John Robic, entertained us. Robic was born for this role, striding around the court and cracking jokes both with and at campers. The players who accompanied him were Julius Mays, Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Jarrod Polson and Twany Beckham. Robic led the players through some ball-handling drills, most of which were new to them. The drills ranged from dribbling two balls as hard as you can, to alternating dribbling two balls, to “windshield wiper” dribbling, to doing all of that while circling around cones at midcourt. The players demonstrated each drill before turning it over to some brave volunteers from the crowd.
Archie Goodwin dominated these drills. The speed and control with which he handles the ball is eye-opening. On most drills, he was the first to finish, earning small bits of praise from Robic. He will be this year’s slasher, no doubt. Like the other players, he was great with the volunteers, eagerly fetching balls that went awry and offering encouragement. When it was time for his group to rotate to the next gym, he kept shooting layups, hamming it up for the crowd until Robic hustled him out the door.
Nancy “Lady Magic” Lieberman
Next up was the clinic’s special guest, Nancy Lieberman. Lieberman was the first female to play professional basketball in the men’s league, and has since played and coached in the WNBA. She was also the first woman coach in the NBA’s D-League, and now does media for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Needless to say, lady is impressive. No wonder she hangs out with Cal. In fact, she told us that Cal was one of the first coaches to offer support to help get the WNBA started back in the late 1990’s. Somehow, I’m not surprised.
Lieberman was clearly the motivational speaker of the clinic. After leading the campers through a series of elaborate passing drills with Jon Hood, she told us her history and the people she’s become friends with along the way: Warren Buffet, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jackson, to name a few. Her appreciation for Kentucky basketball’s past, present, and future brought her to the clinic, and she preached the importance of not drinking the “haterade,” something UK fans have become all too familiar with lately. She said that during a recent OKC Thunder media opportunity, she told DeAndre Liggins she was coming to Lexington to do the clinic and he absolutely lit up and gave her a high five. Welcome to La Familia, Lady Magic.
Body by Rock
Last but not least, Rock Oliver and his group came in, and immediately, the mood shifted into overdrive. After hearing tall tales about his workouts for years, I was anxious to see Rock in action. He did not disappoint. He and his staff led Willie Cauley-Stein, Kyle Wiltjer, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Brian Long through the team’s standard warm-up, stretches, conditioning stations, and strengthening movements.
Finally, we got to see Nerlens, WCS, and Poythress in action. I watched Nerlens and WCS particularly close on footwork drills; they were both remarkably fast and nimble for their size. Granted, we were only watching drills, but Poythress showed similar hustle, rushing out to the perimeter and back to defend with elegant ease. Poythress also demonstrated some intense (and slightly provocative) ab workouts that I plan on attempting before next swimsuit season.
The rest of the team trickled in towards the end of the session, and Rock didn’t miss out on an opportunity to make them work. He made them all line up to do push-ups and sit ups for the ladies, and the thing that surprised me the most was that Brian Long’s pushup form was more impressive than Nerlens Noel’s. I hope we can all appreciate that.
A Dress Rehearsal for Big Blue Madness
By far the “girliest” part of the night had to be the fashion show, emceed by the wonderful Jennifer Palumbo. The players came out one by one and modeled the team’s various warm-ups and jerseys. The best part had to be the dance moves some of them unleashed on the crowd. Trust me, the guys knew this was their one chance to try out their moves in front of a crowd before BBM, and most of them seized it. Nerlens Noel stole the show, even twerking his booty to the crowd at one point. Look for video of it on the site tomorrow morning.
If pressed for one take-away from this year’s women’s clinic, I’d say it was Cal’s sharpened focus on the next step. With the National Championship trophy safely tucked away (or out taking pictures with fans), Cal is more determined than ever to ensure its legacy. Heading into his fourth season as head coach, he is at the top of his game with no signs of stopping. Unbelievably, while the sun sets on number eight, Cal’s drive is a reminder that our brightest days are still to come.