“Tonight, we begin to write the next chapter. Tonight, we feel the Kentucky Effect in full force as we, once again, redefine college basketball.”
Those were the words of John Calipari on October 14 as he stood front and center as the Commander-In-Chief of the most passionate fan base on the planet at Big Blue Madness. They were only 24 words in a speech that held an audience captivated for just under an hour, but they were telling and revealed the goal for this year’s team. You see, Calipari already had two successful seasons under his belt in Lexington, having reached the Elite Eight in his first season and molding a very different squad into a Final Four team last season, but one thing still hung over him through it all and his critics – abundant and ready to pounce – were always ready to bring it up.
John Calipari can’t win the big one.
Of course, Calipari would shrug it off, say it didn’t matter. His media routine, which any Kentucky fan could recite by the end of the season, was never about him. He would tell us that he wasn’t concerned with his legacy and that a championship wasn’t how he defined a successful season, even at Kentucky, where his every move came in the shadows of the banners that defined the excellence of those that held the position before him. This program, the one he’s made his own and poured every ounce of his energy into the past three years, isn’t about John Calipari. It’s about the young men that put on the blue and white jerseys. And that commitment to the kids who trusted him with their future and the journey they took us on this season is exactly why the destination was so sweet.
This season wasn’t about John Calipari. It was about Darius Miller and his journey from a local high school hero caught in a trainwreck as a freshman to a bona fide UK basketball legend.
This season wasn’t about John Calipari. It was about the a pair of sophomores, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, returning to school to not only better themselves as basketball players, but develop into leaders and help deliver the championship their coach deserved.
This season wasn’t about John Calipari. It was about a star-studded freshman class coming together without an ounce of selfishness and proving to the world that, yes, you can win with first-year players – when those first-year players are committed to the program, the school and each other.
For years, Calipari had said that he wanted to have a team that was both talented and experienced. He finally had that this year in a group that meshed what could be history’s greatest recruiting class with three elite players with a Final Four under their belt. So while Calipari said all season that the Cats weren’t focused on winning a national championship, only with winning the next game and playing better than they did the last time they took the floor, the expectations became more and more clear as the guys on the floor started finding the same trust and faith in each other that their coach placed in them. This Kentucky team was national championship material in more ways than just talent.
The bond started in the summer when the freshmen arrived on campus and had the opportunity to work out with locked out NBA players – players John Calipari had invited to campus. It continued in non-conference wins against Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville and even in the loss to Indiana. As the Cats barreled through SEC play, the grew from a team to The Machine. They discovered against LSU that they simply couldn’t be beaten unless they beat themselves and when they were down by double-digits at the half in Starkville, they never wavered. They just kept trusting their coach and each other and ended up walking a way with a win. You could even see it in their body language and hear it in their voices after they lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament. This team was everything John Calipari had ever hoped it would be. Brothers, competitors, winners.
So even as Calipari sat at the podium after the game and said repeatedly that Kentucky’s eighth national championship wasn’t about completing his legacy and didn’t mean much to him, it wasn’t entirely true. Cutting down the nets with this team meant the world to him. After the game, as the confetti rained down and celebratory chaos erupted on the floor, Coach Cal navigated his way through the crowd, tears in his eyes, asking where he could find his wife. It was a small moment in time that showed precisely why Monday night was so special to a man who has given so much of himself to help kids reach their dreams. By beating Kansas at the Superdome, the players that Calipari’s given everything to had finally made him the one thing so many said he couldn’t be.