Matt Jones asked me to write something up for KSR about my experiences at the “John Calipari Fantasy Experience.” What I ended up with is overly long, gushing, and possibly even boring to people who have absolutely no interest in UK basketball, so if you just want the executive summary, here it is:
The John Calipari Fantasy Experience was so completely and overwhelmingly amazing, that it was arguably the greatest weekend of MY entire life.
(If you’ve read any of my best-selling books you know what that statement that means coming from me. If you haven’t, just know I have a lot of experience with having fun.)
I am not going to describe everything that happened in the camp, or each individual piece of awesomeness–there are literally too many to write down. This post is going to be more like my KSR posts about the UK Cancun Trip (this one for example), where I tried to give you–the UK basketball fan who wasn’t able to go–a feeling of what it was like to be there:
Setting the scene: I walk into the Craft Center on Thursday at 1pm. I register and am taken to my locker (just walking through the Craft Center is a treat for UK fans–if you haven’t been, you need to go. It’s an amazing stroll through UK’s past). These aren’t temporary lockers or some BS in a conference room. We are using the real UK players lockers. I know I had Ryan Harrows locker, because his name is painted on the stool–except for this week, it is my locker, because my name is on the top.
And the gear and swag we got was pretty ridiculous. It was like they took a Nike store and dumped it in our lockers (and yes, I asked for and got #24 specifically because Bret Bearup was my favorite player growing up).
Coach Cal in Person: To start the camp, Cal gave us all a speech. It was actually very moving, to me at least. He talked about what makes a person great, about how it’s about making the other people around you better, instead of just focusing on yourself. That summary does the speech no justice at all, but I will say that as great of a speaker as he is in the media, he’s even more compelling in person. He has an energy and enthusiasm about him that is infectious, and you can tell that he not only believes what he says, he lives it. Everyone I met that weekend would run through a wall for Cal, and it’s because he’d do the same for them. The man’s not really a coach–he’s a leader and a community builder (more on that theme later).
The League of Professional Fantasy Campers: After the speech, we went to our lockers and got ready to play basketball. The camp had only started like 30 minutes prior, yet a lot of the guys seemed to not just be getting along, but already knew each other really well. They were joking with each other, horsing around and generally just acting like long time friends. I honestly was wondering if I had missed an orientation mixer or something. I found out the explanation as the camp went on:
There are a bunch of these fantasy camps (for example, Duke, Kansas, Syracuse and many more schools have them) and there is a group of about 20-40 guys who will go to many different camps each year. So the guys who go to multiple camps see many of the same guys each time, and that’s how they not only all knew each other, but became long time buddies.
Then it got even weirder: Most of them don’t just go to one or two–they go to five or more fantasy basketball camps…PER YEAR! It’s literally like a League of Professional Fantasy Campers.
This blew my mind. I had only come to this camp because I was a die-hard UK fan, and the chance to spend a weekend hooping with Coach Cal, the 96 championship team, and the rest of the UK family was all I really cared about. I didn’t give a crap about the basketball games we were going to play–it never occurred to me that we’d take those seriously at all.
Let me tell you: the League of Professional Fantasy Campers guys take the basketball VERY seriously. The night before the camp started, Drew Franklin warned me about this, and I blew him off. I was WRONG. These dudes all brought their own shoes that were already broken in (instead of wearing the shoes we got for free because they might give them blisters, like mine did), they all had padded compression shorts, they were in the training room getting their ankles taped, making sure they ate the right supplements prior to their games–basically doing all the sorts of crazy stuff that the pros do.
At first, I didn’t know what to think about the fact that these grown, professional men, with families and responsibilities, spent tens of thousands of dollars a year to play pretend as basketball players all over the country, multiple times per year. And not only that, they obviously cared a lot about the result of completely meaningless basketball games.
I have to be honest–my initial thought was that these dudes would be really sad and lame. I mean, why would you come to some fantasy camp of a school you don’t even care about? Even if you’re best player there and win the “championship,” so what–congrats, you’re the best of the old, crappy basketball players! Talk about being the tallest midget. Don’t they have other things in their lives more important?
That was I thought at first. But I was wrong. By the end of the camp, not only did I get it, I think I may start going to some of the non-UK camps (more on that later).
Playing basketball in front of your heroes: There were two very short evaluation games and then a series of drills that some coaches put you through before the camp “draft.” My evaluation team was coached by Derek Anderson. I knew in the abstract that players from the 96 and 98 team would be there, but once I stepped on the court and Derek Anderson started coaching me…to play basketball…in Memorial Coliseum…I gotta be honest, I got a little overexcited.
You know how, even after you grow up and become an adult an accomplish things in life, there are still people or places that can make you feel like a child again? For me, being around the old UK players was one of those things. I’ve met so many incredibly rich and famous and powerful people, and its cool, but whatever–people are still people, no matter how fancy they are. I have even played basketball with the Leader of the Free World, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous that when I had to step on a court and play basketball in front of Derek Anderson (and Walter McCarty was coaching the other team). I don’t have to go on–if you’re reading this you’re probably a UK fan and you get it.
I was so nervous that I had an adrenal dump, and after the first two minutes of the game, I was possibly the most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life. Thankfully, I had played OK for two minutes, and even took a guy off the dribble and scored right before a time out. Derek came over, slapped my ass and said, “Good run baby, great move, great finish!”
Again, I can only be honest here, no matter how embarrassing it is for a grown man to say this: I felt like a little kid who’s dad had just told him he’s proud of him.
I got more used to it as the camp went on, and I thought that would be the worst of my butterflies. It wasn’t. The worst was when I played in Rupp Arena. In front of people. Who were watching me. And I screwed up (more on that later, unfortunately).
The drills and the coaching: The coaches did not mess around at this thing. The coaching was serious, intense, and no nonsense. Assistant Coach John Robic and the other UK guys ran the skills evaluations, and they were the exact same drills the UK players do, and they gave the same instructions and feedback. Those guys know their stuff, and the level of coaching we got was a very cool part of the camp.
And the coaches take the camp seriously. Possibly the best example is when Bruiser Flint almost got thrown out of a game: The coach of Drexel was coaching one of our opponents, got pissed at a call by a ref, and argued with him to the point where the ref stopped the game and threatened to throw him out of the CAMP! The coaches are there to win.
The draft and the teams: After that, the coaches went to a room and had a draft of the players at the camp (in private, we didn’t see it), then we got like 30 minutes of practice time, and then we played out first game.
Each team had a head coach, two assistants, and two managers. The head coach was a legitimate college coach who has led a major program, the assistants were one person from the 96 team, and one from Cal’s time, and then the team managers were two current UK players. The team I ended up on had an incredible coaching line-up: Paul Biancardi as head coach, Jeff Sheppard as assistant, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as assistant, and Archie Goodwin and Brian Long as managers.
I was just as nervous playing a game in front of Jeff Sheppard as I was Derek Anderson, and I think it showed. I played terrible our first game, we lost and it wasn’t fun.
The current and former UK players: The best part of the first game was that the managers took their role VERY seriously–Archie Goodwin was leaping over chairs to get us water and towels during timeouts, cheering from the bench, and really busting his hump to wipe down sweat on the court. The other team had Jon Hood and Willie Cauley-Stein, and they were the same way (though I have to say, Jon Hood always had time to take out of his manager duties and spend teasing me about how bad I was playing against his team–thanks Jon, really appreciate that).
I am not making this up or exaggerating one single bit all the players took their job super seriously. Cal had told us they would, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it. And they were all super humble as they did it; you hear it in the media all the time, but its true, they really are great kids (even Jon).
And it gets better. Sometimes Archie and Brian had to be at class or practice, so it was only the coaches there during the games. When that was the case, you know who got us water and towels? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
THE #2 OVERALL PICK IN THE NBA DRAFT SPENT LAST WEEKEND HUSTLING TO GET ME WATER AND TOWELS DURING TIMEOUTS–WHEN IT WASN’T EVEN HIS JOB!!
At first, I didn’t even believe what I was seeing with my own eyes. Who does this? What 19 year old millionaire would ever fetch water for old men pretending to be basketball players–even if we desperately needed it–when he didn’t have to? The thing is, once I got to know him I realized that’s just who MKG is. You hear so much about him being a high character guy, but how can you really know, right? Well I’m sitting here telling you what I saw, and it’s all true.
This is not even getting into the stories about my conversations and other interactions with him. He’s so humble, kind, sincere that you almost don’t think it’s real at first. Then you see him do nothing but act that way, over and over, even when no one is looking–like at the basketball game of some old men in a fantasy camp.
Not only do I not know anyone with a higher character than him, I’m not sure I can imagine a 19 year old in his position having a higher character than MKG. UK fans should love him as much they do, he deserves it.
The actual games: So we played one game the first day that was lost (by 15) that I talked about above, and then on Day Two we played twice and won both (by 26 and 14, respectively).
Like I said, these games are ridiculously intense basketball games, not just causal pick-up at the park. Guys were going super aggressive on each play, fouling each other hard, taking charges, pulling jerseys, coaches were calling plays, making adjustments, working the refs, everything. We not only had a scoreboard, we had people to keep stats, trainers at our games–it was ridiculous the level of professionalism and seriousness at these things.
This kind of came as a shock to most of the guys who had never been to a fantasy camp before, who were just there because it was Kentucky (like me). This was pretty much half the camp (the other half were the League of Professional Fantasy Campers I talked about above who were used to this), and as a result, some of the Kentucky boys were much too out of shape to really play three intense games over two days. A lot of ‘overuse’ injuries ended up happening, and even I found myself in a lot of pain.
Make no mistake, if you come to this, you need to get into basketball shape beforehand. You don’t necessarily have to be good at basketball–none of us are “good” by any stretch–you just need to make sure you can run 5-6 intense full court games over the space of three days. This is much harder than it sounds, trust me. I am 36 and am probably in the top 5 at the camp in terms of being in shape, but overall physical shape and basketball shape are NOT the same thing. You better get your joints and muscles ready.
Hanging out with the refs: This camp was so serious, they didn’t just bring in refs. They brought legit, big conference refs who’ve done Final Fours, Championships, etc.
The cool part about that was that even though the games were serious to us, they weren’t meaningful to anything outside of camp, so we could mess around with the refs during and after the games. And they even ate with us and hung out some at night, so I got to know some of them pretty well. It’s probably obvious, but they are all really nice guys, and in truth, all of them did a great job on our games. Very few wrong calls in any of my games.
The infamous TONY GREENE was even one of our refs! I’ll say this too: Tony Greene may in fact be a bad ref, but he is a REALLY nice guy (he even gave me some advice on how to keep from getting too nervous when I was about to play in Rupp Arena).
Dick Vitale speaks, and its kind of amazing: Dick Vitale gets a lot of shit from Kentucky fans. I used to be one of the ones talking smack about him, and maybe at some point in the past we had some reason to feel like he deserved it. No more. I will never again say a bad word about Dick Vitale.
He spoke on Day 2 about his charitable organization (The V Fund) and it was one of the most amazing, intense, sincere, real speeches I’ve ever seen–nothing like he is on TV. He acts sort of like a clown when he does broadcasts, and I wish he’d be more serious and intelligent like he was during this speech, he’s very good at that.
One more thing: Vitale LOVES Calipari. I mean, he praised Cal to the point of it almost being embarrassing. But he made a great point: He loves Cal because Cal actually helps people, he doesn’t BS about it. That is something that Cal never gets credit for in the media, and hopefully this narrative gets picked up more and more soon: Where most coaches are selfish and only pay lip service to doing anything other than what they want for them, Cal goes out and helps EVERYONE around him change their lives for the better. We don’t just have a basketball coach, we have a man who builds communities that work.
Watching the current players workout: Between games on Day 2, we got to watch Cal run the players through a workout in groups of three. It’s hard to tell much in these limited scenarios, but I can tell you this:
Willy Cauley-Stein is a FORCE. If these drills mean anything, this guy is going to become something very special at UK.
[And note that we didn’t watch from the stands or any BS like that–I was standing on the court, five feet away from the players going through their drills].
Matt Jones, worst player in the camp?: Yes, Matt Jones was legitimately given the “Mr. Irrelevant” Award as the last player drafted, and yes, Robic did call him the “worst basketball player he’s ever seen” on the radio. But even though he was bad, I can tell you with 100% confidence that he was NOT the worst player at the camp–not even close actually.
Don’t get me wrong, Matt is terrible at basketball, EVEN when measured on the scale of old men at a fantasy camp. But I was told by a good source that Robic asked the coaches to pick him last on purpose (that being said, Matt Jones was bad enough that this didn’t cause any draft issues).
It was pretty funny to watch, because if you know Matt, you know that even though he’s a very humble and sincere guy, he’s also a tad bit over-sensitive about his image. Which of course is why Coach Robic made it a point to mess with him, and it was as hilarious to watch in camp as it was to listen to on the radio.
Another thing about Matt at camp: He knows everyone in the UK basketball program very well. I knew he had good sources before, but I didn’t realize how good they are. I know this is probably controversial to say, but given his relationships that I saw this weekend, I think Matt Jones might be the best, most accurate source for UK basketball news in the media today. Crazy, but I think its true.
Eating at Cal’s house: On the night of Day 2 we got to have dinner at Coach Cal’s house. I got there really early, and Coach was there of course, and I ended up talking to him for like 30 minutes about topics that get covered a lot on this blog; the NCAA, UK players, how to deal with pressure, etc. He said some pretty amazing things, not a lot of which you hear him say in interviews–but I don’t think I can repeat them here. I can sum up the gist though, because it is all things that have been said in public before:
Cal doesn’t like the NCAA because he doesn’t think they actually care about student-athletes, and he would love it if they were replaced with an organization that does care. I tend to agree, but then again, I’m a biased UK fan, not an “objective” journalist like Pete Thamel who hounds high school kids who think about going to UK over nothing but ignores the major scandals at any other schools.
The most amazing auction ever: At the end of dinner, they had an auction to raise more money for charity. The only people who could bid on this stuff were the ones at the dinner, so basically you had to go to the camp or be a guest of someone at the. Twas possibly the most amazing auction I’ve ever seen. The things you could big I didn’t think were possible. These are three I remember, but there were more:
-One package was you get to basically be a player for an exhibition game. You spend a day with the team and do exactly what they do–eat team meals, ride the bus, sit on the bench–everything but be on the actual roster or play in the game.
-One of them was courtside seats at a Bobcats game. And you sat with Coach Cal at the game. And you flew to the game from Lexington in a private jet with Coach Cal. And then after the game, you went to dinner with Cal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. I bid like crazy on this, but lost. I’m still pissed.
-This is what I bid on and won: Amazing tickets at the Barclays Center in NYC for the UK/Maryland game there this year, plus all kinds of special other stuff, like hanging out with Cal in NYC and playing on the Barclays Court after the UK game. I don’t even know all the stuff with the package, that’s how much was in it.
The camp tourney: My team did well enough that we ended up in the semi-finals of the championship, against the team that beat us the first day by 15 points. This was awesome–we had the chance for revenge against them, and we were confident that if we beat them, we’d beat either of the teams we’d face in the finals. I was totally ready to play against them this time, no nerves at all because I was so used to Coach Sheppard yelling at me that I was over the school-girl giddiness…until I remembered that we had to play them…in Rupp Arena…in front of a crowd of people.
Playing–and failing–in Rupp Arena: The semi-finals were not just “in” Rupp Arena. We played a real game, with the scoreboard working, real refs, real everything–even with a crowd. I’m serious.
Because the alumni game was that day, they had us play before that game, and opened up Rupp pretty early in the morning. If you went to the game on Saturday, and came a little early, you saw the camp finals. And some of you even came early enough to see the semi-finals. I don’t know how many people were there for our game, but it had to be at least 2000 scattered through the building. Even though that would be the worst crowd to ever turn out for a UK game, that was a HUGE number to me in my first game ever in Rupp.
Walking out of the tunnel onto the court was like no other moment in my life. Yes, I know I’m not a “real” basketball player. Yes, I know that the ONLY reason I got to play in Rupp is because I paid a lot of money for the privilege. But it didn’t matter, at least not to me. Walking out of that tunnel and running out on that court for warm-ups for a real basketball game was one of the most amazing moments of my life.
That being said, playing basketball in Rupp Arena was one of the most nerve-wracking and utterly terrifying things I’ve ever been through in my life. Coach Sheppard told me about judging distance in the arena, talked me through it, said it wouldn’t be a big deal. I tried to psyche myself up that this wouldn’t be a big deal, that it’d just be a game. But once I got out there and the game started, all of that went to hell. I’ve never been more nervous in my whole life. I thought it was bad when the camp first started and I was playing in front of Derek and Walter; that was nothing compared to this.
I had a massive adrenaline dump during warm-ups, and that hit me the second the game started. My legs felt like lead, it took a massive effort of will to move anything on my body, my mouth was so dry cotton would have moistened it, and I could not shake the fear that I was going to let loose a horrific fart that wouldn’t be a fart, if you know what I mean. Hopefully you weren’t one of the fans who came early so you didn’t see me out there, but if you did, know that that’s why I was playing so badly–I was as eaten up with anxiety and exhaustion as I’ve ever been in my whole life. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not very good to begin with, but for the camp I had played fairly decently to that point, but in that game, I just completely screwed the pooch.
Thank god the other guys on my team–who were almost all fantasy camp veterans and not UK fans–played great. Our best player, a former college & NFL football player Lorenzo Clark, had an awesome game, and Rodney Sims (who is a VP at possibly the coolest place I’ve ever heard of to work, Red Ventures) hit three amazing threes in what seemed like one minute to tie the game at the end.
I won’t bore you with tons of details, there’s the only thing you need to know for the purposes of this piece: I sort of blew it for my team. Nothing is ever cut and dry in basketball; there are a hundred plays every game that could change the outcome of the game. But on the second to last play of the game, we had a chance to win. I just needed to catch a perfect cross court pass from Scott Hamer and hit what would have been a nearly uncontested layup. What did I do instead? I missed the pass. It was my fault too. At Rupp Arena, in front of everyone, I screwed up badly.
We lost the game, by one point, 17 seconds later. And the team that beat us went on the win the tournament.
There’s no crying in basketball!: I felt so bad after the game I didn’t know what to do with myself. The guys on my team played so well, and had worked so hard, and played so well—they deserved to win that game, and I felt like I blew it. They were such good guys too, and we’d had such an amazing weekend playing together and bonding and having fun, that it made it double awful. These weren’t random guys I was playing pick-up with anymore. They were now my friends, and I let them down.
I’m not going to say I cried–but I may have welled up a bit. Honestly–I wanted to cry, I really did, as painful as that is for me to admit (probably the only reason I didn’t cry was because there were people around like Drew Franklin and Matt Jones who would have mocked me about crying over a fantasy basketball game for the rest of my life).
Here’s the thing: I wasn’t upset that we lost–I don’t give a flying crap about winning the championship of a fantasy camp. I wasn’t upset that I’d played bad in Rupp Arena–I just happy that I hadn’t wet myself. And I wasn’t even upset that I made a crucial mistake in the final minute that possibly cost us the game, AND that I did it IN Rupp Arena in front of a lot of people–if you’ve read any of my stories, you know I don’t have any problems with being embarrassed with my actions. If those were the only problems, I’d have been fine.
I wanted to cry for one single reason: I felt like I let my friends and teammates down, and that is the worst feeling on earth. Three days earlier, I had no idea who these guys were, but after all the shared work and sweat and blood (literally) to get where we were, for us to lose because like that was devastating.
Coach Biancardi found me moping after the game, and pulled me aside to give me a pep talk.
He said, “Max, this ain’t tennis. We win as a team, and we lose as a team, and you’re part of the team. We wouldn’t have won as much as we did without you, so you can’t take all the blame on yourself when we lose. That’s be like taking the credit if we won, and you damn sure couldn’t do that, so relax!”
How cool is that of him. What a great guy. And everyone there was like that–positive, fun, smart, and no BS.
The realization: I sat in the showers at Rupp after the game, hot water pouring over me, struggling with these emotions, when I totally understood why these guys go to multiple camps a year. It’s not because they’re trying to reclaim their glory days or anything lame like that:
You go to multiple fantasy camps because of the amazing camaraderie you develop with your teammates; the basketball is only the device used to create a team, and that team bonds over shared goals and sacrifice, and you struggle and hurt and help each other and build real relationships, and that’s awesome–win or lose. And it’s not just your teammates you bond with. Precisely because fantasy games don’t mean anything, you can be friends with your opponents. It’s not the NBA where you’re literally competing against the guy next to you not for a job. Here, you can be cool to your opponent because your bread is buttered elsewhere; the basketball is only a fantasy.
For example, after our first game, the point game from the opposing team (Michael Ferdman, who ended up being the camp MVP) gave me advice about some things to do better, about how to use the cold and hot tub, and all these other little tips and tricks that you know if you have been to ten of these camps, like he has. It was not only really nice, but also really effective–it was Ferdman’s team who we played in the semis. And if we had won, it would have been his advice that kept me fresh enough to guard him. He didn’t care though, he was such a good guy, he was happy to help a fellow camper.
As soon as I got that, not only did I feel better, I realized something: I want to do this again. DEFINITELY at the Calipari camp–I already signed up for next year–and maybe even at other camps. It’s not the basketball that’s why though, it’s because you create amazing relationships with really cool people, and that is something that is very precious.
All the people I met were amazing, the weekend was incredibly fun, and I just can’t recommend it enough.
Cal speaks to us at the tailgate, personally invites us all back: We had a camp tailgate at the UK/Western game, and not just invited each of us back to the camp next, but invited all of us to come to a UK game this season as his guest. My jaw about hit the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing–did he just offer tickets to 50+ people?
Yes he did. And he meant it, all because we were the inaugural group of the Calipari Fantasy Experience, and he was so appreciative to us for taking a risk and trusting him and coming to the camp. HE was thanking ME for the best weekend of MY life! Cal gets it, and that’s why he’s the best.
Here’s why I know this weekend was great, even if you aren’t a Kentucky fan: All of the Kentucky boys knew this weekend would be great no matter what; I mean, three days just hanging out with those guys would have been enough for us. All of the other amazing stuff was a bonus.
To me, the real proof about how amazing this weekend was the reaction of the Professional Fantasy Campers. These weren’t UK fans, and they had been to every other camp in the nation, including the legendary Jordan camp in Vegas (it ran for a long time, but stopped in 2010).
It’s funny how they changed over the course of the weekend: The first day, they were impressed with how well run the camp was, especially for a first year camp (they were right, ProCamps did an AMAZING job). By the second day, they were all saying this was a top 3 camp, one of their favorites, but maybe not quite as good as the Duke camp or the old Jordan camp. By the time we got to the tailgate, they were all pretty much of the opinion that this was easily the most amazing college camp they’d ever been to (crushing Dukes camp), and it was close to rivaling Jordans camp, if not right with it.
And the proof of the pie is in the eating: Every single one I talked to said they are unquestionably coming back next year. I know I am.