Have you ever had a weekend in which so much happened you needed an entire day to sort it all out? That was this weekend — and today — for me. From Friday afternoon until late last night, it was non-stop Kentucky sports, shifting from John Calipari’s Hall of Fame induction to the Calipari Fantasy Camp to the South Carolina game and finally, the Alumni Game last night.
I spent the weekend in Lexington to cover the camp, so allow me a brief break from football mania to share my thoughts.
The John Calipari Fantasy Camp should be on every UK fan’s bucket list
This is the fourth year of the John Calipari Fantasy Camp and my third year covering it, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over walking into the Joe Craft Center or Rupp Arena and seeing the current Cats and a half a dozen NBA Cats just hanging around. The entire atmosphere is surreal. The Cats mingle with the campers all weekend long, tearing down the wall between fan and player. The current players are all assigned a team to work on as an assistant/water boy/cheerleader, and believe me, they get into it, playfully trash talking with each other over whose team will win. From kids who are basically worshipped from November ’til April, that’s pretty cool to see.
Props to Matt Chacksfield and the entire ProCamps staff for their hard work. It’s a first-class event, and if you have the means, it should be on your bucket list. One of my friends did it this year with his father, who participated as a coach, and I can only imagine how cool the experience must have been for them. Again, not cheap, but worth every penny.
The new guys were a little starstruck
In what has become a tradition, the new guys faced off against some of the pros in town on Saturday. I’m not allowed to say much about this, nor was I allowed to take pictures or video, but I can give you some general impressions. First, and this extends to off the court as well, I’m still learning who the new guys are. Of course, I’ve researched them as recruits and seen their YouTube mixtapes a million times, but without that jarringly terrible music as a background, it kind of takes a minute to recognize them. (It doesn’t help matters that Mychal Mulder and Jamal Murray have pretty much the same hairline and facial hair.) This was a pretty mysterious recruiting class, so I focused on getting a feel for their games as opposed the pros, whom I know pretty well.
First off, Skal is really skinny; like Anthony-Davis-when-he-came-to-UK skinny. But, like Anthony, Skal has big shoulders, and over time in the weight room, he could fill in like Anthony, who looks like a monster these days. Interestingly, it was DeMarcus Cousins who took Skal under his wing during the game, going head-to-head against him and after each dunk or post move, pulling him aside to talk through it. Skal didn’t back down, and got the better of DeMarcus one time, causing the room to break out in a chorus of “ooooohs.” Boogie being Boogie, he smiled, shook his head, and owned him on the next play, but still. Skal ain’t scared.
Other observations: Jamal Murray is just as good as advertised; Charles Matthews is REALLY athletic and will surprise some people; and Mychal Mulder is quicker than you’d think, but looked a little star struck. Actually, most of the new guys did, but can you blame them? Many of them, like Mulder and Isaac Humphries, were plucked from near obscurity, and one of their first acts as UK basketball players was facing off against some of the best pros in the league. I’d be a little rattled too.
There’s now a hierarchy with the pros
It really speaks to the success of the John Calipari Era that there are so many pros that there’s now a hierarchy during these reunion weekends. DeMarcus Cousins presides over the festivities like the big brother or uncle whose blessing you have to earn to be admitted to the club. Anthony Davis is the star of the family, but still pretty shy off the court (especially compared to Boogie). Karl is the younger brother, testing the waters of hanging out with the older guys and getting batted back on occasion. (Karl being Karl, he never gives up.) He’s also the first to comfort the younger players if they get owned by one of the older guys, helping them up and telling them not to hang their heads. We throw around “La Familia” all the time, but it really does apply now, especially when players like Bledsoe bring their own kids on the court with them. Speaking of…
Watching Anthony Davis interact with kids was awesome
He may be the future of the NBA, but on Sunday morning, Anthony Davis was just a coach helping some kids play basketball. Anthony is pretty reserved off the court, so watching him get into the Cats Legends Fantasy Camp was a treat. He was really into the games, even complaining to the refs on occasion. Enjoy for yourself:
Anthony Davis really embraced his role as head coach and protector today pic.twitter.com/EnA9sZagF4
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) September 13, 2015
Want to be your kid’s hero for life? Send him to that camp. There were only seven or eight players per squad, so they got plenty of hands-on instruction and interaction from Davis, Cousins, and Towns.
The Alumni Game has become The DeMarcus Cousins Show
…which makes it must-see TV. Honestly, like most exhibitions, the game dragged by at times, but DeMarcus did his best to liven it up, whether it be jacking up threes or taking over coaching duties from Anthony Davis. I took an empty seat behind the bench during the second half and listening to DeMarcus was awesome. I wish they had mic’d him up for the telecast. When he was coaching, he’d take one of the “rookies” (2015 draft class) out, make them sit in the chair next to him, and say “You played a hell of a game. Now get back in there!” and make them check back in. He did this with Devin, Karl, and Andrew, the latter of which laughed and protested when Boogie beckoned him. There’s a distinct pecking order among the pros, and even though Anthony may be the star, DeMarcus is at the top.
This kid stole the spotlight
When I got home last night, the first question my nephews asked me was “Who was that kid with the headband on the bench?” Nothing about the pros or the game itself, but the kid with the headband. That kid is Marques Amir McConnell, DeMarcus Cousins’ godson. (Fun fact: “Amir” is also DeMarcus’ middle name.) No offense, Boogie, but Marques was the star of the bench in the second half, sitting next to the guys and taking about a million pictures with someone’s cell phone. He can’t be more than five, but when he was on the court before the game and during halftime, he showed Rupp Arena he can already shoot the lights out. He’s so popular he even started his own Instagram account this morning. Here are some of his pics from the court last night:
Something tells me we’ll hear more from him in about ten years.
Calipari has never seemed happier
To say John Calipari had a big weekend is the understatement of the century. Cal was enshrined into the Hall of Fame Friday night and came back after the festivities to host the Fantasy Camp, getting out onto the court and actively coaching the campers as though it were the Final Four. He must have been running on fumes, but if not for the Dunkin’ Donuts cup constantly by his side, you’d never know it.
Over Cal’s tenure, we’ve seen a gamut of emotions from him: swaggy, salty, exhilarated and exhausted. Six years and a new hip later, Cal has aged considerably, but on Sunday night, he came into Rupp happy, tan, and relaxed. Surrounded by his former players for yet another night, he was giddy, sitting back and watching the festivities unfold. In fact, he’s never seemed happier.
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about Cal retiring at Kentucky, with Cal himself telling the media he’s considering coaching into his 70’s (he’s 56 now). All you have to do is look at him to see how much this job can wear on you, but Cal seemed reinvigorated last night. He’s been validated by his peers, he’s got a new team with a whole new dynamic, and he’s plugging right along on that mission to get as many players to the pros as possible. Six years in, he’s well on his way to a legacy, and from the looks of it, he’s not going anywhere any time soon.