It isn’t easy to play basketball under John Calipari at the University of Kentucky. In fact, life isn’t easy for anyone in that sort of spotlight and under that harsh a microscope. As a coach who is accustomed to redesigning a team-wide game plan and coaching young college players year after year, Calipari sees the patterns.
“If you demand a lot, you’ll get a lot. If you accept mediocrity, you’re getting it every single time, especially as a basketball coach and especially with young kids,” Calipari said at his press conference Thursday afternoon. “Now, you’ve got to raise the bar. They’re all capable of reaching what I’m asking them to, but they’ve never had to.”
But finding the line between pushing a player away from mediocrity and pushing a player too far is a thin one, and it’s one Coach Calipari treads carefully.
“It’s always on my mind – how are they feeling right now? I can’t worry about how I’m feeling. Look, I’m 48 years old; I can deal with this. But when you’re talking about these kids, they’re young. They’re 18 and 19,” Calipari said.
By attempting to only worry about the “kids,” Kentucky’s head coach comes up with a lot of questions.
“How are they feeling? How are they taking this? Where’s their anxiety? The kid doesn’t look like he’s sleeping – he’s probably not. He’s anxious… You can’t give a kid his “why.” What are you doing this for – is it ego? That goes away. What moves you? What are you trying to do? Where are you trying to take this and why?”
These are only the questions running through the mind of Calipari himself; the players have a set of their own.
“I can’t believe this is this hard. Am I ever going to be there? Maybe I’m not as good as I thought. Oh my God,” Calipari suggested.
It’s rare that an 18-year-old player can self-evaluate enough to see his own distinct flaws, especially at Kentucky where it’s easy to get caught up in comparisons, according to Calipari. It’s rare, yes, but it’s not impossible. When one player walked into Calipari’s office recently, his coach asked him how he was feeling. To Calipari, the truth was refreshing.
“I know I’m not playing well. I know I’m not comfortable on the court,” the player told Calipari. “This is all on me. This is not on anybody else; it’s on me.”
Of course, Calipari didn’t reveal which player had this realization in his office, but it wouldn’t matter to Cal anyway. His reaction would be the same:
“Hug that kid.”
Of course, he had to tie all of this together with – who else? – his son, Brad.
“You’re starting for a Division I program. You’re playing 30 minutes a game; you’re shooting balls; you’re making baskets. You’re better than I ever was,” Calipari said. “You have more courage than I ever had; you have more fight. You have more toughness and you’re going to be a better coach than I ever thought about being because of this experience.”
While he’s on the family tree, he also had to get a quick jab in about his “roommate,” Ellen:
“I was a gym rat like some of these guys. So, I think I got as good as I could be. I was way more athletic than Brad, by the way. Way more. He got that from his mom, I guess. She can’t move. Can’t dance either. Whew. Woof.”