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TRANSCRIPT: John Calipari speaks with ESPN Radio about Champions Classic, CBB bubbles, and his 2020-21 team

This morning, Kentucky head coach John Calipari joined ESPN Radio’s brand new morning show, Keyshawn, J-Will & Zubin, to talk all things college basketball.

In the interview with Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams, and Zubin Mehenti, Calipari touched on the likelihood of basketball season being played on time, how the Champions Classic could be played this year, other bubble/pod ideas, and how good his 2020-21 roster is, among other topics.

What did the Kentucky head coach have to say? Check out the complete transcript below.


On college basketball season starting on time and whether or not the Champions Classic will be played…

We don’t know right now, but I’m gonna tell you, players want to play and coaches want to coach. It’s August 18, my thing is we just have to keep moving slowly. The NBA and WNBA have given us a pathway. Let me just say, we have an ultimate bubble. We have the [Wildcat Coal] Lodge where our kids live, they have a single room and single bath. They have a cook in the building. There’s no one else in the building except them. Right across the street is our practice facility, no one in the building, no offices are being occupied. We have the ultimate bubble to keep our kids safe.

But we are still moving slow, we’re still not doing body to body, I don’t feel comfortable enough yet. So everything we’re doing is five guys at a time, six guys at a time, with social distancing if we can. But there’s no body to body, no setting screens, no defense. I’m still a week or two away from that. But we all want to play, safely. This new saliva test, that changes things a little bit. Things are changing daily, so to move quickly, none of us know yet. But I do know these kids want to play and we want to coach, safely.

I think the NCAA and our league [SEC], Greg Sankey has done a great job. I’ve been mad at Greg at tines because I’ve thought he was moving too slow, but he was doing it at the right pace. He’s just trying to say, “Where is this going to go?”

What do conferences have to get right to attack the coronavirus?

With basketball, we’re talking 12 players, a party of 20. I think the bubble or a pod, it’s been shown to work now. Do you have multiple bubbles or pods? Do we go and play the Champions Classic in a bubble, without fans, and we play each other? We all play each other round-robin? We could walk away with three games [played].

Do we put in a bubble or a pod, let’s say Kentucky, Louisville, and Michigan State with three “bye games?” Detroit, where my son plays, Murray State, and East Tennessee State, and we play a round-robin so we get bye games where those teams really need that money. Can we do it that way? Is the NCAA Tournament in a bubble? I know [NCAA SVP] Dan Gavitt right now is looking at all kind of different options. What I’m happy about is we’re doing it now, we’re not waiting until two months from now. No, we’re doing it now to figure it out.

We now have multiple paths, the NBA and WNBA have both shown that we can do this.

How will the NCAA determine who gets in the NCAA Tournament if teams play conference-only schedules? How will things remain fair throughout college basketball? 

First of all, think about students who have prepared their whole life to be in a college setting and this hits. Think about a football player who has trained, who has matured, who has given everything. And his family has sacrificed, and he’s looking around saying “I’m gonna do this,” and “My ‘why’ is taking care of my family.” Or basketball players, or volleyball players, where their whole life is about, “How can I get to that next level?” “How can I make it to the NCAA Tournament?” We have to do everything in our power, slowly, to see if we can make that happen, not just take it away at the first sign of things. This thing is changing weekly, we have to move slowly. We can’t be moved by one person’s opinion or a second, because there will be two or three other opinions that’ll say they’re wrong. That’s not right.

Now, when you talk about competitive equity, there’s not gonna be any. There’s not. We can’t worry about, “So and so played more league games than us,” or “Why is our schedule harder than theirs?” Let’s just play. There’s not gonna be competitive equity. This is about one term: survival. Survival of athletic departments, there are some teams who cannot play. OK, keep the jobs, keep the scholarships, and play next year. Don’t end sports because we can’t get this up and running. Now, it may happen, but we’ve got to move slowly for these kids. Not just to keep them safe, that’s the No. 1 thing, but what about their mental health? You can’t keep a kid in a room for 20 hours a day when he’s 18 years old, and think that’s gonna work and that there won’t be mental health issues. We’ve been arguing that one. I argued that on my campus, “You’ve got to give me access because they want access to me.” It’s not the other way around, I already told you, we’re not having live practices. I get to be with them where they can ask me questions. “Are we going to have a season?” “What’s going to happen to my life?” “How about my family?” All of this stuff is uncharted waters, we’re not going to have competitive equity, we’re just not. Danny and the committee, they’re going to have to pick teams, and it’s going to be harder. We can’t say there are going to be 150 teams. There may be 32 teams instead of 68 teams.

On the coronavirus outbreak on North Carolina’s campus and how they’re keeping students safe at the University of Kentucky…

I don’t know football, I don’t know what happened at Carolina, but I do know what’s happening at Kentucky. We tested every student before they were accepted back on campus, every one. The positive rate was less than one percent. Now, it falls on the students to be responsible. We have protocols, if you see it, take a picture of it and turn it in. The university is going to deal with it. Do I believe that’s going to stop students from getting together? Absolutely not. My wife and I were driving to a restaurant, we saw about 500 people together outside, and my wife shook her head and said, “What in the world?” You’re looking for masks, please wear your mask, it’s not a political statement. Wear the mask, wash your hands, and stay away from people. If you don’t know them, you have to act like they have this virus. At Carolina, it obviously didn’t work. We have transparency. We have a website where you can go on and find out at that moment how many positive cases are on our campus. Every day you can go on and check. Our president, Dr. Eli Capilouto, he’s got a medical background. He has moved really slow.

My concern is mental health. Could you imagine being in your room 18 straight days for 20 hours a day? Could you imagine what you’d be doing? We have to figure this out. Our team is going to be tested once a week. If they’re negative once a week, they can be a family and be in areas together. As long as they stay in that bubble, you have to let them come together for their mental health. You have to have areas that they can do things together. Again, we’re learning. It’s the 18th of August. Coaches want to coach, players want to play, let’s find out if we can do it on time.

I was watching the news this morning, and the students at North Carolina said there was no transparency. You have to be transparent in this, you can’t be hiding things. “You have to be sensible and we’re going to make the decisions with no one else involved.” Well, not in this. It can’t and it won’t work.

On his former players inching closer to their professional dreams with the NBA Draft lottery scheduled for later this week…

Dajuan Wagner was the original one and done, and when John Lucas, who was the coach of the Cavaliers, promised me he would take him at No. 4, I called Dajuan in and I ripped up his scholarship papers. He looked at me and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “You’re not coming back son. You’re the No. 4 pick in the draft, at worst. You have to do this.”

The kids we have in the draft this year, again, could you imagine this group of kids, who have worked their whole lives to be in this situation, and then this happens? That’s why I’m happy the NBA is doing the lottery, moving forward with the draft. We just have to do stuff in a safe way, we can’t, at the first sign of [adversity] say, “We’re shutting everything down.” The reason is, a week later, someone will come back and say, “Well, that’s not true. It’s more like this and this.” Just keep moving slowly, it’ll play out. It’ll be somewhat clear of what this is.

Tyrese [Maxey] was just in town, Immanuel [Quickley], Ashton [Hagans], EJ [Montgomery] and Nick [Richards], Nate [Sestina] is gonna have his opportunities. We’ve got six guys with opportunities out there.

On Kentucky’s 2020-21 roster…

I’ve got nine new players on this team, and can I tell you? I’m gonna have a good team, so we have to play. The only thing I know we’re not beating is that virus. I’m looking at anyone else, I’m saying “Come on, bring it. Let’s go.”

On the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative…

The success, anything that has happened for me and my family has happened because African American families have entrusted us with their sons. Now it becomes, “Well, you can’t just sit there.” [Harvard head coach] Tommy Amaker and I have organized this initiative, and originally, we were going to have it on campus at Kentucky. But then, we realized we could make it to scale. All of a sudden we’ve got 76 or 77 [figures], Coach K is a part of it, Nick Saban is a part of it, 76 coaches in all sports. We’re all saying we’re going to fund positions on our campuses in athletic administration because there’s no diversity issues on the fields, but there is a diversity issue within the administration as far as athletic directors and leaders in athletics.

Now that leads to not enough African American coaches, coaches of color. There’s not enough coaches of color, so you have to attack it that way. That’s what we’re doing.

Article written by Jack Pilgrim

Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR

2 Comments for TRANSCRIPT: John Calipari speaks with ESPN Radio about Champions Classic, CBB bubbles, and his 2020-21 team



  1. Han
    10:19 pm August 18, 2020 Permalink

    John Lucas reference there. Crazy how things are working out.

    Cal makes Dajuan Wagner go pro, he’s drafted by John Lucas’ Cavaliers team. Pre-Calipari, Jai Lucas almost comes to Kentucky to play but doesn’t. Years later, Cal is hiring Jai Lucas as a special assistant and recruiter. Kentucky is considered a favorite to land Wagner’s son if he goes to college, so Jai Lucas could end up recruiting and coaching Dajuan Wagner Jr.



    • Jack Pilgrim
      12:07 am August 19, 2020 Permalink

      Hit the nail on the head on all fronts. Small world, really. Home run hire if UK can put pen to paper.