Cal’s Lost Game? Or Lost Chance?

Can John Calipari ever avoid a controversy?

Generally, the U.S. regards international basketball competition as a non-contact event. A warm-up.

It’s our game. We always have the best athletes. We shouldn’t lose.

So when Cal was hired to coach the U19 team at these international games in Egypt, it was mostly seen as his opportunity to polish his portrait as he spent a couple of uninterrupted weeks with the best recruiting targets in the country.

Talk about the fox in the hen house. Not only should Cal come home with a gold medal, but also with Romeo Langford, Immanuel Quickley, Cameron Reddish and Louis King hanging from his belt.

That scenario was never conveyed to the Canadians. Maybe Canada’s RJ Barrett is the real prize of the recruiting class. Maybe Langford’s injured back was too much of a setback for the US team.

Or maybe Cal dropped another one he should have won. The whispers preceded him to Kentucky eight years ago. He was always so close yet so far at UMass and Memphis.

He’s a master recruiter who doesn’t know what to do with the talent he amasses. He’s the classic snake oil salesman whose elixirs never heal anyone. He didn’t win with the best accumulation of basketball talent on one bench in 40 years.

I don’t buy any of that. But for those who do, this international loss will only fuel the fire. More importantly, what will it mean for these talented youngsters?

Will they decide their futures are better off in some other coach’s hands? Exactly the opposite of what Kentucky fans assumed would be the benefit of Cal landing this coaching gig in the first place.

Of course, none of us was in those practices, or in the team huddles during timeouts. We don’t know how well, or how poorly, Cal connected to these talented players.

We do know that eight years worth of Kentucky players – from John Wall to Bam Adebayo – have sung Cal’s praises after going on to NBA riches. We do know that he remains close to DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyler Ulis and all the other players who could have shrugged off the Calipari relationship after leaving campus – the way, say, Ben Simmons has pretty much severed any association with LSU, or the way Lonzo Ball peevishly split from UCLA minutes after the Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky.

Cal has always disavowed all results but one: getting his players onto NBA payrolls. That’s what he sees as his job as a college educator, grooming his students for high-paying jobs, and he’s done it as well as Harvard’s MBA program or Johns Hopkins’ med school.

The question, of course, is whether Langford, Quickley, Reddish and the others will see it that way.

Losses sting young athletes in a very emotional way. Players like this are not used to losing. They’re not used to being criticized by their coach. There will almost certainly be other college coaches who will use the opportunity to suggest to these kids, whisper in the ears, that Calipari misused them. He’s not the coach they might have been thinking he was. He’s not the coach who’ll hold their best interests in his hands.

Was this a huge opportunity blown? Or is Calipari smarter, sharper, better than that? I know what I think. Cal always seems to land on his feet.

GET RID OF THE BALL

It may have escaped your notice that the Lakers lost a summer league game to the cross-town Clippers. By three points. In overtime. In July!

What’s the big deal?

Just this. Lonzo Ball, in his royal purple and gold debut, shot two of 15, one for 11 from three.

Do you know how Markelle Fultz or Jayson Tatum or Josh Jackson or Lauri Markkanen did in their debuts? Of course you don’t. Do you care? Of course you don’t. But it’s the Lakers. It’s Magic Johnson. And it’s LaVar Ball.

In an article in Sunday’s Courier-Journal, with a four-column banner head, the AP writer went through Lonzo’s miserable game stats fairly quickly before turning to the bouncing Ball that matters.

LaVar and his quotes were all over the place, predictably excusing his son, minimizing the performance and blaming everyone else.

Lonzo apparently opened the game with a flashy pass to Brandon Ingram that drew the crowd to its feet.

Assists: one. Months till the NBA playoffs: nine.

Papa Ball was right about one thing. “It don’t matter!” Neither do you, LaVar. But would someone tell that to the media? VT