Doesn’t Cal Want to Win? Don’t You Want to Eat?

Photo by Victoria Graff | Contributing Photographer

Photo by Victoria Graff | Contributing Photographer

John Calipari roiled some waters last week when he said his mission was not to win games or championships but to place his players in the NBA.

Frankly, I think he might like to take back part of that glib declaration. As a hypercompetitive coach, he wants wins and championships like most of us want air to breathe. Besides, championships do boost the players’ marketability. I doubt Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would’ve been the second overall draft pick from a team that had bowed out in the Sweet Sixteen.

But Cal isn’t much different from the science department head who wants to see the cream of his pre-med students admitted to the Johns Hopkins or Cornell med schools. Or the business school dean who wants his department known for placing graduates at Fortune 500 companies, Wall Street banks and Big Four consulting firms.

I’m not a fan of one-and-done. But neither do I hold Kentucky and Calipari personally responsible for it. He just plays the game better than anyone else.

In Calipari’s best season in Lexington (2012), six Wildcats were drafted – four in the first round, including the first and second picks. In the worst of Cal’s six seasons (2013), two Cats were drafted in the first round. Nerlens Noel was the sixth pick, even though he couldn’t walk unaided.

Enes Kanter was the third man taken in the 2011 draft, even though he never played a minute for UK.

Numbers we’re all familiar with: 19 NBA picks, 15 in the first round.

If a kid wants to play a season of college ball simply to improve his NBA prospects and Kentucky seems the best option, that’s all to the good. Otherwise, we’d have been robbed the pleasure of watching the likes of John Wall and Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, if only for one year.

But, Cal’s misspeak notwithstanding, when that becomes the topic of the conversation, above all else, it’s gotten out of hand.

Conversations on the incoming recruits all discuss ways they can position themselves for next year’s draft lottery. Can they share the ball with other burger boys? Will they play enough minutes to get their requisite shots? Or will they have to answer the same silly questions in next year’s draft combine?

“Do you prefer basketball to poetry, Willie?” “Karl-Anthony, did you resent the platoon?” “You’re perceived as grumpy, Aaron? Are you?”

I wish the new freshmen well with their professional prospects, but first there’s a season of college basketball to play. One in which the BBN hopes they do very well, however they’re used, and help lead their team to success (emphasis on “team”). This is as much a competitive basketball program they’re walking into as it is an audition for the Knicks.

And, by the way, I think Calipari thinks so too. “It’s not about winning the championship,” is usually the response from a coach who didn’t win the championship. Besides, Cal has far too much respect for the program and its nation to dismiss its hopes and dreams. If he didn’t, his name would be Billy Clyde.

A local newspaper began an evaluation of Kentucky’s returning team with a profile of Tyler Ulis. However, it was mostly about how the 5-foot-9 little man could establish his professional bona fides despite his height. There was very little about what to expect of him next year with the ball in his hands.

What about the expectations of watching perhaps Kentucky’s next great point guard have the position to himself for the next year – or two or three?

I hope Ulis gets everything he wants in life. He seems like a terrific kid and a terrific competitor. He didn’t just wake up short the other day. He’s been playing against bigger kids in a tall man’s sport for years of high school and AAU competition. And he’s excelled, with a combination of unmistakable talent and drive. He seems like a chihuahua who’ll snap at anyone, who doesn’t know how little he is.

I hope the NBA finds a place for him, the way it has for Calvin Murphy, Muggsy Bogues, Terrell Brandon, Earl Boykins, Spud Webb.

But right now, he plays for Kentucky. And while we all know he’s not being paid for it, he’s been given a generous scholarship that he can use to receive a good education and a full campus life. That ought to be his focus.

And I believe it is his focus. I wish it were everyone else’s focus, as well.