NBA draft night recycles many of the same emotional beats from year to year, just with a new set of characters and Gucci shoes. We see basketball dreams realized, mothers hugged, God thanked. And, for the last seven years, we see John Calipari’s smiling face.
Thursday night was no different. When Jamal Murray was selected seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets, Calipari was the first cutaway shot, the fourth hug, and the main discussion point while Murray moseyed up to the podium. Along with Skal Labissiere and Tyler Ulis, Murray’s selection means another successful draft for Coach Cal. He continues to take wave after wave of blue-chip recruits (Kentucky has boasted either the no. 1 or no. 2 recruiting class in all eight of his seasons in Lexington) and turn them into NBA draft picks. It’s not easy to maintain the never-ending carousel of 18-year-old kids, but Calipari is able to keep it spinning by blurring the line between promoter and mentor.
Usually, the one closest to a player is an agent — think Leon Rose — but Calipari has practically co-opted this position for himself. Before the 2016 NBA draft, Calipari made his rounds through the ESPN car wash to pitch “his guys,” stating that he believed Murray should be taken first in the draft over Ben Simmons and dismissing Ulis’s hip-injury concerns. He even claimed that Murray would lead all rookies in scoring next season. His push to get his players paid isn’t shameful — it’s admirable — but it’s rare for a coach to be this blatant about it. Calipari sees himself as college basketball’s Robin Hood, and five-star recruits are his Merry Men.
“What stands out is being so nervous that I want to throw up,” Calipari told the Courier-Journal about his draft-night anxieties. “More nervous than I am to coach a game, more nervous than I am to be in the national championship game or Final Four games like we have over the years, or a big rivalry game where there’s something at stake. Because these families are going to get a chance to breathe for the first time in their lives, and you sit there and it’s hanging over you.”
Calipari ending June with a banner night at the NBA draft has become an annual tradition. In 2009, John Wall, Boogie Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe headlined his first recruiting class, and a year later five (one, two, three, four, fif!) Kentucky players were selected in the first round. Calipari claimed that the feat felt better than his Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis, saying, “It feels like we won a national title.” Calipari didn’t even have a national title at the time.
He now holds the keys to the place where the “Baron of the Bluegrass” provided 42 years of winning tradition. However, Adolph Rupp’s historic success is not what Calipari sells to win these recruiting wars. It’s merely a piece of Calipari’s larger pitch. Tradition does not move the meter. Championships don’t, either. NBA lottery selections do, and Cal’s secret to keeping the recruiting wheel spinning at Kentucky lies in his ability to publicly advocate for “his guys” in the draft, attaching his face to the success of his blue-chip players. It’s all part of the Calipari-Kentucky #brand.
“I’m not trying to be braggadocios, but if you’re a player with pro potential, where do you want to go?’’ Calipari said in 2010 after the draft. “Not long ago it was Florida, and then it was Duke and then North Carolina. Right now it’s Kentucky. I’m not saying I prepare a kid better than someone else, but I was told by NBA folks that it’s easier to evaluate your guys because you let them play.’’
According to the bio on U.K.’s website, Calipari is a “players-first coach with a penchant for helping people reach their dreams.” And that is true: Calipari has placed 36 players in the NBA during his collegiate coaching tenure. But the “dream” that Cal is selling is in contrast with the rest of college basketball.
“Kentucky’s pitch was just the NBA thing,” said five-star 2017 shooting guard recruit Hamidou Diallo back in April. “Duke’s pitch was if you come to Duke, you’re going to be set for life. It’s more than just basketball. [Calipari’s] pitch was he gets guys ready for the next level. Look at the numbers: It shows. It’s the best place for you if you want to make it to the NBA.”
Diallo’s comment caused quite a stir — not only for showing the contrast between Kentucky’s and Duke’s pitches, but also for prompting Calipari to take aim at Coach K’s conventional approach. He took to his personal website in his “Vision of the Program” series to promote his #NoFlipFlop stance and take a shot at Duke’s top selling point: “I refuse to go in a home and paint a picture saying things like, ‘If you come with us you’ll be taken care of for the rest of your life by the program and by our alums.’” In Cal’s words, Kentucky’s goal is “to give them the fishing rod and the lures to help them catch fish, not to just give you the fish.”
It boils down to this: Putting “players-first” vs. putting the program first. Calipari argues that the two are mutually exclusive. His pitch is that if you come to Kentucky, you’ll achieve your dreams, while Coach K — and most of the NCAA — sell players on the chance to achieve the team’s dreams. If you’re a recruit, what would mean more to you: the quickest route to a multimillion-dollar NBA contract, or the chance to win a championship while playing for nothing?
Calipari sells the same dream on such a ruthlessly consistent basis — and it works. It seems as if every recruiting cycle ends with another declaration of “the ‘best ever’ freshman class” entering the fold in Rupp Arena. But players who don’t end up fitting the one-and-done mold, like rising senior forward Marcus Lee, get left behind as the next guy is recruited to chase his chance at the NBA dream.
Even for those who do take the leap, the odds are not necessarily favorable. It’s easy to have the financial success and fortune if you’re an otherworldly talent like Anthony Davis, Wall, Cousins, or even Devin Booker. But it’s not clear if Cal’s formula holds true across the board. Since 2009, Kentucky has produced 25 NBA draft picks (not counting this year’s draft), but only 10 of those original 25 played at least 60 games in 2015–16.
Yet, with each passing season, Calipari’s pool of players continues to grow and more kids are handed their fishing rods. If you stick around, you might get replaced. The brand stays strong as long as the machine keeps moving. It’s cutthroat — but at least Cal’s honest about it.