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Blue Skies, Blue Chippers, Blue Grass

Across his three-decade career, John Calipari has upended norms and altered the structure of his sport. He’s also become the most accomplished recruiter in college basketball history. How? We asked the elite prospects who’ve joined him.

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John Calipari hasn’t held an official position in the NBA since the turn of the century, but his fingerprints are all over the league as we know it. Coach Cal has only one NCAA title to his name, but in just nine seasons in Lexington, he’s turned the University of Kentucky into an assembly line for professional players—both in the NBA and in leagues across the globe. This week, we’re exploring Kentucky’s and Calipari’s impact on the basketball world, and whether or not his one-and-done blueprint has staying power at both the college and pro levels. Welcome to the Kentucky Basketball Association.

John Calipari was adamant. Late in the evening of March 26, 2017, deep in the belly of the FedExForum in Memphis, Calipari called three of his Kentucky freshmen into a private meeting and told them he had something to say. Kentucky had just lost to North Carolina, 75-73, in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels were going to Phoenix for the Final Four. The Wildcats were going back home to Lexington. In their locker room, players hung their heads in disappointment, replaying lost opportunities, struggling to face the reality that their season had ended two games short of their ultimate goal. But once he’d finished addressing the entire team, Calipari wanted to deliver another message to three of his stars: point guard De’Aaron Fox, shooting guard Malik Monk, and center Bam Adebayo. For many teams, in many years, this would be a moment of talking about the future, of challenging young stars to commit themselves in the offseason to carrying the team even further the next spring. Not now.

“Basically,” says Monk, “he kicked us off the team.”

Malik Monk and John Calipari
Malik Monk and John Calipari
James Crisp/AP Images

Kind of. Monk, Fox, and Adebayo were all slated as likely lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft. They’d arrived in Lexington only a few months ago, and now, Calipari told them, it was time for them to go. “He said, ‘We’ve got another group of recruits coming in,’” Monk remembers. “‘There’s not room for you. You gotta go.’ He really kicked us out.” (Calipari declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Monk (ESPN’s no. 9 recruit, class of 2016, now with the Hornets) didn’t complain. He’d been 7 years old when the NBA instituted its so-called one-and-done rule in 2005, and ever since he was a little boy, Monk had dreamed of spending a single season on a college campus before jumping to the NBA. So that night in Memphis, he felt devastated by the loss but excited for what he knew would come next. “When he told me I was off the team,” says Monk, “I was so happy. It was a big step to the biggest dream in my life coming true.”

Calipari could afford to send three lottery picks on their way because he had already assembled the next crop to take their place. Projected top-15 picks Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were already on their way to Lexington, alongside four other McDonald’s All Americans. Under Calipari, Kentucky’s program has become a revolving door for elite talent, helmed by perhaps the most accomplished recruiter in the history of college basketball.

Since arriving at Kentucky in 2009, he has brought in 30 McDonald’s All Americans and sent 33 players to the NBA. Right now, on any given night, in any given city, anyone showing up at an NBA game is likely to see one (“At least one,” says Monk) of Calipari’s players. This season, half the teams in the league have fielded at least one player who played under him at Kentucky. By recruiting elite talents and encouraging them to turn pro as soon as they’re able, he has contributed to altering the structure of both the college and pro games. He has left two programs, Memphis and UMass, that were eventually disciplined by the NCAA, and now, as the FBI investigates college programs, some fans and media expect further evidence of a Calipari program playing dirty. Regardless of how closely he’s followed the rules, Calipari has upended the norms that have long governed college sports, writing in one of his memoirs that he coaches for the names “on the backs of the jerseys” rather than the ones on the front.

Across his three-decade coaching career, Calipari has recruited hundreds of players. Within that group, the range of talent levels, socioeconomic statuses, and professional prospects is vast. But across each era, players Cal has recruited point to two things: a straightforward honesty regarding their future at his program, and a preternatural ability to connect with people that makes even hard truths palatable. “He knows,” says Alex Poythress (no. 13 overall recruit, class of 2012, now on the Pacers), “how to build trust with you in a way that just feels so natural. He makes you instantly feel comfortable with him like nobody else I’ve ever met.”

The summer afternoons at Five-Star Basketball camp could be brutal, the sun beating blacktops and bodies crushed together on the court. Every year, from the mid-’60s through the early aughts, the country’s best high school basketball players made their way to Pennsylvania, drilling and practicing and playing against each other under the watchful eye of some of the game’s most famous coaches. Steve Maslek remembers going in 1983 or 1984 and being awed by the talent around him. A 6-foot-9 forward from nearby Conway, Maslek arrived at the camp eager to impress. But even at a camp alongside future NBA talent and future Hall of Fame coaches, Maslek found himself drawn to someone else: a 20-something brown-haired and fast-talking volunteer who seemed to be on every court, at every lunch table, in every conversation, connecting with every coach and every player, all of the damn time.

John Calipari was a failed point guard and a poorly paid assistant. His playing career had gone nowhere: After starting his career at Division I UNC Wilmington, he’d finished at Clarion University in Division II. His coaching career held promise, but little else. He’d gotten a part-time gig on Larry Brown’s staff at Kansas but had done little to indicate he’d end up in basketball’s Hall of Fame.

“It was like he was more of a player than a coach,” Maslek says now of Calipari’s presence at the camp. “He wasn’t a big deal. No one knew who he was. He was basically just a runner. You look back on it and you realize, he was there for the exact same reasons as all of us. He just wanted exposure. He wanted to get noticed.” In between his time talking with older and better-established coaches, Calipari sat with the high schoolers in the cafeteria, learning about their hometowns and their families. He wasn’t recruiting—as a part-time assistant, he couldn’t. But, says Maslek, “It was like he would find some point of connection with absolutely everyone. He identified the top players in the country, and he connected to them. But then he connected to the guys who weren’t on that level, too.”

Bobby Martin at Pitt
Bobby Martin at Pitt
Ron Frehm/AP Images

Bobby Martin felt comfortable from the first moment he spoke with Calipari by phone, sitting at home in Atlantic City, back in 1986. Martin was a tough and talented big man, a McDonald’s All American coveted by teams up and down the East Coast. He’d always dreamed of playing at Villanova, but he liked what he heard from Calipari, then an assistant coach at Pitt. “There was absolutely no bullshit with him,” Martin remembers. “There was no pretense at all. It was just: This is what it is. I know what you want. You know what I want. Let’s do this together.”

Still, says Martin, “Villanova was my heart.” He gave then–Wildcats coach Rollie Massimino a verbal commitment relatively early in the recruiting process, thrilled to spend the next four years of his life in Philadelphia. In the weeks that followed, though, Martin’s thinking changed. He says now that Villanova’s staff had told him they would stop recruiting Perry Carter, another McDonald’s All American big man, if Martin committed. Yet even after he gave them his verbal, he says, Nova continued pursuing Carter. He reached back out to Calipari, and, through him, to Pitt head coach Paul Evans. He told them he wanted to come to Pitt. And while he liked the school and appreciated Evans’s toughness, his biggest reason for choosing the Panthers was getting the chance to play under Calipari.

“His ability to connect with people is his biggest asset,” Martin says. “All coaches try. Most coaches can’t. I think it has to do with his background.” Calipari came from a family of immigrants, men who moved from Italy to mine coal in Pennsylvania. “That is a place full of people who work their asses off,” says Martin. “And when you’re talking to a kid from the inner city—they understand working their butts off. It’s the only way for them to get out. So that’s something he has in common. There’s this genuineness, combined with a work ethic—I think that’s the common bond. It’s extremely hard to relate to kids when you have nothing in common.”

At the time, Big East coaches had a “gentlemen’s agreement.” Once a recruit had committed to one school in the conference, the coaches told each other, all other schools would stop recruiting him. By signing Martin, Calipari and Pitt had broken this rule. For years, Martin says, opposing fans asked him how much he got paid. (Nothing, he says.) But while Massimino had made him believe the Wildcats would stop recruiting Carter, Calipari explained exactly where Martin would fit in at Pitt and spoke forthrightly about the Panthers’ other recruiting targets.

“Everyone talks about being able to make an impact on these young men’s lives,” says Martin, now an assistant coach at Northeastern. “That’s a lot easier said than done. The big thing about Cal is, he’s able to take all of these dreams that you have and just make them coalesce for you. He can speak to those dreams in a way few people can.” He explained exactly what kind of opportunity Martin would have for playing time, exactly what kind of chances Pitt’s talent level gave it for success, and exactly where, after his time in college was over, Martin’s career might lead. “When you do that,” Martin says, “you give the young man a chance to make something intangible tangible. That’s the key. Not the other bullshit.”

At Pitt, Calipari was selling players on someone else’s program. As much as he influenced the Panthers’ recruiting, once players arrived on campus, Evans was in charge. “Those two were completely different,” says Maslek, who was already on Pitt’s roster when Calipari was hired in 1985. Calipari was in the earliest stages of building his “Players First” philosophy, while Evans, Martin says, was “the Big East Bobby Knight.” They fell into a rhythm. Evans berated players. Calipari comforted them. He had a go-to phrase anytime Evans got under a player’s skin. “All you have to do,” Calipari would say, “is let the negative words roll like water off a duck’s back.”

(Martin tells one more story. Once, in the middle of a huddle, Calipari took charge and began addressing the team. Evans grabbed him. “John!” he shouted. “Shut the fuck up!” On the way out of the huddle and back onto the court, forward Jerome Lane said to Calipari, “Just let it roll, coach!” sending all of his teammates into hysterics as they tried to take their positions for the next play.)

Once he arrived at UMass as head coach in 1988, though, Calipari had the chance to sell a program all his own. After several seasons slowly building the Minutemen into an Atlantic 10 contender, Calipari set his sights on a rail-thin center from nearby Hartford, Connecticut, a floor-running and shot-blocking recruit who he believed could help his UMass program take a place among the nation’s elite. “That man,” says Marcus Camby, “can sell water to a well.” And he quickly got to work on selling UMass to Camby, a fourth-team Parade All-American ranked among the top 40 prospects in the country by recruiting guru Bob Gibbons.

The first thing Camby noticed about Calipari was the cut of his suits. “You could see that Italian side of him,” Camby says. “He was just more sharply dressed than most of the other coaches.” At Pitt, Calipari had sold players on his background—the hardscrabble upbringing of an immigrant’s kid. At UMass, though, he could also sell them on where he was headed. Now that working-class kid flew first class and wore designer suits. In Calipari’s upward mobility, recruits could see their own. More than anything, though, Camby saw in Calipari the same thing Martin had seen years earlier. “Something about him was so straightforward,” Camby says. “I had a plethora of coaches calling me, all of ’em making promises—this, that, and the third. He didn’t do any of that. And that’s why when he did talk, I believed him.”

Marcus Camby and John Calipari at UMass
Marcus Camby and John Calipari at UMass
Winslow Townson/AP Images

Camby wanted the same thing every kid who’s ever played basketball wanted: to make the NBA. At the time, though, Calipari lacked the track record of delivering players from his huddle straight into the lottery. “He didn’t sell me the NBA,” Camby says. “The lay of the land was different. He just sold me on my progression as a player. And there was this sense of, if I put in the work, then when the time comes, I’ll get my chance.” Camby arrived in Amherst and promptly set an NCAA freshman record for most blocks in a season with 105. He followed a slower trajectory than many of Calipari’s eventual one-and-done stars: A-10 Freshman of the Year, then first-team all-conference as a sophomore, then all-American and winner of the Wooden and Naismith awards as a junior. By the time Camby led UMass to the Final Four in 1996, it had become clear that he’d be Calipari’s first lottery pick.

Agents swirled around Camby throughout his time in Amherst, and as has been well-documented in the two decades since, he accepted thousands of dollars in cash and gifts—including jewelry, rental cars, and the services of prostitutes. The Minutemen’s trip to the Final Four was eventually vacated, and UMass received sanctions. Camby insists that Calipari knew nothing of the gifts he accepted from agents. As part of UMass’s punishment, the school was ordered to return its $151,617 share of the 1996 NCAA tournament purse. Soon after he reached the NBA, Camby paid the school back. “I made really poor decisions,” Camby says. “But I always accepted full responsibility. It was important for me to pay back that money, and to say it was all on me.”

As Camby left for the NBA, so did Calipari, embarking on an ill-fated stint as head coach of the New Jersey Nets. By the time Calipari returned to the college game, elite talents had begun following a different path.

Kevin Garnett was the first. In 1995 he jumped from Farragut Career Academy in Chicago straight into the NBA draft, going fifth overall to the Timberwolves. Sure, Moses Malone had taken a similar road two decades prior, signing with the ABA’s Utah Stars straight out of high school back in 1974, but few others followed his lead. Garnett’s signaled a sea change. Kobe Bryant came next, going no. 13 (11 spots behind Camby) in 1996, and then there was Tracy McGrady in ’97, Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis in ’98, and Jonathan Bender in ’99.

Calipari arrived at Memphis in 2000 with the reputation and ability to attract top talent. “Everybody wanted to play for him,” says Jeremy Hunt, a guard from Memphis who signed on to play for Calipari in 2002. The flow of players from high school to the NBA, though, kept some of his top targets from ever setting foot on Memphis’s campus. Hunt remembers being recruited alongside Amar’e Stoudemire, Kendrick Perkins, and Qyntel Woods. “I knew he was bringing Memphis to the top,” Hunt remembers. “You couldn’t really see it from the outside, but I remember thinking, ‘Look at all the guys we got coming in. This is about to be crazy.’” Stoudemire, though, jumped straight from high school to the lottery, going ninth overall to Phoenix in 2002. Woods, a junior college player, went to Portland 21st overall that same year. Perkins jumped straight from his high school in Beaumont, Texas, to the NBA in 2003, going 27th overall to the Grizzlies, who traded him to Boston.

Hunt was a lesser talent than those three. His recruitment, though, was marked by the same straightforward manner that Calipari had used to lure Camby and Martin and others to his previous programs. “Nothing was sugar-coated,” he says. “He said, ‘This is going to be the hardest place you’ve ever played. I’m going to be on you every day.’” Hunt remembers a camp the summer before his senior year, with the top high school players from the city scrimmaging the players already on Memphis’s roster. “I was straight killin’,” he says. Calipari stopped the scrimmage, subbed in another player for Hunt, and invited Hunt into his office. What followed was a conversation that bore similarities to the one Martin says he had with Massimino years earlier. Hunt says Calipari told him, “If you tell me right now that you’re going to come to Memphis, then I will immediately stop recruiting other players at your position.” Hunt had already committed to Cincinnati, but he’d long dreamed of an offer from his hometown school. He changed his commitment, pledging to Memphis and Calipari on the spot. True to his word, Hunt says, Calipari stopped recruiting other 2-guards right away.

At the time, Camby was the only player to move from Calipari’s program into NBA stardom. He still wasn’t selling the NBA. He couldn’t. His own experience in the league had been a failure. “The thing about him back then that you still see today is this,” says Hunt. “He lets you be you. He tells you it’s going to be hard, and it is. He gets on you and pushes you. But he doesn’t force you to be someone you’re not. He cares about your individual goals as much as he cares about the team goals.”

When Nerlens Noel went to Lexington for his first visit to Kentucky, he arrived as part of a generation of players whose expectations of college had shifted. “My goal,” he said, “was to be in college for one year,and then go to the next level. That was it. That was my mind-set.” In the 10 years between when Hunt arrived at Memphis in 2002 and when Noel arrived at Kentucky in 2012, a lot had changed—in college basketball, in the NBA, and in the life and career of John Calipari.

After it was introduced in 2005, the NBA’s one-and-done rule immediately changed the landscape of the game. Since the rule went into effect, a college freshman has been chosen first overall in nearly every draft since. The lone exceptions: Italian league forward Andrea Bargnani in 2006 and Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin in 2009. Since the rule was implemented, only two seniors—Duke forward Shelden Williams in 2006 and Providence guard Kris Dunn in 2016—has gone in the top five. The league stopped the trickle of high school seniors into its ranks but instead invited a flood of college freshmen.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Bill Haber/AP Images

Calipari transitioned naturally to recruiting players who seemed destined to spend only one season on his team. He drew Derrick Rose from Chicago to Memphis, and the future NBA MVP led the Tigers to overtime in an eventual national title game loss before going no. 1 in the NBA draft. (That Final Four run, just like the Final Four run at UMass, was later vacated due to concerns about the validity of Rose’s SAT scores.) When Calipari bolted Memphis for Kentucky the next year, he inherited a program with the tradition, fan base, and facilities required to maximize his recruiting abilities. A wave of talent immediately followed him to Lexington, and almost as quickly, they left him for the NBA. Five first-round picks in 2010. Another in 2011. Then four—including top two overall selections Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—in 2012.

Noel saw himself as next in line. He grew up in Massachusetts, the son of Haitian immigrants, a 6-foot-11 rim protector ranked the no. 1 player in his class. Everybody wanted him. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “There’s a lot of people that can bring drama into your life.” Calipari cut through the hype, Noel says. “You just know,” says Noel, now with the Mavericks, “this is a guy that’s never gonna bullshit you.” Several of Calipari’s Kentucky recruits think back on what their lives as a top high school players, surrounded by people praising their talents, thinking themselves on top of the world. “Cal wasn’t like that at all,” says Kidd-Gilchrist (ESPN’s no. 4 overall recruit, class of 2011, now with the Hornets). “I remember he watched me play once in high school and said, ‘I was really disappointed in what I saw today.’ He would tell me stuff I didn’t want to hear. But something about that makes you realize you can trust him.”

The appeal of playing for Calipari is now obvious. Come to Kentucky a wide-eyed teenager, leave a millionaire. But the promise of delivering players to the pros does not come up in recruiting as much as fans might think, several players say. “He doesn’t have to talk about it,” says Dakari Johnson (no. 7 overall recruit, class of 2013, now with the Thunder). “We already know.” Monk remembers talking to Calipari about the NBA a couple of times during his recruitment, but he says Calipari never acted as if he held some key to Monk’s lottery-pick dreams. “Why would he?” says Monk. “We all know how to Google.”

It was the time spent in Lexington—not what it promised would follow—that held the most allure for many of Calipari’s Kentucky recruits. All had talent. All likely had futures in the NBA. “I wanted to go somewhere that felt like a family,” says Kidd-Gilchrist. A lock-down wing defender, Kidd-Gilchrist would soon be compared by Michael Jordan to Scottie Pippen. Alongside Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague, he led the Wildcats to a national title his freshman year. Afterward, Calipari didn’t try to “kick him out” like Monk says he did with his own class, but the coach did encourage Kidd-Gilchrist to explore his future in the NBA. “I didn’t want to leave,” Kidd-Gilchrist says. “I just didn’t want to leave him, and that staff, and those people. They just really cared about me. They were like my blood, you feel me? I had it rough. I was a kid. I stuttered. I was a mama’s boy. I had lost my father. I went through stuff a lot of people don’t go through when they’re kids. So it was hard for me to leave home. And when I found this school with people who cared about me like they did, it was tough for me to say goodbye to that.”

The memories players point to have less to do with Calipari shepherding them to the NBA than with the personal relationship they forged while on his team. Kidd-Gilchrist remembers getting homesick and Calipari giving him a key to his house. “Anytime I needed to sleep over there,” he says, “I could.”

Noel remembers the night he tore his ACL in a game at Florida. That night, as the team flew back to Lexington, he found himself afraid and confused, held captive by his own tears. “Coach walks over to me,” he remembers, “and I’m just crippled, and I’ve been crying, and he leans over and he whispers in my ear, ‘You’re gonna be all right. It might take a little while, but you’re gonna be all right.’ Something about that immediately helped change my mind-set.”

Maslek thinks back to those days at Pitt when Evans ripped into the team and Calipari came in to clean up the damage, assuring the players that they still had worth. “Sometimes,” Maslek says, “I’ll be talking to my son, and the Coach Evans comes out in me. I think to myself about Coach Cal and ask, ‘How would he approach this situation?’”

Camby cherishes the memory of the now-vacated Final Four, but no more than the memory of one morning last May, when he finally earned his degree from UMass, with Calipari there to celebrate with his family.

Martin, though, may be the one who thinks about Calipari’s gifts the most. “What he does,” says Martin, the Northeastern assistant, three decades removed from being recruited by Calipari to Pitt, “is alchemy. He turns lead into gold.” He explains further. “These kids are smart, and they’re talented. They’re going to make it as basketball players regardless of whether they play for him or not.”

It’s less about the future Calipari can promise, Martin and others say, than about the simple draw of playing for his program.

“He’s so direct with you,” Martin says, “and he knows just the right way to push you.” He knows when to criticize and when to comfort. “He can change your thought process, just a little bit, so that you see yourself clearer,” Martin continues. “That’s what the kids want. That’s what the parents want.

“How could you not want to play for a guy like that?”

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