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Love Thy Neighbor

How John Calipari’s recruitment of one-and-done players made it possible for a Louisville fan to enjoy the NBA careers of former Kentucky stars

Anthony Davis Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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.

Watching Anthony Davis is like hotboxing dopamine. He’s a walking—often flying—oxymoron: a 6-foot-10 big man who can pick a guard half his size by folding his body to match. A power forward with a shot as sure as those of half the league’s shooting guards. His best performances feel like guided, comprehensive tours through his skill set, and we, my friends, are now entering the walk-in closet of dunks.

Let’s go back to the second quarter of his 48-point coup in Madison Square Garden from January. Rajon Rondo spotted Davis cutting inside, and lobbed the ball from the left side of the court to its fate: the right hand on one end of a monstrous wingspan, a bludgeoning.

That one-handed wonder jam entered my life six years ago. The NCAA had found itself with a perfect television event—coincidence, no doubt—with intrastate rivals, the University of Louisville, my alma mater, and the University of Kentucky meeting in the Final Four. With 1:23 left, the Cards, the fourth-seeded underdogs to UK’s top overall seed, had worked those Adidas infrareds to pull within five points of the Wildcats.

Then, Davis rocketed up for a defensive board, threw an outlet pass, flew down to the other end, and crept through the paint. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist lobbed it to Davis, who flexed that right arm back, and sure enough, slammed it in one-handed. It effectively ended Louisville’s season and meant eight months blocking @BBNloveMyCayuts accounts until the two schools could meet again. I remember that dunk. It was raw power from a refined, lanky 19-year-old, and to this day, one of the most grand and imposing jams I’ve witnessed.

It also created one of the worst moments of my life.

If a Louisville fan catches a game with an announcer anointing UNC-Duke as the best rivalry in college basketball, that broadcaster becomes dead to us.

The history between the two programs is hostile—sensitive on Louisville’s end and dismissive on Kentucky’s. If you are unaware of the rivalry’s roots, that’s a grand accomplishment by the late Adolph Rupp, who became the Wildcats’ head coach in 1930. For the entirety of his 41 seasons at Kentucky, Rupp did all he could to ignore the program 80 miles west. At first, Rupp avoided playing other college teams in Kentucky because he thought that acknowledging them as competitors would give those schools recruiting boosts. Later in Rupp’s career, though, the justification for avoiding the Cardinals likely became more sinister. Rupp once vowed, the story goes, to never coach a black athlete. He was thought to be against the notion of his team taking the court with black players too, and U of L integrated well before UK. (Rupp did eventually sign one athlete of color, a 7-footer named Tom Payne, during his penultimate season as head coach.)

Kentucky wasn’t interested in a regular-season series after Rupp retired, and not after Louisville’s 1980 national championship, either. “They Are No. 1 in the Nation, but No. 2 in Their Home State,” read a New York Times headline the day after Denny Crum cut the net. It took three more seasons, and 53 years from when Rupp became coach, for Kentucky to put U of L on its regular-season schedule. And it wasn’t because UK was enthusiastic about the prospect of the matchup: Louisville won the 1983 “Dream Game,” an Elite Eight matchup between the two programs, which finally did away with the idea that the Cardinals weren’t a worthy Kentucky opponent. And even then, it took the involvement of the state’s governor, a Lexington-born UK graduate named John Y. Brown Jr., to get Kentucky to cave.

“That was probably my most political act,” Brown later said.

The two teams have played once per season ever since. Each year, Louisville fans prepare by avoiding Uncle Josh, the UK-loving blue sheep of the family, and stockpiling bourbon. Kentucky supporters, on the other hand, just ready the couches. Through everything, though, Louisville’s “Little Brother” stigma lingers. In the past decade, the tension eventually gave way to a type of pride. Louisville fans thought of their teams as homegrown, made up of three- or four-year players who either weren’t interested in being, or weren’t good enough to be, one-and-dones. Head coach Rick Pitino recruited underdogs off the MaxPreps maps, and turned them into folk heroes. (Tim Henderson, for example, was a walk-on who sank crucial back-to-back 3-pointers in Louisville’s 2013 Final Four game against Wichita State.) In recent years, with both Terry Rozier and Donovan Mitchell leaving after two seasons, Pitino products were able to draw enough scouting attention to declare early for the draft; Gorgui Dieng and Montrezl Harrell both left after three. Still, even after the championship, Louisville wasn’t the pro factory that John Calipari operated. Pitino was flipping fixer-uppers to get to the tournament, while Big Blue Nation built a brand-new subdivision each season.

Of course, as the Cards have learned over the past three seasons, Louisville is not an unimpeachable program. For fans, the team’s prostitution scandal, alleged player-payment scheme, and recently stripped NCAA title felt like throwing up in public—and in front of #BBN—on loop.

For as much as I drank the Kool-Aid of Pitino’s heartwarming recruiting style, Cal’s one-and-done system created a way for me to compartmentalize how I felt about former UK players as they entered the league. Davis wasn’t a recurring part or the rivalry, and neither was DeMarcus Cousins or Karl-Anthony Towns. Though I’ll always attach that unibrow to the 2012 title, Davis quickly took his abilities—and threat to my beloved alma mater—elsewhere. During Devin Booker’s one fleeting winter in blue, he averaged 10 points and came off the bench. Booker, the college athlete, was forgettable; Booker, the NBA player who joyrides his way to a 70-point game, isn’t. The NBA’s fans know Kentucky’s expats—excats?—better than the college basketball crowd ever had the chance to. UK is the first professional step in a player’s career. That’s Calipari’s recruiting lane: a fast one, but effective all the same.

In four years of watching Russ Smith, both on TV and from the stands (Row U, Seat 12, Section 114), I left games knowing more than his spots on the floor. (Possibly because every spot, per his shooting chart, was Russ’s spot.) Louisville fell in love with the three-star recruit, or as Smith remembered it, “I was, what, a half star?” We grew to know Russ as a personality, a guy who held tea parties at Waffle House, worshiped Lil B, called Christmas December Twenty-Smiff, and brought home a national championship. (Sorry, Mark Emmert. No take backs.) There’s a reason SB Nation’s Card Chronicle includes Russ updates from China’s second-tier National Basketball League, and it’s not because the Kentuckiana metro area is a devout market for Chinese ball.

In the same vein, NBA fans watch as the best of the UK one-and-dones grow up in the league, from 19-year-olds with overwhelming potential to, often, franchise centerpieces. John Wall’s quick Kentucky career was just a prologue to his current position at the center of the basketball world, where he is juking the umlaut off Dennis Schröder somewhere. I’m a Wall stan for the same reason I adored Russ: personality. Even after getting paid, Wall’s interviews still sound like those of a man who feels doubted. He brings that exact “but what about me?” chip-on-his-shoulder energy in every drive from the top of the key. He’ll embarrass you and he will make you remember it, as if you didn’t have plenty of Wall highlights stockpiled already. I used to leave rooms in 2009 whenever people did the John Wall. Now, if he has the ball, I won’t leave the couch.

When Louisville sends products to the NBA—far less often, with far lesser chances of stardom—my favoritism carries on and I love them unconditionally. With Kentucky, my biases stop at the proverbial door of the draft. Now, would I be mad if Donovan Mitchell dunked on Davis in the postseason? Would you?