BallinEurope’s Emmet Ryan spoke with John Calipari, coach of the currently unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats, in an exclusive interview for BiE. Coach Cal discussed Enes Kanter, his time with the Dominican Republic national team, and the current unbeaten run of his Wildcats this season with March Madness just around the corner.
With a 584-174 record in the NCAA ranks and the 2012 national championship to his name, John Calipari is one of the most accomplished coaches in the game today. Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats are famed for their ability to reload after sending off talent to the NBA. Part of this is down to Calipari’s ability to recruit worldwide, with an increasing international look to the line-up in Lexington. The most notable early move in this regard didn’t work out on the court for the Wildcats as Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible before ever suiting up for Kentucky. Despite this, Kanter stayed with the progam for a season and Calipari told BallinEurope that he is impressed with the Turkish big man’s progress in the NBA.
“I watched Enes on Thursday night on TV, Phoenix played Oklahoma City. I can not believe that Utah made that trade because I think, in time, Enes surrounded by other really good players has a chance to be an All Star. He has the ability but he needed to be on a good team in a market where people could see him. He’s a great kid and a terrific player,” said Calipari.
Europe has not turned into a steady pipeline for Kentucky yet but despite having a desire to recruit more from the continent Calipari said he doesn’t regret missing out on other Euros to come through the US college system.
“A lot of times those players weren’t willing to be what we needed. We recruit character here as much as basketball. This year, we have literally 10 players with the chance to be in the NBA. Those players have to allow us to make them a great team. They have to have a good heart, they need great character. If a young man doesn’t want to come here, I say this isn’t for everybody. We take the kids that want to come here and do everything we can to help them get better,” said Calipari.
“It’s all based on kids that want to be here. We’ve gotten a couple kids from Haiti who grew up in the States, now we’ve got Tai [Wynyard] from New Zealand who is going to come in another year and a half. Some people told me about him, we reached out. We’re worldwide, most of our work is done closer to home but I’m interested in any young man who is willing to make the sacrifice. Here, you don’t score 30 a game, even Anthony Davis, John Wall, or Derrick Rose [at Memphis], guys that I’ve coached that are MVPs or All Stars, averaged 15 a game here. You come here to be a great team mate and be the best version of yourself. It’s about getting better, it’s not about showing what you can do,” he said.
That ability to reload is part of what has made Calipari one of the most envied coaches in college hoops. The Kentucky coach said it’s all about what he can deliver for players who come through his program.
“Recruiting is 24/7 but what recruits kids are results. We’ve had 19 players drafted here in the last 5 years, we’ll probably have 6 or 7 off of this team, we had 3 guys in the All Star game this past year. The results speak for themselves. We’ve had 31 guys go to NBA*, with $820 million in created wealth and that doesn’t include shoe contracts, endorsements, or Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, or Brandon Knight’s second contract or the guys currently on my team so you are probably talking well over $1 billion. Within the next 5 to 6 years, that could be around $3 billion in created wealth for our players. That recruits other players. Now we have to stay on top of it. I have to travel and make sure I’m at the gyms and they see me. The reality of it is, the best thing that sells is results,” said Calipari.
*Including Calipari’s previous coaching stops
Three of Calipari’s former players were on the USA team that won the FIBA World Cup last September, with Derrick Rose, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis all suiting up in Spain. Calipari said the success of former players helps drive him forward.
“I was in their homes, I know where they came from. I know how they struggled, I know their families struggles. When I see them make it, it feels good. DeMarcus Cousins’ mother called me crying saying ‘my son moved me in a new house’. She said she was looking out the back room and could see the ninth hole. I said ‘you’re on a golf course, do you play golf?’, she said ‘no but I can live here’. So when you see that, she’s not the only one I can tell story after story, it’s a great feeling because I turned the business of basketball when I came to Kentucky into the business of helping families,” said Calipari.
“As long as I’ve stayed on point with that, even though I’ve lost entire teams, the program stayed steady because the principles are about these kids. We try to make sure each of these kids leaves the three pillars that we call industrious, they understand the grind, the second is servant leadership, if you want to lead you serve it’s about everyone else not you, and the third pillar is having a kind heart, these kids here become almost like rock stars but how do you use that? Do you use it to make someone’s day, to be kind to somebody? Those three things are what we’ve built this thing on.”
Calipari coached the Dominican Republic team through its efforts to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, securing third place at the FIBA Americas Championship in 2011. That was the first time the Dominicans ever took a medal at the championships but Calipari said it was as much a learning experience for him as it was his players.
“The best thing that happened to me was coaching the Dominican team that got me to see some of FIBA basketball. That really helped me coach spacing and movement, pick and rolls, and different angles and different ways of doing it. It was really helpful. I hope my time with the Dominican Republic helped them, we did things they had never done in their history. Orlando [Antigua] has taken over and done a great job and taken them to the next step. He’s going to step away now and hopefully the next guy brings them to the next level again. It was a ball, I enjoyed it, and made great friends,” he said.
This year’s unbeaten Wildcats team has largely had its way with all and sundry en route to a 29-0 record but last year’s line up caught many off guard with its run to the NCAA Championship game. The late heroics of Andrew and Aaron Harrison helped push a young Kentucky team through March close to Calipari’s second championship.
“They [Andrew and Aaron Harrison] led us to the championship game last year and we played 5 freshmen which is ridiculous.
That’s like going into Euroleague and playing with first and second year guys and winning.
What? You’ve got to have veterans, you’ve got to have older players, well we had all freshmen. This year we have both, we have freshmen and we have veteran players,” said Calipari.
The Kentucky coach has repeatedly said his team is taking it one game at a time, playing down talk of an unbeaten season. Despite this, Calipari said he recognises the pressure his players are under.
“The only thing you worry about is the clutter of what they are hearing and the people around them who try to make it about them instead of doing the things that make them a great team mate. The people around them, a lot of the time, are not about team they are about the individual player and I don’t blame them. They’re a parent, an AAU coach, a high school coach, or a friend,” said Calipari.
“We have to keep them focused on what we are as a team and what they mean to the team. I want each of these kids to be the best version of themselves. We are trying to show them that this is what they look like when they are at their best. I want everyone to score the ball. I want everybody to play basketball. The hardest thing is keeping that clutter away from them,” he said.
“This team, I don’t think they shy away from winning games, I’m trying to tell them don’t worry about losing because it’s not March [Madness] yet. I wish the NCAA Tournament was the Best of 5 but it’s not. It’s one game. All you can do is be at your best, if that’s not good enough it’s not the Best of 5. Some teams play out of their minds, you get injuries, other things happen that change the game and the ending.”
Thanks to Alltech for their assistance in this piece.