NEW ORLEANS — The words "trust" and "John Calipari" rarely turn up in the same sentence for a very good reason.
Here's why, beginning with the most recent examples and working backward.
The Kentucky coach took a seat in the interview room Thursday at the Final Four and was asked how he gets his kids to play so unselfishly. That's an impressive coaching feat with any team at any time, no matter what you think about Calipari, his checkered past or the way he recruits high-schoolers who are already NBA-caliber athletes and will never be students.
But it's even more impressive this season; even by Calipari's exacting standards, these Wildcats are loaded. Freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist very likely will be the first two players taken in next summer's NBA draft, and a third, sophomore Terrence Jones, could be gone before the middle of the first round. Three more — freshman Marquis Teague, sophomore Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, one of only two seniors — could be playing in the pros by this time next year as well.
Calipari began his reply by pointing out that seven different players led his team in scoring this season and that no one averages more than 11 shots per game. And then, as a subtle way of highlighting his own contribution, he also noted that those seven Wildcats now so willing to share the ball came into the program as the man on their high school teams, each averaging 25 points or better. Actually, only two of them did.
It's an easy thing to get wrong, yet Calipari does that often with set pieces. He starts with a fact, then embellishes it slightly, then the more times he repeats the story, the exaggerations grow like Pinocchio's nose. The latest one would be easy to overlook, too, if it weren't for his too-clever-by-half reply to a question a moment later.
On Monday, two senior citizens — one a Louisville fan and the other a Kentucky fan — got into a fight at a dialysis center in Georgetown, Ky. The story made the local news that day and took off from there. With Kentucky playing its bitter rival in Saturday's first semifinal, Calipari was asked about it Thursday, and here's his verbatim response:
"Tell me what incident. I'm not, like, I don't read, I'm not ... A senior citizen at dialysis? The Louisville fan punched out a Kentucky fan? I'm disappointed," he said finally, breaking up the room.
But what's really funny about it is that Calipari told his team about it two days earlier.
Saving your best material for a wider audience hardly qualifies as a real sin. It would be easy to look past, too, though it does make you wonder what other stories he's told, especially since Calipari pleaded ignorance when real sins were being committed at his two previous head-coaching stints: first at UMass, where the NCAA caught Marcus Camby taking cash and favors from agents; and then at Memphis, where the NCAA caught someone else taking Derrick Rose's SAT exam.
Both schools wound up forfeiting the Final Four appearances that Calipari led them to, pulling down banners already hanging in the rafters, vacating dozens of wins and handing back some serious cash. He wound up with bigger jobs at higher pay in both instances.
Those could just be coincidences, of course. And even those members of the profession who swear in private that Calipari is a cheater concede he's the best recruiter in their ranks and a very good coach on the floor. He might have a tough time filling out a pickup game with peers who would be thrilled to see him win it all or even a dinner reservation with those who think this Final Four appearance — like the last two — won't eventually be vacated.Comment on this story
But if any of that bothers Calipari in the least, he hasn't let on. He was a disaster during a brief stint in the NBA, but he's carved out a very comfortable living and the biggest piece of turf in the college game by setting up what amounts to a finishing school for pro prospects. He gets kids to share the ball by letting them move it around until they get a favorable matchup, which is what the NBA is about every night and why, with all that talent, he still wins nearly every night at the college level. And he makes it all look so easy.
"I'll tell you what's hard," Calipari said indisputably at one point during Thursday's interview session, "coaching bad players."