John Calipari dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Monday to discuss his new book, “Success Is the Only Option: The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent,” but first, he gave his unsolicited thoughts on Kentucky’s 97-92 loss to UCLA on Saturday.
“What’s amazing is that 10 days ago we’re passing the ball, we’re diving on the floor, we’re rebuilding in traffic,” Calipari said on Tiki and Tierney, “and all of a sudden the game comes up and we decide that I’m going to do my thing a little bit and we don’t pass it, we don’t defend together, and all of a sudden you get nailed. It’s what this team needed. I hate to lose. I’m the worst. But there are times you look at this and say, ‘Wow, they didn’t get it.’ Even though I thought they’re getting it, they didn’t. So it was a good wake-up call for us.”
It was the Wildcats (7-1) first loss of the season. Of course, when you start four freshmen against an elite team early in the season, sometimes losses happen. And sometimes, well, it can help in the long run as players get acclimated to one another.
“That’s why I did the book,” Caliari said. “Everybody asks me, ‘How in the world are you getting a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, guys scoring 30 points a game and getting them to share in a short period of time and then getting them to be an efficient team? Part of it is you go through the recruiting process, and you know there’s some red flags of guys that can’t do it here.”
Calipari, 57, is in his eighth season at Kentucky. He’s had 20 players leave the program after one year. But here’s the crazy part: Ten of those players scored more points per game in the NBA than they did at Kentucky.
“They shared,” Calipari said. “They knew it was about team. Anthony Davis (had the) fourth-most shots. Karl-Anthony Towns (had the) fifth-most shots. The same with DeMarcus Cousins. You have guys that are willing to share, and if they’re about each other, which is the hardest thing a coach has to teach – be about each other more than yourself – that’s when the thing takes off.”
Heck, Devin Booker was a lottery pick in 2015 despite coming off the bench at Kentucky.
“They’re saying he’s the next young All-Star, he’s the next Klay Thompson, he’s the next Steph Curry,” Calipari said. “Those things make a difference. We miss on guys every year. There are guys that I say, ‘Man, I’d really like to have that kid,’ and he chooses another school. It’s just how it is, and I (don’t take it personally).”
Kentucky has advanced to four Final Fours under Calipari, largely on the skills of one-and-done superstars. Calipari would love if players were required to stay for two years, but he doesn’t believe it’s necessarily in the best interests of the players.
“It’s not my rule; it’s the NBA’s rule,” he said. “If I care about the kids, I got to do what’s right for them. If it’s right for a kid to leave after a year, I’m good with it. Every kid has a lifetime scholarship with us. Every kid that signs can come back when they choose to finish their education. We have three or four kids right now that have started the process of coming back for degrees. We graduated 14 players in seven years at Kentucky. Three will graduate from this team. Three of those seven teams graduated in three seasons. So it’s more than just basketball. I’m trying to teach them, ‘You’re going into a man’s world (in the NBA). You got to be ready.’ Before they leave my campus, I talk about money working for you, not you working for money, and how that works. And you better be ready to say no (to family and friends). So I do all of that, but I feel a responsibility as coach and a leader to do those things.”
Calipari’s role changed a bit in 2010, when he had five players drafted in the first round.
“It was nuts,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. And from there, I went from the business of basketball to the business of helping families. Now you may say, ‘Well, you don’t care about winning.’ Well, we won more games than any program in the last seven years. We’ve been to more Final Fours than any program. We won the national title in 2012. So you could say it; it’s just not true. When you care about these kids, they’ll care about winning and each other – as long as they know Cal’s got my back. I can still be the No. 1 pick in the draft and take the fifth-most shots, Karl Towns. The fourth-most shots, Anthony Davis. I could be a point guard (like) John Wall or Derrick Rose.
“The thing about the extreme talent, they want to be together,” Calipari continued. “Extreme talent wants to be together. They want to learn from each other. The great kids that are truly extreme in talent, you don’t have to aspire to their egos – shots, minutes. They want to know, ‘How do I get better? How can I be the best version of myself on and off the court?’ The relationships we have with these kids are based on that.”
Calipari has become perhaps the most successful coach in America. As he rose in the ranks, though, it seems others recognized his talent sooner and more readily than he did.
“When other coaches started absolutely killing me, they knew before I knew,” Calipari said. “Wait a minute. Why am I getting blasted? I’m a coal miner’s son, man. I didn’t play for one of the greats. I went to Clarion University, man. What is this about? And then later on in life, I said, ‘That dude knew before I did.’ They must have saw something in me I didn’t see in myself because why did I become the center of attention? Why did I become the guy with the black hat? What the heck just happened here? So I would say that. But I grew up Friday to Friday. If you live in a home that’s paycheck is Friday to Friday, Thursday’s a tough day. You’re eating cereal and oatmeal for dinner and spam. Thursday is a tough day. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, you ate every cookie, every piece of ice cream – because if you didn’t eat it, it was gone by Monday. And so, my issue all the time is, if a guy’s born on third base and acts like he hasn’t hit a triple, I got a problem with that. I’m not mean about it, but that’s never my friend. I want to know the guy that grew up outside the stadium, that had to fight to get into the stadium to get sold popcorn before he could even think about being on the team, that then had to figure out how do I get up to bat to try to hit this triple? Those are the guys that are my friends.”
Kentucky hosts Valparaiso (7-1) on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.