It was last December. The Kentucky-Louisville basketball game was on the horizon. I was at the KFC Yum Center to watch the Cardinals play Cal State-Northridge. Jay Williams, the former Duke guard, was there, as well, working as a color analyst at ESPN.
At halftime, I talked to Williams for a story I was working on about the impact John Calipari and Rick Pitino had made at both UK and Louisville. When I inquired about Calipari, Williams stopped me.
"You do know that John was a marketing major," he said.
Yes, we know.
John Calipari is a Hall of Fame basketball coach. He is a brilliant recruiter. He has a relentless personality. He has a brain that is always spinning in an effort to invent some new way to change the narrative to his liking. That goes back to Calipari's marketing background. It was also on display Thursday.
Participating in a teleconference to discuss his seven former players in advance of this Thursday's NBA Draft, Calipari used the term "position-less player" several times.
In fact, it was right there in his opening statement.
"Let me start by telling you the approach that we take with all these kids," Calipari said. "We basically play position-less basketball and have for some time. It's not trying to pigeon-hole any one player in any one position. I want them all to be multi-position players."
"Platoons" are out. "Position-less" is in. There are two good reasons for the change. By most estimation, Calipari's use of the platoons last season has hurt him in recruiting this season. And if you watched any of the NBA playoffs, especially the NBA Finals, you know "position-less" basketball is en vogue. It's the way to win.
First, let's back up to Calipari as master marketer. That's what Jay Williams said that night in Louisville. Not only was Calipari a marketing major, he was a master marketer. "A marketing genius," Williams said.
It has always been so. At UMass, where Calipari did one of the most remarkable building jobs in the history of college basketball, the coach's catchphrase was " Refuse to Lose." He printed it on signs. He screened it on T-shirts. He even had it sewn into the players' practice shorts.
At Memphis, where Calipari reached the NCAA Tournament finals in 2008, the catchphrase was the "Dribble Drive Motion Offense." It was new. Or sort of new. It was catchy. It stood out. Sports Illustrated used several pages to explain and promote it.
It also described a freedom of movement in an offensive strategy that appealed to recruits eager to score points.
At Kentucky, Calipari's cup has runneth over with catchphrases. There have been "The Kentucky Effect" and "Succeed and Proceed," the latter concocted to replace the negative "one-and-done" narrative. Too bad TV's Mad Men has closed its run. Its creator, Matthew Weiner, might have found a spot for Calipari in an advertising agency.
There is irony here. With Calipari, there is always at least a dash of irony. Even when it seemed Calipari had strayed from his "platoon" system last season, especially late in the season, the coach insisted he was still using platoons. It was his theme. It was his marketing tool. He wasn't ready to let go.
That was yesterday, however. This is today. "Sacrifice" might have paved the road to last year's 38-1 record, but it means little to the top prospects of tomorrow. They want minutes. They want points. They don't want to be platooned.
Most of all, they want to play in the NBA. They want to be Cleveland's LeBron James, a 6-foot-9 player who can play the point outside, post-up inside and shoot from the perimeter. They want to be Golden State's Draymond Green, a 6-7 player who passes, shoots and causes havoc with energy and attitude.
They want to do it all.
At one time, a position-less player was a player who could not make it to the floor because he didn't have a position to play. It was a negative.
Now it's a positive. And if Master Marketer John Calipari has his way, it's a successful slogan.