In an email last week, reader Jack Taylor of Lexington asked a rhetorical question: “Can Calipari SHUT UP for one day?”
What prompted Taylor’s question was Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s steady drumbeat of tweets, Internet postings and headline-making proclamations this spring. A personal favorite is Calipari’s annual mimicking of Thomas Paine, Karl Marx and the Unabomber by claiming a “manifesto.”
This year’s manifesto, which arrived this month in three parts, included a perceived dig at Duke, which prompted a follow-up denial by Calipari (second headline reminding everyone that UK sends players to the NBA!). He also said he wanted the Kentucky job to be his last in coaching.
In recent days, Calipari and UK also announced the exhibition opponents next preseason (Clarion University, which is Calipari’s alma mater, and Asbury) and a regular-season game against Hofstra at the Barclays Center.
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If that’s not enough Calipari and Kentucky, ESPN confirmed it plans a “30 for 30” documentary on the UK coach airing this fall.
Taylor’s email suggested the unthinkable: there’s a limit on UK fans’ thirst for Kentucky basketball. In so many words, the retiree from central Kentucky said there should be an off-switch in the, ahem, offseason.
Taylor suggested that Calipari is “self-absorbed.” But maybe he’s merely a marketer with an excellent product with which to flex marketing muscles.
William Sutton, who teaches sports marketing at the University of South Florida, likened Calipari to Bill Veeck, the irrepressible baseball owner in the mid-20th century who never let accepted propriety get in the way of a promotion. Veeck was the first to give away bats at games, which led to free balls, free pickles, free hot dogs, free lobsters, free ice cream and free tuxedo rentals.
Veeck also integrated the American League and, in a famous stunt, had a little person pinch hit.
Sutton explained the foundational principle.
“Making people feel important and making them feel part of something,” Sutton said. “That’s what Cal does.”
Sutton knows. He arrived as a professor at UMass the same year Calipari came as coach. Sutton watched Calipari go to dorms and off-campus bars to talk basketball, give away pizzas to students and promote the program.
“He created a market for his product where they wasn’t one,” Sutton said.
UK fans should never, ever forget that Calipari was a marketing major. “He must have been a Straight A student,” Taylor quipped.
The title of Chapter 11 of the book Going Big Time, which detailed the UMass rise to basketball prominence in the 1990s, is a telling Calipari quote: “Anything You Do in Life is About Selling.”
But Taylor wonders whether all the Big Blue tub-thumping is necessary. At UMass, yes. But Kentucky basketball is a well-known brand. Sutton likened UMass basketball to Mr. Pibb and UK basketball to Coke.
“So there’s no need to market the brand to this extent,” Taylor said.
Sutton, who started a Sports and Entertainment Management program at South Florida, conceded the UK basketball brand is well-established and probably doesn’t need market saturation.
“But I wouldn’t say there’s not a need for marketing,” Sutton said, “because it’s always staying front and foremost. It’s controlling the market. You own the market. You’re No. 1 in the market. It’s not letting No. 2 emerge.”
And there’s another factor most Kentucky coaches did not face: ESPN.
“ESPN inadvertently markets and promotes other schools, other coaches, other programs in his hometown,” Sutton said. “So he’s got to maintain a position where he can keep people thinking of Kentucky first and foremost.”
Which leads us to Duke. Taylor suspected, correctly it seems, that the recent flurry of Calipari promotion had something to do with the recruitment of Marques Bolden, who cast his basketball lot with Duke rather than Kentucky last week.
On their ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon suggested that Calipari is envious of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. They went so far as to say Calipari will want to be U.S. Olympic coach someday.
As a marketer, Krzyzewski is in a category by himself, beyond the reach of Calipari and mere salesmanship.
“He is very understated ... ,” Sutton said of the Duke coach. “There’s something magnetic about Krzyzewski. His reputation speaks for itself.”
Calipari fights back with what he knows best: marketing. But, yes, he can go too far, such as when high TV ratings for Kentucky’s 2014 exhibition games in the Bahamas led him to say college basketball should “own” August.
“I respect him,” Sutton said, “but I think he’s a little bit over the top on that one. I think he jumped the shark with that statement.”
Sutton considers Taylor an anomaly. “For every guy like this, there’s another guy saying, ‘Tell me more, tell me more,’” he said.
Taylor, who says plenty of UK fans share his feelings, likened the UK coach to a persistent job applicant who keeps pestering the boss. Finally, the boss gets worn down and starts admiring the persistence.
Taylor is wearing down, but he doesn’t admire the salesmanship.
“This isn’t my father’s Kentucky,” Taylor said. “It’s just a new ballgame. ... I think the millennials, this is their Kentucky. But it’s not mine.”
Duke over UK
Reader Larry Stidom found five-star recruit Marques Bolden’s choice of Duke over Kentucky last week difficult to accept.
Stidom, 70, is from Morehead and a Kentucky fan for 60 years. In his email, he cited John Calipari’s track record for having UK players drafted: 25 selected, 19 in the first round, 10 among top-10 picks. Those numbers will increase with Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Tyler Ulis in this year’s NBA Draft.
Widespread speculation suggested Bolden’s parents wanted him to pick Duke, which supposedly used something more than basketball in its recruiting pitch.
“He would have committed to UK if he really wanted to be a top player in the draft after one year as Cal develops pros more than Duke,” Stidom said of Bolden. “But some kids try to please family rather than do what is really best for them.”
More than a game
In Part 3 of this year’s manifesto, John Calipari said he would like to see an improved experience for fans in Rupp Arena.
Calipari said he wanted Kentucky to enjoy “the pre-eminent home-court advantage in basketball.” Who could argue with that?
Then, after mentioning the new scoreboard/video boards that will hang over center court next season, Calipari moved to shakier ground. “Rupp Arena needs to be about more than just the game,” he said in the posting.
Shouldn’t the game be why people watch Kentucky play? A reader, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested college basketball should let the NBA have a monopoly on any experience that includes more clowns, more self-absorbed celebrities, more T-shirt guns, more sensory assaults and ever-higher ticket prices.
Here’s three ideas — often proposed, never put in place — to improve the game atmosphere in Rupp Arena:
▪ More student seating close to the court (behind both baselines and behind the sideline opposite the benches). The deep-pocketed set will have to take one for the team.
▪ No tip-offs later than 7 p.m. during the week. None later than 4 p.m. on weekends. TV and college basketball’s money changers will have to take one for the team.
▪ More non-conference games against Top 25-caliber opponents. Tougher competition makes for more compelling games which will enhance the fan experience. Of course, this will necessitate more home-and-home contracts with opponents, so Calipari will have to take one for the team.
Agents used to work to get players picked as early as possible in the NBA Draft. With a set rookie salary scale, the earlier the pick the higher the salary (not to mention the percentage fee that went to the agent).
That’s all changed, said Chad Ford, ESPN’s analyst of the NBA Draft. Agents now want to steer players to certain teams and away from other teams.
Firmly in the latter category is the Sacramento Kings, Ford said. Poor management. Poor history of developing players. Revolving door for coaches.
“I would guess if the Kings got the No. 1 pick, they’d have trouble getting Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram in for a workout,” Ford said at the NBA Combine.
What kind of royal mess are the Kings?
The Sacramento Bee noted the average tenure of Kings coaches in the last decade has been 100.5 games, or a little more than one season.
The Kings are in a 10-year playoff drought.
Then there is owner Vivek Ranadive. This month, Sacramento radio station KFBK cited league sources as saying Ranadive makes repeated calls to the NBA office “telling the league how to do its job better.” League officials try to avoid taking or returning these calls.
Fan experience and game presentation are part of Ranadive’s thinking, which he promotes as “NBA 3.0.”
For example, Ranadive has proposed the Kings play only four defenders, leaving one player to cherry-pick at the other end of the court. He advocates — where have we heard this term before? — “position-less” basketball.
The Kings’ owner is a devotee of analytics. As such, he pushes “crowd-sourcing,” in which fan opinion plays a part in researching what player to draft. And to be on the cutting edge of player health and fitness, the Kings consider “sequencing and understanding the genome.”
Sportswriter Andy Furillo of the Sacramento Bee wrote that the tenure of new Kings coach Dave Joerger will depend on his ability to get along with former UK big man DeMarcus Cousins.
“If Cousins gives Joerger the respect he has not bestowed upon four of his previous five coaches, it can work for the Kings,” Furillo wrote, “assuming Cousins gets in shape, stops worrying about the referees and, as the alpha male in the locker room, develops a degree of magnanimity. Leaders need a measure of it.”
What Marshall calls its “Central Kentucky Big Green Chapter Coaches Tour Stop” comes to Lexington on June 1. The annual gathering will be at the Greenbrier Golf & Country Club. Start time is 6 p.m.
Marshall basketball coach Dan D’Antoni, football coach Doc Holliday and Athletic Director Mike Hamrick will attend.
Cost is $35 per person. Those interested can RSVP with Laura Der at the Big Green Scholarship Foundation. Her number is 304-696-3385 and her email address is email@example.com.
The deadline to RSVP is Wednesday.
To Enes Kanter. He turned 24 on Friday. ... To Jamaal Magloire. He turned 38 on Saturday. ... To Rob Lock. He turns 50 on Sunday (today). ... To Cedric Jenkins. He turns 50 on Wednesday.