UK Men's Basketball

Calipari’s book explores how he gets individual stars to accept being part of a UK galaxy

Kentucky head coach John Calipari showed Sacha Killeya-Jones a play in the second half of the Canisius at Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, on Nov. 13, 2016. Kentucky beat Canisius 93-69.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari showed Sacha Killeya-Jones a play in the second half of the Canisius at Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, on Nov. 13, 2016. Kentucky beat Canisius 93-69. palcala@herald-leader.com

The latest John Calipari book addresses the most intriguing ongoing question about Kentucky basketball: How does he do it?

How does the UK coach get basketball savants to set aside NBA aspirations for a year and accept the wisdom of one-for-all unity? How does he get these divas to not only harmonize on the court, but seem thrilled by the harmony?

Calipari’s new book, which arrived at bookstores last week, is titled “Success is the Only Option: The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent.” It gives readers a sense of Calipari’s coaching priorities and their practical application at Kentucky.

Attentive UK fans (are there any other kind?) will find several familiar ideas. Servant leadership. Players are not computers. Kentucky basketball isn’t for everyone. You don’t have to make all the shots, but you can’t miss them all.

Likewise, the advice for would-be sports coaches and business leaders can seem wholly conventional, too. Concentrate on the present (Didn’t Rick Pitino stress what he called the “precious present” 20 years ago?). Consider setbacks as opportunities for growth (Pitino memorably called some losses “fertilizer.”). Make players/employees feel valued. Humor can be an effective communication tool.

The book is a pleasant breeze through its 228 pages. It repeatedly tempts the reader to pause and reflect on pleasant memories from past UK seasons.

The book’s how-to theme creates an opportunity to pull back the curtain on big-time basketball.

Karl-Anthony Towns’ ambivalence about playing in the low post and Calipari’s decision to use platoons in 2014-15 are reviewed. But the book is not a kiss-and-tell. Instead, it is an entertaining G-rated remembrance of highlight moments in recent Kentucky seasons.

Calipari and ghostwriter Michael Sokolove go light on the details. Written in the first person, the famous “tweak” at the end of 2013-14 was Calipari getting “the upper hand on my individual tugs-of-war with several of our players.” No further explanation is offered.

If the famous tweak was about Calipari easing off the high-volume demands, that would contradict one of the book’s major points of emphasis: the more talented the players, the more challenging the coaching demands.

Calipari’s ejection less than three minutes into the game at South Carolina last season? It was not a case of a coach/leader wanting to get tossed as a way of telling the UK players not to passively yield to an aggressive opponent. To intentionally get ejected would be “totally unprofessional,” Calipari writes. He said he apologized to the team at halftime, then touts the happy ending: a Kentucky victory that proved the coaches had successfully empowered the players to be self-reliant.

But the book does not explain what so enraged the UK coach nor even identify the referee who ejected him (Doug Sirmons).

That’s not to say the book fails to provide insight. Calipari reveals how Eric Bledsoe needed his self-esteem boosted in 2009-10, and how Tyler Ulis, the ultimate floor general, was reminded last season to show leadership off the court as well.

Calipari does not deny the way he sells so many highly regarded recruits on Kentucky basketball: its preeminence as a path to the NBA. “I understand that’s why they come to play for me,” Calipari writes.

To balance all the “I,” “me” and “mine,” the book also contains refreshing supplementary commentary from such people as Devin Booker, Orlando Antigua and Anthony Davis.

Booker seems especially candid. Of the platoons, he writes, “I don’t think anybody liked it at first.” And, he writes, Calipari took some getting used to. “There were times I did feel I hate this guy,” Booker writes. “He’s holding me back.”

Calipari surely held back in this, his fifth book. But basketball fans in and out of the Big Blue Nation should find plenty to enjoy.

Hard to duplicate

John Calipari’s new book can be seen as a guide for how to build a top-shelf college basketball program. Much of the advice would seem to apply to any coach of any team. But is it an instructional manual?

Joe DeGregorio, who coached Calipari at Clarion, is among those who doubt UK’s dependence on high-profile freshmen is applicable at many other programs. After all, by definition, there are a limited number of players at the top of the recruiting lists.

“John has revolutionized the game of college basketball,” DeGregorio said. “I don’t know how the hell he does it. You have to have the energy. You have to start over from scratch.

“I don’t know if it can be done just anywhere.”

The win-loss records of several of Calipari’s former assistants who became head coaches suggest there’s no magic formula to duplicate Kentucky’s recent success at another program.

Orlando Antigua was 17-48 in his first two seasons at South Florida.

Before joining the UK staff last season, Tony Barbee was 131-127 in eight seasons as a head coach (82-52 at UTEP, 49-75 at Auburn).

James “Bruiser” Flint was 245-217 in 15 seasons at Drexel (331-289 in 20 seasons overall).

Longtime Calipari assistant John Robic was 58-113 in six seasons at Youngstown State.

Going into 2016-17, Derek Kellogg was 140-119 in eight seasons at UMass.

‘Best league’

During an ESPN teleconference previewing the upcoming college basketball season, Jay Bilas was asked to appraise the depth of talented teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ESPN analyst said the ACC’s depth was “off the charts.”

Of the ACC, Bilas said, “I think it’s the best league in the country.”

For example, he said, two of the ACC’s better players — Jamel Artis and Michael Young — play for Pittsburgh, which is picked to finish in 12th place.

“Teams one through nine are no-brainer NCAA teams,” Bilas said. The ACC is “as deep as any (league) we’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

Then there’s the Southeastern Conference. Bilas spoke well of the SEC, but did not gush.

“The SEC is improving,” he said. “It’s not quite there yet.”

The season’s first week supported Bilas’ contention. Six SEC teams lost games: Alabama to Dayton, Georgia at Clemson, Mississippi State to Central Florida, Vanderbilt to Marquette, Tennessee to Chattanooga and Missouri to Xavier.

For comparison sake, six Big Ten teams also lost games in the same span (Michigan State started 0-2 with nothing-to-be-ashamed-of losses to Arizona and Kentucky). Four Pac-12 teams lost in the first week (including upcoming UK opponent Arizona State to Northern Iowa). Three ACC teams lost (including Duke to Kansas).

Only one Big 12 team lost: Kansas to Indiana.

Love of the game

The New York Times published a story recently about the Long Island Nets of the NBA Development League holding a tryout. Two things jumped out:

1. Former Duke player Trajan Langdon is the team’s general manager.

2. Something other than the desire for money and fame brought some of the wannabe players to the tryout. Marc Alvarez, who was identified as a 5-5 guard from Haskell, N.J., broke it down to the essential in explaining why he came to the tryout. “I just love to play basketball,” he said.

Dick Vitale Gala

Before Tuesday’s doubleheader in Madison Square Garden, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale came to the media work room. He handed out information on a cancer research fundraiser he holds annually.

The 12th Dick Vitale Gala will be May 12. As always, it will be at The Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla. It benefits The V Foundation.

The honorees will be Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins and ESPN commentator Chris Berman.

More information is available at dickvitaleonline.com or dickvitalegala.org or by calling Mary Kenealy at (941) 350-0580.

Happy birthday

To Bret Bearup. He turned 55 on Thursday. . . . To Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. He turned 72 on Thursday. . . . To Tom Payne. He turned 66 on Saturday. . . . To Louie Dampier. He turns 72 on Sunday (today). . . . To Jim Host. He turns 79 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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