UK Men's Basketball

ESPN explores contradictions in career of ‘complicated’ Calipari

Kentucky Coach John Calipari hollered instructions as his Wildcats played UCLA in the NCAA South Region semifinals in March. A film on the coach, titled “One and Not Done,” airs on ESPN at 9 p.m. Thursday.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari hollered instructions as his Wildcats played UCLA in the NCAA South Region semifinals in March. A film on the coach, titled “One and Not Done,” airs on ESPN at 9 p.m. Thursday. cbertram@herald-leader.com

John Calipari is “a complicated guy.”

That’s the conclusion drawn by Jonathan Hock, the director of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the Kentucky coach. The film, titled “One and Not Done,” airs on ESPN at 9 p.m. Thursday. Hock said it details several intriguing contradictions in Calipari’s life:

▪  Working-class underdog who now heads the bluest of college basketball’s blue-blood programs

▪  Uber competitor driven by a conquer-or-be-conquered ethos, yet thoughtful enough to spare a rival’s feelings

▪  Morning Mass regular who promised to burn down the village of anyone who crossed him

“I think one of the reasons he goes to Mass so much is because he knows he’s given to …,” Hock stopped in mid-sentence and restarted the thought. “You know, I really shouldn’t comment on why he goes to Mass so much.

“But I think John is aware of the inherent contradictions in being the good person and being the good college basketball coach.”

As food for thought, that sentence is a banquet.

An early example of the dichotomy in Calipari’s coaching career came as an assistant at Pittsburgh. In trying to persuade a prospect not to sign with St. John’s, he supposedly spread a false rumor about the coach, Lou Carnesecca, having cancer.

While acknowledging that recruiting battles in the Big East Conference at the time were “life and death for an assistant coach,” Hock said that his research led to the conclusion that Calipari did not try to get an edge by telling the recruit that Carnesecca had cancer.

Calipari’s thoughtful side showed itself during his first head coaching job. He astounded college basketball by leading a nonentity program, the UMass Minutemen, to a No. 1 ranking and the 1996 Final Four.

With 30 seconds to go in a statement victory over mighty (at the time) Georgetown, Calipari called timeout. He was thinking of the Hoyas’ coach, John Thompson.

“We are not going to celebrate in the face of Georgetown and John Thompson,” Hock said Calipari told the UMass players. “You may not know it, but that man has done more for all of you than I have. … When this game ends, we’re going to say, ‘Good game, Coach Thompson,’ and we’re going to go to the locker room before we celebrate.”

Of course, the documentary includes Calipari’s time as Kentucky coach. He gave the ESPN crew access to UK practices, games and locker room settings. “We had carte blanche,” Hock said.

As evidenced most recently when Kentucky played in the South Region in Memphis, Calipari is a polarizing figure. Hock said the film tried to capture the incongruity of a thoughtful person working a job that rewards merciless ambition. As the ESPN director said, you can surrender to “your lesser angels” in order to compete in such an environment.

“It’s an unforgiving business,” Hock said, “and he doesn’t ask to be forgiven.”

Insight vs. incite

Here’s a question: Should the threats UK fans made to the life of referee John Higgins give announcers pause before making on-air criticisms of calls?

Mike Pratt, who provides commentary on the radio broadcasts of Kentucky games, seemed to think so.

“Maybe this will make us all look at it a little differently and realize refereeing is a tough job,” he said.

Of course, there’s a fundamental conflict involved. The announcers must report what they see and hear. Yet, as the threats to Higgins showed, the announcers should be aware of their power to incite violence.

Pratt explained the proper balance by noting “the difference between telling people what you saw with your eyes versus condemning somebody. There’s a different tone to that.”

Pratt’s partner on the UK broadcasts, play-by-play man Tom Leach, said he tries to keep a healthy perspective on officiating.

He might say a referee made a bad call, Leach said, “versus saying somebody had something out for a team.”

Leach recalled decrying “an awful call” on a broadcast of a Sweet 16 game. When he saw the video later, he realized the referee called the play correctly.

“That was a good lesson,” Leach said.

Paul Rogers, the longtime radio voice of Louisville football and basketball, said he tries not to dwell on officiating. “Because I don’t like getting caught up in the officials instead of the game …,” he wrote in an email. “Officiating is part of the game, and more often than not, the calls even out.”

All agreed that death threats are not part of any game.

“That’s real unnerving,” Pratt said. “That would concern me if I was in his shoes. … That should never happen, period.”

Snapshot memories

With last week’s announcements of four Wildcats entering their names in this year’s NBA Draft, here’s how each UK player will be remembered from a sportswriter’s perspective:

De’Aaron Fox fighting back tears in the locker room after Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the South Region finals. The thought of one-and-done players not caring about winning in their one college season never crossed my mind. On his final weekly radio show, John Calipari cited this locker room scene to show that star freshmen do care. Anyone who saw Fox struggle to control his emotions came away with no doubt of that.

Malik Monk’s unfailing graciousness and good cheer. Even a shooting slump late in the season (3-for-21 from three-point range in a five-game span) failed to dim his agreeable nature. When a reporter approached after one game and all-but-apologized for having to ask about the misses, Monk smiled and said, “Of course.” Then, he shared his thoughts.

Bam Adebayo’s aversion to self-promotion. During the preseason, he recoiled from the suggestion that he would give Kentucky the inside presence it lacked the previous season. Thereafter, he refused to be budged from that low-key persona. Even when addressing the likelihood of being a one-and-done player, he kept the focus off himself. “My mom’s got to stop working sometime,” he said last summer. “Sometime soon.”

Isaiah Briscoe’s willingness to “keep it 100,” to borrow from Larry Wilmore’s time as host of the now defunct “The Nightly Show.” It means being 100 percent honest. You might not like his response to a question, but you believed that Briscoe meant what he said. In a time when branding and marketability mean so much, his candor was refreshing.

Greatest program?

BookMaker.eu made North Carolina a two-point favorite to beat Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament championship game.

In doing so, BookMaker.eu spokesman Scott Cooley wrote, “Gonzaga defined the ‘Cinderella’ mantra of college basketball, but it will always be the first to wear the glass slipper. But that doesn’t change the fact that to the public, the Zags appear overmatched against the greatest program of all time.”

Huh? North Carolina the greatest program of all time? Rupp Arena public address announcer Patrick Whitmer would like a (high-volume) word with BookMaker.eu.

Gun control

Reader Alan Bohanon, 66, deplored the death threats reportedly made to referee John Higgins. He suggested only a tiny percentage of his fellow UK fans would threaten to kill a referee.

“Like one-fourth of a thousandth of a percent,” he said. “Don’t blame the rest of us.”

Bohanon, who lives in Campbellsville, acknowledged that he was “a biased fan” before saying he thought Higgins made incorrect calls in Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina.

But, he added, “I’m not going to shoot the guy over it.”

‘One little shot’

The attention paid to the 25th anniversary of Christian Laettner’s famous winning shot against Kentucky annoyed UK fan Alan Bohanon.

He suggested that more recognition be given Kentucky’s rally from a double-digit deficit to beat Duke in the 1998 NCAA Tournament rather than “Laettner hitting one little shot.”

Unintended consequences?

Presumably, John Calipari was kidding about doing away with postgame news conferences and player interviews as a way of lessening the inconvenience of games that begin late at night.

Reader Marcia Folley had a perceptive reaction.

“Wouldn’t it be hilarious,” she wrote in an email two Sunday mornings ago, “if UK beats N.C. and Calipari is roaming around looking for a camera, and the media packs up and went home?”

By the way, Folley’s daughter, who goes by the pen name Kathleen Brooks, is the author of the best-selling “Bluegrass Brothers” series.

Happy birthday

To Kyle Macy. He turns 60 on Sunday (today). … To Nerlens Noel. He turns 23 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

‘One and Not Done’

What: “30 for 30” documentary featuring Kentucky Coach John Calipari

When: 9-11 p.m. Thursday

TV: ESPN

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