With dreams of grandeur again enveloping Kentucky basketball, John Calipari began his tenure as coach by downsizing the players' frame of reference. Rather than think about championships and NBA riches, he wanted the players to concentrate on the mundane. Pushing past the point of fatigue. Working to improve a weakness.
To foster a live-for-today attitude, Calipari wrote each player a letter of introduction.
"To get them inspired," the UK coach said, "and to have a daily message in the back of their minds to themselves that, 'Hey, I've got something to do.'"
Calipari said he writes letters to his players every off-season. Usually the letters are about a page-and-a-half. As a new coach this year, he wrote longer letters, in part, as a means of introduction: to the new coach and to the mind-set he wanted each player to adopt.
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He reinforced the letters by meeting with each player. Again, the idea was to put expectations into human terms. "It's to get them to understand what this summer was about," the UK coach said. "If you're truly driven to greatness, you'll look at every choice you make and ask yourself two questions: Will this help me get to where I'm trying to go? Will this embarrass my family, my teammates, my coaches and me?"
Calipari asked the players what kind of 2009-10 season would make them happy. What strengths can each player contribute to achieve that result? What skill would each player need to develop?
"What I'm trying to do is, I don't want them anxiety-riddled," Calipari said. "Like 'Oh, my gosh. ... '
"No, you've got three or four skills to play to. You've got three or four skills to develop in the next few months (of the off-season). If playing time is important, you'll develop those skills."
As the fall semester began, Calipari asked each player to assess his summer.
Of course, the optimal would be great summers by all players. Realistically, at least a few players might have to admit to subpar summers.
"I've had players have bad summers and lose their minds and not do much" in the fall, Calipari said. "So accept where you're starting. Don't be delusional."
Keep working. Keep trying to maximize the moment.
While trying to prevent players from getting ahead of themselves, Calipari had the seemingly paradoxical goal of aiming high.
"It's a little harder for returning players to dream as big as I wanted them to dream," he said. "Younger kids come in ... 'We're doing this and we're doing that and I want to do this.'
"You're young and you think, Throw it on."
When asked what the Kentucky team can achieve this season, freshman big man DeMarcus Cousins reached for the ultimate.
"A national championship," he said. "Bottom line."
"To me, it's just around the corner," Cousins said. "We have the coach. We have the talent. We have the leadership. What else do you need?"
Perhaps only the desire to get the most out of each day every day during these invisible months.
"All I want is every day we leave (the practice floor), we feel good about what we just did," Calipari said. "My job is to keep these guys in the moment, not worrying about November and December. I must keep them in today. Then there's no anxiety. There's nothing crazy. There's nothing overwhelming. There's no, 'Oh, my gosh, what if we ... '
"It's all, 'Man, I feel good about today.' And continue to build that mental toughness. And you do that by bunting about 100 straight bunts. It's not about hitting home runs."