Directed by Jonathan Hock
John Calipari has been a controversial figure in sports for the better part of 20 years now. The head basketball coach at the most prestigious basketball school in the country, Kentucky, Calipari has seen great success throughout his career, coupled with questionable tactics which have resulted in NCAA violations at each of his last two head coaching stops, Massachusetts and Memphis. He is a quintessential love/hate sports figure. At this point, Kentucky fans are likely the only ones to love him for what he has done. With the latest installment in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, director Jonathan Hock recounts Calipari’s career in such a way as to reconsider his place on the hate list. We may still dislike him, or be jealous of him, or disagree with his methods, but there is no denying he is a winner, and a heck of a basketball coach.
Personally, I hated John Calipari before this film, but Hock does such a wonderful job or not only humanizing the coach, but shifting perspective on him. It’d be easy to chalk up his success to cheating, but what has he really cheated? It’d be easy to chalk up his success to a ludicrous “one and done” rule, but isn’t he just smarter for utilizing the rule as it is? These are all things I was able to reconsider while watching Hock’s latest 30 for 30 installment. I think first and foremost, as with almost any sports related hatred or even general discussion, much of my dislike for Coach Cal stems from his success. He turned around an awful Massachusetts program, took Memphis to the top of the sport (sans a few free throws), and now reigns over Kentucky basketball. Let’s take a step back though.
What I appreciated about this documentary, and Hock’s approach, is we get to see who Calipari is and where he came from. By following his rise from the very beginning, we see just how good of a coach he is, just how much he cares for his players, and just how much hard work he has put in to get to where he is. The NCAA sanctions will forever follow him, but in reality they are little infractions which carry no proof of his knowledge or wrong doing. Marcus Camby signed an agent while still an amateur. Derrick Rose played with an SAT score that was under dispute. In both cases, Calipari, at least his side of the story, suggests he had no knowledge, or in the case of Rose, was told the score was fine and Rose was eligible to play. The cloud of doubt will always follow him.
His most recent controversy is, in essence, a controversy surrounding all of college sports, not just Calipari. The NBA is at fault here by installing a rule which states that players must be 19 or one year removed from high school in order to play in the professional league. What this has created is an influx of talented teens coming to college programs to play out their requisite one year before bolting to the NBA. Calipari has capitalized on this rule, recruiting numerous such “one and done” players to Kentucky and essentially rebuilding every year with a team of incredible freshmen. These players will be attending college for a year whether they go to Kentucky or not. You can argue Calipari is “selling his soul” so to speak by making Kentucky an NBA factory as opposed to an institution of higher education, but we’re likely kidding ourselves if we, as college sports fans, really think there is something morally wrong with this approach.
To Calipari’s credit, he is mentoring these young men and assuring they get exactly what they deserve for their talent and hard work: a paycheck. If a young man can, on the open market, make millions of dollars, shouldn’t we embrace that as opposed to riding our high horse and thinking it better they attain their degree right now? Calipari is a players coach, he has their best interests in mind. Sometimes that will clash with both NCAA and fan perspectives, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with it in my eyes. He goes against the flow, but I applaud him for his steadfastness and ability to both coach and mentor, while also getting the most out of, and for, his players. He cares, whether we think he does or not. He’s a phenomenal coach, whether we appreciate that fact or not. John Calipari is controversial, there is no escaping that. I still don’t like the guy in all honesty, but after seeing Jonathan Hock’s film, I can say I at least respect him on some level for his contributions to the game of basketball.