Saturday, April 02, 2011

You Can't Cheat An Honest Man, or an Honest Organization, Either

Any major sports event is improved by the presence of a proper villain, so the Final Four is infinitely better off having John Calipari and Kentucky in it today.

Kentucky doesn't need Calipari to play the heel. Its fans can and have performed that role like so many blue-clad Barrymores for generations. Ashley Judd's presence can't redeem them. Entitled doesn't go quite far enough to cover the attitude of this group. In fairness, EVERY school sends the worst of its fans to the Final Four, as they are the only ones rich and/or demented enough to pay the freight. But the Kentucky traveling spectator squad was without question the most irritating group of overmonied rubes I met in the process of covering nine of them. Even the Dukies have the self-awareness to poke a little fun at their own image sometimes.

Calipari's presence as the coach of any team, however, drives many college basketball fans mad with rage. My old pal Charles Pierce is one of 'em. Coach Cal is the symbol of sleaze, the well-dressed living monument to the "corruption" of big-time collegiate sports. The haters point to the fact that both of Calipari's previous Final Four teams, 1996 UMass and 2008 Memphis, had their presence struck from the NCAA record book for rulebook misdeeds. It galls these folks no end that the wages of Calipari's sins have always been to fall upwards into better jobs paying him many millions of dollars.

It would be foolish to deny that the critics are on to something. When I covered Calipari at UMass, I always felt he was on verge of asking me "What will it take for me to put you in this car today?" He is undeniably a relentless hustler, Sammy Glick with a whistle. The reason Calipari walked away without a scratch from the investigations of his last two college programs is that he is a master of the Sgt. Schultz/Mafia don/CIA director school of management. That is, Calipari has few peers at not knowing things he knows damn well it's not in his interest to know.

Marcus Camby's walking around Amherst wearing fancy jewelry? I don't see it when he's at practice. How'd Derrick Rose meet Memphis' entrance requirements? Do I look like the admissions department?'

This is not a very uplifting way of operating. Which is why I have a sneaking kind (the only appropriate kind) of fondness for Coach Cal. In the world of college basketball, Calipari's an honest crook. He makes it all so clear that the NCAA, its rules, its pretensions, the "student-athlete" jive, etc., are all bullshit. College basketball and football are about winning and money, not necessarily in that order. The rest is just a dodge to let college presidents maintain their pretentious self-images.

And the "rules" Calipari broke or allowed to be broken on his behalf that make him a "cheater" are not elements of an ethical code recognized by any religion or philosophy. They are the elements of the NCAA's business operation which violates any standard of fair play and quite a few clauses of the commercial law sections of the U.S. Code. The NCAA and its co-conspirators the NBA and NFL are at endless pains to conceal this fact behind the false front of college sports having anything to do with education.

Let's review Calipari's sins. A kid from Hartford without a pot to piss in accepted money and gifts from a shady fellow hoping to cash in on the long and lucrative pro career Camby did in fact go on to have. In a sane world, why is that anyone's business but Marcus Camby's? If somebody who's an economics major at UMass gets a summer job at Goldman Sachs, everyone's happy for the kid. Nobody says he's eligible for graduate school.

Derrick Rose wanted to play in the NBA, but a patent violation of antitrust law said he had to wait a year. In order to maintain his earning potential, and (here's what many miss) to LEARN more about his chosen trade, Rose felt it was in his best interests to play college ball for a year, despite having no academic qualifications or interests to speak of. So somebody took Rose's SATs for him, he would up at Memphis, and this year he's probably going to be NBA MVP.

Once again we ask, what's the crime? Who got hurt here? Derrick Rose? The University of Memphis? Hard to see how. Confronted with an outrageous violation of his rights as a commercial entity in a free market, Rose did what was best for him. So did Calipari, by carefully looking the other way. I can't and won't blame either one.

Kentucky and Calipari are a perfect fit, which is why they are a perfect villain. The University of Kentucky as an institution and the state of Kentucky as a community have the same attitude towards basketball as their coach. Winning comes first, second and last. Try not to break the rules so carelessly you get caught and it hurts our chances of winning more next year. Above all, don't tell us about what you're doing.

Kentucky's had major, major scandals under every coach it's ever had (except Tubby Smith, and they ran him off, possibly for just that). The program ignored rules when Adolph Rupp was coach and it's doing it today. Kentucky hired a champion ignorer who's good at winning games. Everybody's happy there. I'm happy Kentucky will be on the court today demonstrating the farcically unjust setup of the collegiate section of U.S. minor league sports. There's something to be said for honest crooks in our hypocritical world.

Let me put it this way. If I had a son who was a good enough basketball player to be on a Div-I squad as a scholarship player for four years, I wouldn't want him to play for Calipari. He'd have many better options.

But if I had a kid who was good enough to be a one-and-done, a kid who was bound and determined to try the NBA as soon as possible, and whom I knew would get drafted if he was ready or not, I wouldn't want him to play for any coach BUT Calipari.

Last time I checked, the idea of going to college was to learn stuff to prepare you for your life as an adult.


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