What exactly does ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary, “One and Not Done,” tell us about John Calipari that we didn’t already know?
Today, we know Calipari as the successful, well-paid, celebrity coach he has become: Final Fours. National champion. Hall-of-Famer.
Yes, he’s still controversial, still plays the edges, still ruffles feathers. But he’s every bit a card-carrying member of the elite insiders’ club.
His hair is slick but now graying, his suits expensive but now a little tight around the midsection. He still screams and rants, but now he’s coaching some of the best talent in the country. He’s not the scrappy underdog anymore.
As the documentary shows, he was the scrappy underdog for a long time — brash, unapologetic, aggressive. As he built programs and lured young high schoolers to those programs, there was the idea that maybe he broke, certainly bent, the rules.
It all caused people to question just who was this nobody out of nowhere who was facing up to John Chaney and Jim Calhoun. Nobody wanted to take him seriously. A little too loud. A little too successful a little too early.
The documentary — which can be streamed online or viewed on ESPN at various times — hovers over the questions that stained Calipari’s story. When it was revealed the first real star on Cal’s first good team at UMass had an agent before it was OK to have an agent, the mud didn’t get on Cal’s shoes. But when Cal fled to the NBA just days after the story broke, the mud suddenly didn’t smell like mud anymore.
Then the next real star on Cal’s next good team at Memphis was found to have had some academic improprieties. As a result result, two Final Four appearances were made to disappear.
And then, he’s standing at a podium in Lexington — in the inner sanctum, the room within the room where only the golden ticket holders can go.
His record is his record: More wins in the last few years than any coach in America, and with two programs that had mostly been marginal before he got there.
But there’s also the controversies, questions and altercations. Was Kentucky getting itself not another Rick Pitino but instead another Eddie Sutton? Sanctions and repercussions sure to come, pulling sacred banners off the gymnasium wall?
Of course, we all know what happened next: John Wall happened. Anthony Davis happened. 38 straight wins happened.
So in the end, there isn’t too much in the program that Cal-watchers didn’t already know. Especially the Cal watchers who populate Big Blue Nation.
It has always been well-known that Cal is the coach you love to hate — until he becomes your coach. And Kentucky fans had been waiting for a coach they could fall in love with.
Does Big Blue Nation love him? Unconditionally.
But eight years ago, did we know what we were getting when this sharpie out of Western Pennsylvania stood before us? We knew he could recruit, but recruiting has always had a shady side to it.
The documentary sheds light on Calipari as a recruiter, with Derek Rose talking about the dazzle in his Chicago neighborhood when Cal emerged from his Hummer (“a lot of coaches were afraid to come into my neighborhood”); Marcus Camby relaying his mother’s excitement in their Hartford, Conn., living room (“Cal can sell water to a well”); Karl-Anthony Towns recounting how Cal told his parents their son might not play much if he came to Kentucky. And then there’s a scene that shows Cal driving his Mercedes to the hangar where his private plane is waiting.
Bobby Martin, an early Calipari recruit at Pittsburgh, probably had the line of the night: “John Calipari could talk a starving dog off a meat truck.”
Of course when Mike Krzyzewski announces his No. 1 recruiting classes, it must be the aura, the academics, of Duke. When Roy Williams gets his freshmen classes, it must be the winning Tar Heel tradition. (It couldn’t possibly be the bogus classes they don’t have to take at North Carolina.)
But when John Calipari piles on the five-star freshmen — it must be illegal!
What I think the documentary did reveal is that the guy can coach basketball.
The program made clear that Cal early on grabbed the eye of basketball campmeister Howard Garfinkel, who recommended him to Larry Brown at Kansas, then to Roy Chipman at Pitt, which led to a head coaching job with a non-basketball powerhouse like Massachusetts. (“Nobody else wanted the job,” says Cal.) And he succeeded, pretty much everywhere he went.
It’s one thing to tell a bunch of undermanned UMass players to “refuse to lose.” It’s another thing to build the skill and discipline that turns a losing program into the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
The documentary took us into the gym and watched him teaching, drilling, screaming. Becoming so uncontrollable on the bench that his own players had to talk him down.
It also shows him instilling a kind of tough love many of these kids had not had before. Camby called him “my father.” Lou Roe, another of his UMass stars, said simply that Calipari had changed his life. “I came in as a kid, but in those four years, I left as a man. He taught me passion, commitment, confidence — confidence to care about people.”
Derek Rose said, grinning, “He told me he was going to push me. At the time, I didn’t know that he was insane.”
The name of the program is “One and Not Done,” so inevitably it gets around to the notion that Calipari orchestrates the evil underground railroad, linking high school seniors to professional careers through Lexington. That Calipari is somehow the originator of, or at least a key proponent of, a rule that isn’t even an NCAA rule, it’s an NBA rule.
He didn’t invent it, he didn’t climb through the loophole, and he isn’t single-handedly ruining college basketball. But he has managed to fill the Kentucky rosters with freshmen who produce winning teams (mostly) at UK and then go on to the NBA.
Who is it good for? And who is it bad for? The program cites the case of Dajuan Wagner, Calipari’s first important Memphis recruit (and, incidentally, the son of former Louisville star Milt Wagner).
Wagner was practically thrown out of Memphis by Calipari after his freshman year, his scholarship dramatically torn up. Instead, Wagner was a lottery pick by Cleveland, had a good rookie year, earned $7.5 million and then got sick — ulcerative colitis, that led to half his colon being removed.
“What would have happened if the kid had stayed in school and gotten sick?” Calipari asked, knowing the answer full well.
It’s a formula and a philosophy that Calipari has followed at Kentucky, as any UK fan knows. If you’ve ever wondered how he counsels his young Wildcats, the documentary pretty much seals the answer.
“He told me from the beginning, I’d be gone after one year,” said Wall. “Now take the others with you.” Calipari suggested he refused to let DeMarcus Cousins come back for his sophomore season.
A traditionalist like Calhoun, the ex-Connecticut coach, said it’s ruining the game. Calipari says it’s enriching the players’ lives.
Of course, he’s passionate to win. Of course, he enjoyed his NCAA title. But when he says Kentucky’s biggest night ever was those five first-round draftees in 2010, not everyone here agrees with that focus. After all, the team hadn’t won the national championship — hadn’t even advanced beyond the Elite Eight.
“They’re all looking at me and saying, ‘What is he missing?’ ” Calipari relates. “And I’ m looking at them like, ‘What are you missing?’”
If you think the enigma that is John Calipari ended when he moved from scrappy underdog to coach of the biggest basketball program in the country, you’re wrong. He’s still charting his own path and figuring out his own rules — generally far ahead of the rest of the basketball community.