My grandmother was pushing 100 – or 99, depending on which family member you talk to – and was living in a nursing home in Harrodsburg, Ky., when I visited her several years ago. She had just watched a University of Kentucky basketball game on television and was outraged that the Wildcats hadn’t attempted more three-point shots.
That, in a nutshell, captures the grip that UK basketball has on a state where all other sports – baseball, football, track, you name it – are only ways to pass the time between basketball seasons.
I know whereof I speak since I grew up in Kentucky and worshipped the legends of UK basketball. But that was before the arrival of John Calipari as coach and before the advent of the infamous “one-and-done” system that he exploits so well.
One of the most disappointing moments in my life occurred in October of 1951, when I retrieved the Louisville Courier-Journal from our front porch and saw the headline that two revered Wildcats – Alex Groza and Ralph Beard– had been indicted in a point-shaving scandal.
Through thick and thin, however, I never lost my enthusiasm for UK, and there were plenty of good times, such as eight national championships prior to Monday night, and more all-Americans than I can possibly remember.
In the glory days of the Fabulous Five – the late 1940s – my Dad would drive me all over Lexington looking for an Ashland Oil service station that still had a supply of team photos, which it handed out every year.
But there also was that infamous 1966 NCAA final when Kentucky, an all-white team, lost to Texas Western, an all-black team, prompting the legendary UK coach, Adolph Rupp, to reluctantly and finally recruit his first African American players.
The graceless Rupp, by the way, accused Texas Western of using players “out of the Tennessee penitentiary” and “off the streets of New York.”
Rupp finally retired in 1972, and the arena where UK now plays is named for him.
Such is the loyalty of Kentuckians to their team that when the Lexington Herald-Leader won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for an exposé of corruption in the Wildcat basketball program, the newspaper received bomb threats and cancellations.
Four coaching changes since Rupp retired bring us now to John Calipari, who may single-handedly be destroying college basketball as we know it because of a National Basketball Association rule that allows players to sign professional contracts only after they have reached 19 years of age and are a year out of high school.
Calipari’s starting lineup this year – as it has been for the past four years – was made up of five freshmen, all former high school all-Americans and none of whom will be around when the season starts again next fall. All are expected to declare for the NBA draft, which has turned Kentucky, supposedly an educational institution, into little more than an NBA farm club.
As the chief practitioner of “one-and-done,” he will argue that he is only playing by the rules he is given. “It’s between the NBA and the Players Association,” he has said. “Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA. So I just think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt”
To a certain extent, he is correct, and there is no doubt many of his recruits, including the Sacramento Kings’ Demarcus Cousins, have gone on to lucrative NBA careers. But his recruiting pitch has nothing to do with what classes are available or that Kentucky might be a great place to get an education.
Instead, his recruiting goes something like this, as reported recently by Sports Illustrated: Come to Kentucky for a year, chase a national championship and dress nice on NBA draft night.
He has his supporters, and certainly to Kentucky fans, the how and why of winning is not important. Just win. Others say he is the most complicit coach in the country for taking the “student” out of the phrase “student-athlete.”
But there is one thing for certain. A school that once was famous for turning out basketball legends has now become a revolving door where nobody hangs around long enough to achieve legendary status.
William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.