Back in December, I called LeBron James impending free agency, “The story that’s not really a story, but still kind of is a story, that everyone feels dirty for talking about, but can’t stop talking about anyway.”
Well here we are six months later, and that story that’s not really a story, has now become the only story that anybody wants to talk about. Even as four teams are still battling for an NBA Championship.
Will LeBron go to Chicago? The Clippers? Take the Russian billionaire’s money and hang out on the Jersey Shore? Go to New York? Stay in Cleveland?
No one is quite sure where LeBron will sign or when, only that’s it going to happen in the next few months (Although by the time the ink dries on James’ contract it might feel like two decades…or more). But now, like the plot of any really bad Nic Cage action movie, a new name has emerged in the cyclone surrounding LeBron James upcoming NBA-nuptuals.
That’s right folks, just when this story couldn’t get any goofier, it just did, as here comes Kentucky coach John Calipari sauntering down the NBA’s yellow brick road.
At first glance it seems like LeBron and Calipari don’t have all that much in common, making them an odder couple than Spencer and Heidi Pratt. After all, one is an NBA superstar who never played a second of college basketball, and the other a college basketball coach who couldn’t have been forced out of the NBA a second sooner. Like Spencer and Heidi, what could they possibly see in each other?
The seeds of the relationship actually first came public this winter, when James showed up for a random, Saturday afternoon Kentucky game. I didn’t think much of it at the time, as I distinctly remember sitting at a bar waiting for a dinner date, looking up at the screen, and thinking, “Hmm, LeBron. Whatever,” before getting back to my beer and peanuts. Honestly, it wasn’t all that long ago that James was seen at one of Stephen Curry’s NCAA Tournament games, and I don’t remember anyone reporting that Davidson coach Bob McKillop was headed to the NBA after that.
Over the last couple weeks though, things started to fall a bit into place, and the puzzle pieces started to fit together easier. It was rumored that former Kentucky superstar John Wall- Who is all but certain to be the No. 1 pick in June’s draft- was being courted heavily by a marketing company run by the friend of…wait for it…that’s right, LeBron James. It was my “Ta-Da!” moment.
In journalism there’s a saying that goes “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which is basically a nice way of saying that there are reasons behind everyone’s actions. And with that, LeBron at the Kentucky game made sense: James shows up, smiles and takes a few pictures, while every 14, 15, 16-year-old big-time basketball player watches, and drools over the opportunity to go to UK, and hang out with “The King.” Basically, it gave Coach Cal and his program a whole bunch of street cred; even though the school already had more of it than Jay-Z and Eminem combined. In turn of course, Calipari would flip his NBA-ready ballers to James, who would flip them to his buddy’s marketing company. It was a match that could only be made in the sketchy, semi-seedy, world of underground basketball.
Since then of course, two interesting things have happened: One, Wall elected not to sign with James’ marketing company (So much for my original theory). Secondly, Calipari was seen at a few of James’ playoffs games, which 10 years ago would have meant nothing, but in the instantaneous, 24-hour news cycle, Twitter fueled world we live in, was all anyone could talk about. Of course Calipari was at Derrick Rose’s playoff games just a few weeks earlier, and nobody made much of a fuss about that. But still.
Either way, back to James and Calipari as a package duo. We’ve all hear the rumors, that the infamous Worldwide Wes (Which has always sounded to me like some cheesy travel agency in the basement of a mall), power broker to the stars of sports and entertainment, has been contacting teams- The Clippers, Nets and Bulls- and claiming James and Calipari can be had together. For the right price of course. ESPN’s reporters have been all over this story, some saying their sources are positive it’s happening behind closed doors, others certain it isn’t.
While I have no inside information (It’s true. Despite popular belief, I am of no relation to LeBron, and he rarely reaches out to me asking for important advice), I think Kentucky fans can breathe a sigh of relief. I just don’t see Calipari going anywhere.
Again, I have no inside information, but follow this stuff about as closely as anyone can. I read and investigate, and talk to as many people as I can, even if I don’t actually do any real, hard, reporting.
And I just don’t see this working out for either side.
Let’s start with LeBron. He’s the most talented player in the world, and a guy whose impending free agency has literally hijacked Sportscenter over the last week. It has been the talk of everyone and everywhere, to the point that as I joked on Monday, I’m pretty sure Oprah is going to weigh-in one of these days. The worst part about this whole LeBron-a-palooza, is that even if he knew where he was going today, he still wouldn’t be able to sign a contract for a month.
On the court, LeBron has done just about everything that any individual can do in this sport: Back-to-back MVP’s (And more coming), All-Star Game MVP’s, an Olympic Gold Medal, Rookie of the Year, you name it. But he still doesn’t have a championship. And that eats away at him. I know it does.
Wherever LBJ ends up, it’s going to be the place that puts him the best position to win championships…plural. I’m not saying he won’t have a say in who his next coach is, even though he has never pressed the issue before. But even if LeBron were going to hand-pick one, why would it be a guy who has never won a title at any level, and whose career NBA record stands at 72-112, a nice, round 40 games below .500? Why put your basketball future, and ultimate legacy in someone like that’s hands?
If you’re Calipari, the question is even simpler: Why leave the best job in college basketball for the uncertainty of the NBA?
And with all due respect to the good folks at North Carolina, UCLA, Duke, Michigan State, UConn, Louisville, Syracuse and every other place where basketball is king, Kentucky is the best job. It’s a place where the scrutiny will never be tougher when you lose, but the praise will never be greater when you win. It’s a place that puts 23,000 people in the building for Midnight Madness, and keeps another 10,000 in the arena after games just to watch the coach- whoever it is- tape his postgame radio interview. Seriously, that happens.
If Calipari were to leave UK for the NBA, he better be damn sure he’s set to be the next Red Auebach, because once he leaves the Bluegrass, he can never come back to college. He just can’t. The same way that Derek Jeter could never go from dating supermodels to the fry girl at McDonalds, now that Calipari has had a taste of Kentucky, there’d be no place left in college to wet his appetite if he once again failed in the NBA.
Beyond that, Calipari is a runaway freight train on the recruiting circuit right now. He’s continually handpicking his new batch of superstars, again, the way that Derek Jeter handpicks which blonde beauty will join him for dinner next Friday night. Why walk away from that?
Remember that John Wall guy I mentioned, who is going to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft? Besides Wall, remember DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe who led UK to an Elite Eight appearance in their only season on campus? I’ve got news for those of you outside Kentucky, those guys are ancient history within the state’s borders. Someone might as well be chiseling their names in hieroglyphics on cave walls, they’re such old news.
Next fall, for the fourth time in four years, Calipari will coach the previous year’s top high school point guard, when Brandon Knight of Florida comes to Kentucky. Not to mention Turkish big man Enes Kanter who is already enrolled, and has the people of Kentucky more excited than a 16-year-old who just snuck into his first college party. And there’s Doron Lamb, a long-range bomber, that could be the Eric Bledsoe of next year’s team. Kentucky may look different in 2011 from 2010, but with the way Calipari re-loaded, they won’t be much worse for the wear.
And oh, incase you were wondering, Coach Cal already has commitments from the top two juniors in high school basketball as well. Sure they might not even be able to drive yet, but forward Michael Gilchrist, and point guard Marquis Teague know that come the 2011-2012 season, they’re going to be Kentucky Wildcats.
Teague is an especially strong testament to the pull of Coach Cal, a player who was all but signed, sealed and delivered to Rick Pitino and Louisville, and whose subsequent change of heart led to literally one of the most bitter moments in the 100+ year history of two of college basketball’s biggest rivals. Reader Chris C., a resident of Kentucky, even e-mailed after the fact to tell me it was “The most intense recruiting war he can ever remember.” Which is a pretty strong sentiment from someone who has followed Kentucky basketball his whole life.
Again, Calipari is on the tip of every elite high school basketball player’s tongue, the magic man that can put any 18-year-old with a jump shot into the NBA within eight months flat. Every high school freshman, sophomore and junior that he wants, wants him back just the same. Why give that up?
Now does that mean I think there is a zero percent chance that Calipari leaves Kentucky? I wouldn’t say zero. Money won’t be the issue (The rumor is that truckloads full of $100 bills are dumped onto Calipari’s Lexington lawn every pay period), but the ability to make his own player personnel decisions might be. And having LeBron wouldn’t hurt either.
At the same time, Calipari learned in his first NBA go around, there are no five year plans in the league, it’s win today, or you’ll be unemployed tomorrow. If he were were to leave Kentucky, I’m positive that he’d only go to a place where he could win rings, like LeBron…plural. Then again even having LeBron himself doesn’t guarantee that. The world’s most talented basketball player still has the same number of NBA titles that I do, which is…(Let me check my trophy case just to be sure)… Zero.
So while “Cal and the King,” sounds like a pretty cool Saturday morning cartoon, I just don’t see it happening in an NBA arena near you any time soon. It just doesn’t make enough sense for either party involved, each still looking to win their first championship.
While there’s still over a month before we know where James ends up, it won’t be anywhere with Calipari, unless it’s the golf course or at a charity dinner.
In the coming six weeks, we’ll find out if LeBron is staying in Cleveland, or headed to New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles or Chicago. Or for that matter any other city with money to spend and an NBA team.
As for Calipari? Rest assured Wildcats fans, he isn’t leaving his old Kentucky home.
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