Agency of Misdirection: John Calipari and the Theatrics of Basketball, Race, and Money

artofbasketball-joeI wrote this essay in March, just after the University of Kentucky lost to Indiana University in the second round of the 2015-2016 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

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When I was a boy, I lived, breathed, and often died Princeton Tiger basketball. One of my earliest memories is the Harvard-Princeton game in Dillon Gym on February 15, 1965, in which Bill Bradley scored 51 points. Another enduring memory: Tiger stars Gary Walters and Chris Thomforde appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 1967, a magical season in which the team finished 25-3. One final memory, also from 1967, on a snowy Sunday morning that found me, a 9-year old, shooting baskets alone at Dillon Gym. Bill Bradley entered the vast (to me) basketball complex. Newly returned from Oxford! Having just signed a 4-year, $500,000 contract to play for the New York Knicks! We each shot alone at our baskets for some minutes. Then Bradley missed a shot, his ball rolled to me, he walked over to retrieve the ball from me, and he shook my hand. The most exciting moment of my young life! Or maybe of my entire life!

But this is also an essay about the inequities, distortions, and pathologies of racial difference in the United States in 2016. And so now, when I walk down Memory Lane, I am also mindful that in 1965 and in 1967, basketball still remained largely a white man’s sport, and purity it possessed in my mind was surely a product of my youth, but without a doubt also a product of the simple lines of the game, its geometric precision, basketball a beautiful sports physics engine that still lacked (or only barely possessed) the soul that African Americans infused into the game over the course of the next 50 years. Yes, we had Wilt Chamberlin and Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell and Bradley’s national rival, Cazzie Russell. But until the Texas Western Miners, starting five black players, pummeled the all-white University of Kentucky team in the 1966 NCAA tournament finals, the game remained coy. From this moment forward, basketball became largely a black sport in the national mind with a theatrical, expressive character and identity shaped by black youth. In 1967, with the entrance of UCLA’s Lou Alcindor on to the collegiate stage (along with Elvin Hayes), followed in turn by Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and Willis Reed, African American players who joined Bill Bradley on the Knicks and led the team to two NBA championships.

In the ensuing years, however, college basketball has pimped itself almost beyond recognition, mostly at the expense of black youth. This is a complex, difficult story, that I am surely inadequate to tell on my own. But one way to simplify its telling is to focus on one white coach, John Calipari, who in many ways is the heir to both Texas Western’s Don Haskins and the University of Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp. Within Calipari, we can witness the present struggle for ownership of the hoop dreams of black American kids, and for the soul of college basketball.

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Misdirection. A form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another. Managing the audience’s attention is the aim of all theater, it is the foremost requirement of theatrical magic. – Wikipedia

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In a much-anticipated and quite thrilling college basketball game this past weekend, Indiana University toppled the University of Kentucky, unceremoniously tipping from the tournament’s second round a team many thought had a shot at the NCAA championship.

Weirdly, and despite breathless coverage of this match-up on ESPN, the Kentucky loss entirely lacked drama because, it turns out, nothing was actually at stake. Kentucky is a too-big-to-fail sports programs, with a too-big-to-fail coach, that surfs the crest of an endless wave of media attention.

Drama requires a moment of reckoning, a rising to the occasion. But the Kentucky program doesn’t rise to the occasion. It is the occasion, and so the facts of its existence are all that matters, not the meaning of this existence. And so the main story line following the loss was the quality of Kentucky’s incoming class of high school recruits. UK is reloading for next season. The current roster already an afterthought, the bodies still warm.

Which actually really sucks. But this is the reality, year after year at Kentucky. Players shuttle from UK to the NBA so rapidly one can barely remember their names. These players barely imprint, and are effaced the moment a heralded new recruiting class arrives on campus. At the University of Kentucky, only Coach John Calipari abides. John Calipari is the fact to which we must ascribe meaning.

Coach Cal has parlayed skilled efforts to recruit talented young players, whose primary goal is to leave college as soon as possible for the NBA, into an unseemly level of wealth and influence at the University of Kentucky. He gets a pass on the financial shenanigans because his teams win games and he personally cares for his players. But Calipari profits enormously from the halo surrounding his relationships with young players. His benign image masks and deflects attention from the relationship between youth basketball’s sordid underbelly and the complex and evolving (but still-all-too-often-desperate) circumstances of African-American males in the United States.

Race Matters

In the past 60 years, African-American males have artistically reimagined the game of basketball and claimed for themselves its culture. Most elite collegiate basketball players in the United States are now African-American (in the most recent ESPN 100 list of top high school recruits, nearly 95 percent are black). For African-American males, basketball remains an urgently, mystically coveted way out of poverty, and the most illuminated and cosseted path to prosperity and acceptance within the American mainstream.

The sport should not be asked to bear this burden. So few black collegiate athletes – fewer than one percent – achieve meaningful or enduring professional athletic success. And yet from an almost pedophilically young age, sports media (ESPN in particular) and national player development and recruiting parasites attach themselves to these young athletes. The effect is to create a reality distortion field that virtually deconsecrates any other legitimate professional identity for young black males. We have become used to assuming that most basketball players will be black, but fail to appreciate the degree to which that assumption is the mirror image of the assumption that most doctors or attorneys or scientists or engineers will not be black.

African-Americans may have achieved massive overrepresentation in “fake” professions such as basketball and football (76 percent of NBA players are African-American and 66 percent of NFL players are African-American). However, fewer than 1,500 black athletes play for teams in the NBA and NFL. Unrelenting media focus on these “success stories” casts into shadow the hundreds of thousands of young black males who bet their future on these sports without fully appreciating that their odds for achieving enduring success as professional athletes are vanishingly small. Because Coach Calipari’s celebrity-redeemer image and saccharine sound bites sanctify this black athlete puppy mill, he contributes, perhaps more than any other single individual, to the air-brushing of a massively profitable sports-entertainment ecosystem which mostly consumes African-American male athletes as raw material.

On the other hand, blacks remain truly underrepresented in “real” professions within business, engineering, science, medicine, and law that employ more than 10 million Americans. Within these stable, well-paid, lifelong employment fields, blacks, who represent 11.7 percent of the working age population, fill less than 7 percent of the positions (these employment disparities are even more striking for Latinos). By contrast, Asian-Americans, who represent 5.8 percent of the working age population, fill more than 13 percent of these positions. Any racial proportionality in the distribution of these high-paid, high-status, high-influence professions would over time add hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth and income to African-American families, while also creating a different, and far more sustainable opportunity horizon for young African-American males.

Year after year, thousands upon thousands of young African-American athletes create vast wealth for largely white institutions and for white leaders at the apex of these institutions – from AAU programs to sports apparel and footwear companies to sports media empires to collegiate athletic empires to professional sports teams and leagues. Only tiny percentage of African-American athletes receive any significant portion of this wealth, while the remainder remain losers in what is essentially a rigged lottery.

In the past ten years, nothing has contributed more to this chasm between athlete expectations and reality in collegiate sports than the NBA’s One-and-Done rule. And no coach has more disingenuously capitalized on this rule than John Calipari, personally benefiting from this chasm while adeptly serving as the agent of misdirection for the sport and its business partners.

Servant Leadership

In 2014, Coach Cal published a book called Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out, which enunciates his faith-driven philosophy of servant leadership. In Players First, Calipari tells us that his players mean everything to him – more than the NCAA, more than the Big Blue Nation, more than any personal ambitions he harbors for himself. His players, past and present, are his sons.

Okay. Fine. Whatever. We get it. Unlike other basketball coaches, Calipari loves his players. But focusing on Calipari’s personal relationship with his players misses the point, which is that in every other conceivable way not involving these personal feelings for his players, Calipari is the insincere, bland, insipid face of a dark and disturbing marriage between sports and business, which extracts enormous financial value from young black athletes and then discards them like so many blown mountaintops in Kentucky coal country.

It’s a common trope that Calipari gradually disfavors his own players as they move beyond being adorable freshman and become more the plodding sort of four-year player who will never be good enough to go pro. Indeed, on his legendary Twitter feed Coach Cal pretty much only mentions his One-and-Done pride and joys who have succeeded at a high level in the NBA. John Wall. Anthony Davis. Karl-Anthony Towns. Boogie Cousins. He doesn’t tweet about his players who never make it to the NBA, or who are barely hanging on in the NBA or, heaven forbid, in the D League or overseas. DeAndre Liggins has not shown up in a Calipari tweet in almost five years.

Coach Cal is a social media prodigy. His Twitter account claims nearly 1.5 million followers, more than pretty much every other college basketball coach combined. The magnitude of his online following speaks to his cultural sway, and one might assume Calipari’s influence implies a burden of responsibility to the sporting and African-American community that extends beyond Hallmark exhortations. But Cal is only a basketball coach, not a social activist and not a philosopher. His Twitter message is integral to his coaching mission, and his coaching mission is recruiting the best high school basketball players in the nation – keep the turnstiles moving. Twitter is therefore the perfect forum for Coach Cal because it provides the ideal environment for invoking good feelings and positive emotional responses, for connecting without communicating.

And so perhaps Coach Cal’s personal feelings are the point after all, because they are the source of his value as an agent of misdirection. Calipari is a highly skilled motivational speaker who reinforces our instinct to judge people on the basis of their words, not their actions. He plays our weakness for personal narratives and character sketches and virtuous homilies. We lose ourselves in his celebrity moments (Drake!). We should not be surprised, then, that on his Twitter account (and on his website, and everywhere else, actually), Coach Cal has literally nothing to say about the pressing circumstances and challenges of life for young black males in the United States. Nothing.

Ever self-referential (and self-reverential) Calipari’s I can’t breathmoment occurred 2012 when he was standing next to POTUS.

Coach Coal

Despite his Franciscan commitment to servant leadership, Coach Cal lives large, and the example he sets for his players, his recruits, and his fan base is decidedly not one of self-sacrifice on behalf of a greater, more noble, or more enduring cause. In 2014, Calipari’s renegotiated UK coaching contract removed all of the bonus incentives of the normal coaching contract. With the new contract, Cal gets the cash, plain and simple (along with an astounding list of non-cash perks). Calipari lives in a Lexington McMansion. He recruits in a private jet. Oh. He also charges $50,000 per speaking engagement.

One might argue that living large is but another aspect of Coach Cal’s genius at misdirection – lifestyle emerging as the core of the message, for recruits, players, and fans alike. The trappings and stylings of flaunted wealth becoming the definition andthe meaning of winning. Which is perhaps the ultimate misdirection – lifestyle not just distinguishing and identifying life’s winners, but separating and walling them off from life’s losers. Despite the Franciscan rhetoric, the daily attendance at Mass, the constant prayers on behalf of who knows what, Cal knows more than anyone that we live in a material world, and with everyone’s spiritual future uncertain, he appears to not notice the contradictions between his lifestyle and his message.

But let’s give Coach Cal another shot at paying off his debt to the vow-of-poverty Franciscan model of servant leadership. Consider what are in fact significant Franciscan concerns – the impact of global warming and a commitment to environmental stewardship. Concern for the planet could therefore be an important part of the example Coach Cal, in his role as servant leader and espouser of the virtues of humility and feet-washing, might set for his players and for UK fans alike. For the moment, we’ll even give Coach Cal a pass on his carbon-spewing jet and gratis Mustang GT.

But it turns out Calipari is not a global warming guy (not a single mention of the term in his Twitter). And in one of the more renowned WTF moments in the annals of collegiate sports (a difficult feat to achieve, to be sure), creepy climate-denying Alliance Coal CEO, Kentucky political operator, and big-time University of Kentucky donor Joe Craft raised $7 million from a collection of coal barons called the Difference Makers to rebuild the men’s basketball dormitory and to rename the new facility the Wildcat Coal Lodge. The University’s agreement with the donors also stipulated that the dormitory entrance showcase a lavish tribute to the coal industry, along with appropriate recognition to the contributions of Craft and the other donors.

In a bizarre series of Twitter posts dating back to October 2009, Coach Cal slavishly puckered up for Kentucky coal. His initial tweet established Calipari’s bona fides as an energy policy expert. “I’m for anything that’s an alternative to foreign oil. Solar power, coal, wind, etc. It’s great that we’re out front in advancement at UK.”

Subsequent tweets mawkishly mourned the cave-in deaths of two Alliance Coal employees, shamelessly praised Alliance Coal for their epic contributions to the Kentucky economy, and generally cozied up to Joe Craft at every given opportunity prior to the completion of the Wildcat Coal Lodge in 2012. Joe Craft and Coach Cal were seen together at the address of Pope Francis to Congress in September 2015. A final tweet in November 2015 featured a photo of Calipari, presumably at a UK football game, with Papa John Pizza and Alliance Coal executives, “an unholy alliance” as more than one observer noted.

And if anyone needed more evidence of the impact of Coach Cal’s servant leadership model upon the environmental awareness of his players, in 2011 Joe Craft hosted a Mitt Romney presidential fundraiser in Lexington. His celebrity guest? DeMarcus Cousins.

Two and Through

John Calipari insists he does not love the One-and-Done rule, and more than once has voiced his support for the Two-and-Through rule proposed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, requiring players to stay in college for two years. But Calipari’s been clear he would not support a return to any option for high school students to jump directly to the NBA without going to college. And while many folks writing on this topic have properly pointed out that age or college requirements for mostly black basketball players smack of paternalism, the larger point is that colleges and coaches benefit far more from One-and-Done or Two-and-Through than players who might otherwise jump directly to the professional ranks from high school.

What would college basketball look like with no One-and-Done or Two-and-Through rule? It might not look any different than it does now, particularly as many top collegiate players would probably opt to leave school early for the NBA draft anyway. But recruiting could definitely change. And this is where the rotten foundations of college basketball truly rest. Not on the path from college to the NBA. But on the path from high school to college.

High school athlete recruiting – with its sinister AAU Svengalis and putrid player rankings – claims the attention and cements the priorities of African-American boys and their (often-poor, single-mother) families before they hit double digits. Minority athletes aren’t encouraged to view college as an educational end in itself, or as a destination on the path to a long-term professional identity. College instead appears before them as a pearly gate, the last stop before they enter professional sports heaven. But AAU Svengalis are merely functional gatekeepers for a collegiate coaching cohort desperate for access to the kids who fuel the sports money machine. The coaches are truly the ass end of the food chain. The stank would fell a bear.

To be clear, on the grand scales of justice, Coach Cal is not the evil root. He is simply the sweet-smelling (near-rotten-smelling) flower nourished by the evil root. But the evolutionary value of the flower – what allows it to survive – is that it entices and seduces, freeing the evil root to do its dirty work in the background. It is precisely in this sense that John Calipari’s theatrics misdirect our gaze from the injustices and harmful effects of One-and Done recruiting in black America. He is not a servant leader. He is a leader with servants, the black players who feather his nest, without whom he would be just another small-time basketball coach. Until we fully and publicly characterize that relationship, college basketball cannot properly serve the needs of the African-American community responsible for creating the magic and the blessings of the sport.