So I was listening to the KSR podcast just now and Rex Chapman is on because he’s being inducted into the UK hall of fame tonight. This podcast is probably only the 2nd or 3rd time I’ve heard Rex speak, but everything I hear about the guy really makes me fall in love with him even 13 years after his basketball career ended (a career which I witnessed absolutely no part of whatsoever). The more I dig back into Rex the more I see just how amazing his story was (college accolades aside, his NBA success was particularly startling to me) and it really encourages me to learn more about the history of Kentucky basketball. (Afterall, it is The Greatest Tradition in the History of College Basketball)
See, I wasn’t a UK fan growing up. I wasn’t even a basketball fan. I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota where, to tell the truth, until recently there hasn’t really been a well defined sports culture until recently. Grand Forks had the University of North Dakota hockey team which is admittedly (albeit begrudgingly by a life-long NDSU fan) one of the all time great powers in college hockey, and the NFL obviously permeates all levels of American society regardless of borders, but basketball is most certainly not a high priority in the frigid hinterland that is my home. In any event, when it came time for me to decide what college I should go to one of the main factors I considered was I wanted to be somewhere that played big time college sports. I wanted to go somewhere that I could experience a great college sports tradition and where I could experience the pinnacle of college sports. In the case of the former I’m convinced it would have been impossible for me to make a better choice and I believe I did ok in regards to the latter as well.
However, this meant that I had to alter my sports fandom on the fly. I always liked the NHL because my dad is a big Red Wings fan, and by the same token this left me with Lions the Tigers (although I can honestly only name 3 players on the team. Unless Phil Coke has been traded… *googling* … phew ok we’re good back up to 3) and allegedly the Pistons, but basketball (college and pro) could not have been less interesting to me. Nobody hit each other, nobody got into fights mid match, and it was out of an irrational love of nachos and Pepsi rather than a love of the game that I attended most NDSU basketball games with my dad (I rarely even asked if it was a men’s or women’s game. I had my eyes on the prize folks).
(these were the subject of many a dream for me circa age 11)
This probably had a lot to do with the fact that the upper Midwest is a predominately white society within hockey (and Canada’s) geographical orbit BUT that is a topic for another time. The point is, I hadn’t been interested in basketball up to this point in my life and as a result I reeeeally didn’t understand much of anything that was happening in the sport at any given time. So for all intents and purposes, the sport of college basketball truly began to exist for me in August of 2008 when I moved to Lexington, Kentucky. Early on I met my friend Esteban, a lifelong Kentucky Basketball fan, and began a period of tutelage in the sport, but I’ve never really managed to fully immerse myself in the entire history of the sport (much to my own chagrin). My ideas of the sport have been profoundly and I think permanently shaped by those 4 years I spent in college watching UK and learning about the sport. The first year my fandom was the last year of Billy Gillispie’s shortlived Kentucky tenure and as such things got off to a bit of a rough start. I distinctly remember watching the VMI loss in my dorm room in shock that everything seemed to be unraveling before it began. I even at the end of the year before the LSU game seeing kids talking all over campus about how we could still salvage everything and still make it into the tournament with a big win over the Cajuns, but in the end UK was NIT bound. I watched every one of those NIT games, but none of them seemed more important than the offseason of door-watching that followed them. (Esteban even had a door watching cameo on ESPN)
That door turned out to be the gateway between my rocky start to Kentucky fandom and the paradise that has followed since. John Calipari came walking through that door like freaking Gandalf ready to save the day with magic and shit. And then everything, including my conceptions of college basketball, changed.
Calipari’s “one and done” recruiting strategy has been well documented and dissected across the internet for a long time now, but I think the strategy looks a lot different from inside than out. People used to scream from the mountaintops that freshmen couldn’t win titles and 2012 changed that (even though some people still refuse to believe.But for me, for the most part this is the only college basketball world I’ve ever known. To me college basketball is about watching various mixtapes, trying to learn about recruits while they’re still high school sophomores so that I’ll have some idea what to expect when they finally get to campus as freshmen. This is what basketball life is like for a lot of Kentucky fans now, but it hasn’t always been this way and it won’t stay this way forever. The aforementioned Esteban is always telling me not to put too much emphasis on mixtapes, because it has nothing to do with what a guy will look like once he’s on campus. This is what I hear from most UK fans and its also the point Rex is making on KSR right now. We don’t know these guys before they get to the school, and we need to wait and let freshmen be freshmen. In Rex’s case this is especially poignant in that while he is widely considered Kentucky’s first “basketball rock star” he said in this KSR interview that he didn’t expect to play much during his freshman year let alone start.
Rex, then, might have been ahead of his time, but what was extraordinary for his time has become commonplace today. Simply put Cal’s system works and until the NBA changes the rules (something Calipari himself even wants for multiple reasons) its going to keep working. Cal has the most heralded recruiting class in history coming in for this season (even more than the class that included both John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, two players who just signed max level contracts in the NBA) and in all likelihood this team of freshman will start the season ranked #1 in the country. Cal has consistently (2012/13 season withstanding; injury had some impact on that team’s failings) produced at a high level with this system and I’ve “grown-up,” so to speak, watching this very specific brand of basketball (which greatly differs from the history of Kentucky and the history of college basketball in general).
All the things some bemoan in the Calipari system are the only things I really know and understand when it comes to college basketball. I don’t know whether there are a lot of new fans who have sprung up around this system like me, completely removed for the “tradition” that is Kentucky basketball, but we’re certainly now a part of it. John Calipari represents his own unique era in the storied history of Kentucky basketball and its one of almost unparalleled success. He might not win as many titles as Adolf Rupp, but he dominates his sport in a similar or even more impressive fashion (with the addition of dominating the new world of recruiting which didn’t exist in Rupp’s time). Moreover, if just a few things had broken his way (a historical and disastrous shooting night against an awful West Virginia team and Kemba Walker being Kemba Walker for a UConn team that probably should have been [and eventually was] banned from postseason play) Cal could very easily be going for his 4th title this year (which would have tied Rupp) but he would be doing so in only 5 seasons, half the time it took Rupp (whose 1st and 4th titles came in 1948 and 1958 respectively).
John Calipari is a winner, an innovator, and a lightning rod capable of producing unparalleled interest in his team, his players, and his sport. He won me over in 20 minutes of firework and laser induced euphoria, not just for Kentucky basketball but for the sport as a whole. His brand of basketball is so exciting and so impactful, his personality and the personalities of his teams are so engaging, and his ability to motivate (and reinvigorate) the greatest fanbase in the history of American sports is so profound that in 3 short years he managed to swing my entire sports world into the corner of Kentucky basketball. College basketball is now my favorite sport and its not even close. I now religiously obsess about something I had absolutely no interest in growing up and have entirely new ideas of what it truly means to be a fan. The Calipari system won’t last forever. Rule changes, coaches learning to compete for recruits, and Cal’s own retirement will all contribute to its demise, but everything Calipari has built here has helped me personally fall in love with this sport, and as a new lifelong Kentucky Basketball fan I’ll always be grateful to him for it. I may not be truly immersed in Kentucky history yet, but I am living a piece of Kentucky history right now, I’ll always be a part of the Big Blue Nation, thanks in large part to John Calipari.