And we’re back with another John Calipari story.
At the end of a week that had to go down as an L for the much-hyped, much-criticized Kentucky coach — where he got the news that top recruiting target C.J. Leslie was choosing N.C. State over UK — Calipari found himself in the middle of another mini-controversy.
Terrence Jones, a 6-9 All-American who could play up to four positions in college, announced in a press conference at Jefferson High School (Portland, Ore.) that he was committing to the University of Washington. Jones picked UW over Kentucky, Kansas, Oregon and UCLA.
And then the drama began. As Jones appeared unsure and even regretful of his decision to some observers minutes after putting on the UW cap, reports began to surface that Calipari was still putting pressure on Jones after the press conference to reconsider Kentucky. In the Seattle Times it was initially reported that Calipari called Jones after the announcement to make his final pitch, but that was later retracted. Times reporter Percy Allen reiterated that Calipari and Jones did have a conversation — after which Jones “seemed pained” — but that he didn’t know exactly who called who.
In this morning’s edition of the Times, columnist Steve Kelley weighed in. Here is that piece in its entirety:
Every coach preaches the notion of never giving up. Every coach wants his players to believe that no deficit is too deep, no comeback too impossible.
Down by 15 with 10 minutes to go, every basketball coach will holler to his team, “We’ve got to ratchet up the defense. We need some stops. Keep grinding. We can win this thing.”
But there is a time when a coach should give up. There is a time when the clock has run out and a coach should shake a player’s hand and admit defeat.
Take Friday, for instance, when Terrence Jones and his best friend Terrence Ross announced at a joint news conference, held at their Portland high school, they were going to play basketball for Washington.
It was a day for celebration. It was their day, nobody else’s.
Then after their announcements, according to reports, Jones showed enough class to call Kentucky coach John Calipari to tell Calipari he was going to Washington.
Calipari reacted like a coach who hadn’t heard the final buzzer. Jones still hadn’t signed his letter of intent. To Calipari, that meant the game was still on, and there’s no quit in Coach Cal.
Who knows what Calipari told Jones? Who knows what suggestions and promises were made? Who knows what game-changing strategy Calipari was employing?
Temporarily, at least, Jones postponed his decision to go to UW. Instead of allowing Friday’s news conference to be celebratory, Calipari cloaked it in confusion.
Maybe nothing Calipari said to Jones was against NCAA rules, but with Calipari there is always room for suspicion.
Maybe he merely was lauding the idea of an education in the Bluegrass State. Certainly he has plenty to sell. There are few programs with the history of Kentucky basketball and few states as consumed by the sport.
I remember when Mark Pope was transferring from Washington and considering either Utah or Kentucky. I was talking with Utah coach Rick Majerus the day Pope visited Kentucky.
“We have no chance,” Majerus said. “Once a kid visits Kentucky, it’s over for us.”
Pope won a 1996 NCAA title with coach Rick Pitino at Kentucky.
Coach Cal is used to getting his man. From Marcus Camby to Derrick Rose, from Tyreke Evans to Chris Douglas-Roberts to John Wall, he rarely hears “no.”
Already he is 1 for 1 against the Huskies this recruiting season, signing Turkish big man Enes Kanter, who earlier was assumed to be going to Washington.
How does Cal do it?
When it comes to recruiting, Calipari plays his own game and writes his own rules. And if by chance he runs afoul of the NCAA and gets his university in trouble, Coach Cal quits and leaves the cleanup to the schools.
It happened at Massachusetts. It happened at Memphis. Some day it probably will happen at Kentucky.
“We’ve gotten into this situation where integrity is really lacking, and that’s why I’m glad I’m not coaching,” former Indiana coach Bob Knight said last winter at a fundraiser for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. “You see we’ve got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he’s still coaching. I don’t understand that.”
Coach Cal is like the soap-opera villain who runs roughshod over some fictitious TV town. He’s the guy who terrorizes the citizenry; the guy who, despite heaps of evidence, the local law enforcers aren’t able to arrest.
He’s a hoops Houdini.
Maybe Calipari’s talk with Jones wasn’t against NCAA rules, but it was sleazy.
We don’t know what he said to Jones. All we know is before the phone call, Jones was coming to Washington. After the phone call, Jones wasn’t so sure.
Probably Jones, a 6-foot-9, do-everything player, will come to Washington and automatically make the Huskies a player in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
But why did Calipari have to slime a day meant for celebration?
People who cover college basketball will tell you that Calipari wouldn’t be the first coach to make a last-ditch attempt at a recruit before the letter of intent was signed. Some see it as sleazy, and personally I wouldn’t do it, but I’m not made like that. I’ve never been one to question a kid’s college decision; I look at athletes like “regular” students and respect that it’s their life and they have their reasons. But I also don’t have my job riding on the back of a teenager’s whims.
So in a sense, I don’t blame Calipari for doing what he did — if in fact he did anything shady. I do know, however, that no story had surfaced about Kansas’ Bill Self, UCLA’s Ben Howland or new Oregon coach Dana Altman getting involved with Terrence Jones after he’d made up his mind.