John Calipari stands in a ballroom in a big hotel in downtown Lexington. He's saying a few words at a breakfast for the local Salvation Army to launch its Christmas campaign. The room is full, maybe 500 people, and Calipari is working it. It's tough to say where his act plays better. This stage? Or the one next door, in Rupp Arena?
It's not a criticism to say the Kentucky basketball coach can be 10 pounds in a five-pound bag. Calipari tells the people what they want to hear. More often than not, he delivers, though not without complications. The devil of two vacated Final Four appearances, owing to NCAA rules violations, is never far from Calipari's shoulder.
He wins, though, a lot. The people love him for it, at least while he's there. Calipari's habit of exiting out the back door is well documented. On this day, at least, none of that matters in Lexington, epicenter of Big Blue Nation.
Calipari is talking about obligations and opportunities. The obligations he has to the university, and the opportunity afforded him by the mega-pulpit he occupies as its basketball coach. There is no basketball like UK basketball. It is football in Alabama, hockey in Montreal, sun in Miami Beach. Other things do matter in the Commonwealth. None leap to mind.
If you drive an hour or two southeast of Lexington and into the eastern reaches of Appalachia, you come upon places with names like Pippa Passes and Virgie. Tucked into the folds of the hills there are homes you could blow over with a sneeze. Many have a satellite dish. Without it, the occupants couldn't watch the Big Blue play basketball.
Calipari tells this story:
Two weeks after last season, which ended with a loss in the Elite Eight, the coach is sitting in a coffee shop. "Guy taps me on the shoulder,'' Calipari says.
"Tough year, coach,'' he says.
Calipari pauses. "Sir, can I tell you what is tough?
"New job, new staff, new team. Bring in lots of new players. You win the SEC. You win the SEC tournament. You go to an Elite Eight. If you don't start that game 0-for-20 from three, you probably win the national title.
"Then, you're sitting in a coffee shop two weeks after the season and a guy taps you on the shoulder and says, 'Tough year, coach.'''
In some ways, Lexington is the perfect stage for John Calipari, a guy capable of talking a monsoon into spending a week in Vegas. He wins, he wins quickly, he's accessible, he's friendly. Kentucky fans like being charmed. They feel the program belongs to them, therefore so does their coach.
Calipari likes the attention. He knows the heat that comes with it. He likes that, too.
As a rookie in Rupp last year, Calipari brought in four of the best freshmen in the country and didn't reach the Final Four. He had an unprecedented five players drafted in the first round, including one he played but 16 minutes a game. He might be right about the Wildcats winning it all, if they could have shot straight in the Elite Eight. We'll never know. What's known is, even the smoothest operators don't last in Lexington if they don't bring home a title.
That said, Calipari has a freshman group this year that's nearly as pedigreed as the John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton bonanza he brought in last fall. If you believe the ratings, guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones all are among the 21 best freshmen in the country, according to Rivals.com. Knight is rated sixth overall.
"They're not as physically imposing,'' Calipari says. "John, DeMarcus and Eric could physically overwhelm you. Doron, Brandon and Terrence have to outplay you.''
Then, of course, there is Enes Kanter, the 6-10, 260-pound center from Turkey, currently on the sideline while the NCAA investigates his eligibility. Those who want him not to play college basketball -- people from his club team in Turkey, mostly -- say he was as a paid pro. Those on the other side say Kanter got money for his expenses only, which is allowed under NCAA rules.
Calipari says he expects a ruling in the next two weeks, but he's coaching as if Kanter will not be eligible. As for Kanter's actual playing ability -- he was a little-used backup in Turkey -- Calipari says, "Other coaches will tell you he's King Kong and (Hakeem) Olajuwon and you can't let him play. If you're talking to me, he's a good player who has a chance to be special, with a lot of work.''
Regardless, even if Kanter can play, Kentucky will be in a situation similar to last year, one with which Calipari is familiar: A very young, very talented team. His teams are at the center of an interesting debate in college basketball.
Is it better to have good players who stay three or four years? Or great players who leave after one? How many schools win it all with one-and-done players? The Carmelo Anthony Syracuse team is the only one that comes to mind.
This is Calipari's challenge. He's very good at getting high school stars to commit for one season. Is he good enough to make it translate into a big, blue banner?
"We're going to have young players all the time,'' Calipari says. "That's the challenge. How many young teams have won a national championship?''
When Patrick Patterson told Calipari he wanted to return for a senior year, Calipari made Patterson tell him why. When Patterson said he wanted to graduate, improve his game and play in the NCAA tournament for the first time, Calipari blessed the decision.
Calipari says that at this stage of his career, he doesn't coach for himself but for his players. "I'm at a point now where I don't worry about me,'' he says. "Last year, we got to the Elite Eight and had five players picked in the first round. Great year. People get mad at me for saying that.
"Five families reach their dreams. Five new millionaires created. If you told me we'd win a national title and no one gets drafted, I'm probably disappointed. I'd be happy we won. I'd be happy for the school. We get to put up another banner. How did it benefit the players?''
At the breakfast in the hotel ballroom, it isn't the players on everyone's mind. It's the potential for a banner. At Rupp Arena, there is no second place. "I'm at a retirement home in Winchester,'' Calipari is saying.
"A woman says to me, 'Do you work on free-throw shooting?' ''
"Do you understand that free throws are the difference between winning and losing?''
"How old are you?'' Calipari asks the lady.
"I'm 96,'' she says.
"As I walked away I heard her say to her friend, 'I told you I was going to say that to him.'''
Tough crowd, Kentucky fans.
Calipari knows how to win them over, though. For the time being.