NEW ORLEANS -- The second net was hanging by just a few final strands, but the ceremonial cutting was briefly put on hold as the familiar chords of "One Shining Moment" started to spill from the Superdome's speakers. John Calipari, his first national championship firmly in his possession, stood off to the side of the lane, looking up at one of the giant video screens on the stadium's back wall, taking in every glimpse of the special moments that briefly made the Lehighs and Norfolk States the story of this tournament.
Suddenly, his own budding superstar, Anthony Davis, was briefly staring back at him from the screen before a new moment quickly erased him from view. It was a perfect encapsulation of both the moment and the underlying message of this Kentucky program: Players are above the coach, and they're gone in a flash. Yes, Calipari's going recruiting on Friday.
That brings us to the principal takeaway from Kentucky's hard-fought victory over Kansas. While these Wildcats were an enviable mix of likeable, hardnosed and self-sacrificing, they also were incredibly talented. The program may be "players first," as Calipari relentlessly says, but you have to get the players.
This national title was inevitable, but not just because of the three high-seeded rolls of the tournament dice that Calipari's had in Lexington. This has been coming for almost two decades, ever since Marcus Camby landed in Amherst, Mass., and transformed a scrappy overachieving program into a Final Four team. As long as he's had a chance -- either when prep-to-pros was not in vogue or was outright prohibited by the NBA -- John Calipari has gotten players. John Calipari
That mentality, that single-minded focus, helps explain the jarring lack of levity Calipari showed in the postgame interviews. He was tired. He was a little exasperated. He said he was happy for his players and for the Commonwealth that was already abuzz in celebration, but for him, he was just glad this was over. Now he can stop answering questions about when he'll win a title and he can focus on what he wants to do: coach basketball, help select players secure lifetime security, teach all of them how to succeed in life outside of basketball. Then go do the whole thing over again, more production run than Broadway production.
Camby was Calipari's original product, but the minting of one-and-done players started with Dajuan Wagner at Memphis in 2002. Calipari more or less pushed Wagner into the draft, where he was picked sixth overall and locked up his millions. Then came Shawne Williams in 2006, who begat Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, and then the whole 2010 class after Calipari moved to Kentucky. All the while, he edged closer and closer to this championship the quicker he shoved his stars out the door.
Calipari often refers to that 2010 draft, one in which five Wildcats (including four freshmen) were selected in the first round, as one of the biggest moments in Kentucky's basketball history. Because he knew what it meant. The buzz from that moment made other prep stars want the same experience, and the mass departures opened up a ton of minutes. Now Calipari could get players every year. The spiral toward this moment tonight tightened, the pace of the revolutions quickened. It was coming. Eventually, it had to arrive.
And maybe that, too, explains Calipari's detachment. He knew this would happen. He's too good a coach and has refined a recruiting pitch and a way to handle elite talent such that he will have a chance at this every single season. And because of the way things are, he has to only look forward, to the next player, the next class, the next group he has to mold from scratch.
As he sat on a golf cart outside the main interview area following his mandatory group Q&A, Calipari was asked, since he's a players-first coach, whether he had thought of any of his former teams this weekend or in the moments after tonight's final horn. In a brief moment of introspection, he said he wished that at least one of the 2008 Memphis players could have been here tonight, but that he wanted them to enjoy this success, as did about 20 other Memphis and 10 or so UMass people who sat in the Kentucky section. Then with that, he was off, rolling down the hallway toward the locker room, toward the last moments he would be a coach for much of this particular group of Wildcats, the group that had fulfilled his -- and their --- destiny.
What Calipari said to his players in that locker room will remain part of their personal history, a footnote inside the greater chapter written tonight. It may be a good-bye, but it won't be a so-long. La Familia, as Calipari likes to call the extended Wildcat Family, will continue to grow, and in the days ahead, these players can return to campus, see the banner in Rupp's rafters and the team photo in the Craft Center.
Because of all of this, John Calipari was probably telling the truth when he was asked in so many ways and forms what he was feeling and whether he could self-indulge in this titular validation. He left with the pitch-perfect message for his detractors, his fans, his current team and his next wave of stars.
"I wasn't emotional," he said of the victory. "This is about them. It's not about me."
But it is, John. It is.