Verily in the beginning collegiate sports were contradictory. In the first college football game ever contested on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton the former earned victory with the aid of three players who were failing algebra, instantaneously rendering the relationship between students and athletics as volatile, a volatility that has never been quelled, with big time college sports always held up more as commercialized entertainment than an extension of a university’s academic intent, a rift that has only deepened over time, with enormous football and basketball stadiums towering over quaint academic halls and the recent NCAA Basketball Champion earning its crown while still mired in an academic imbroglio. We like to fashion sports into black/white narratives but more often they exist in murky moral middle grounds, and no one at present walks that middle ground with as much I-Don’t-Care-What-You-Think zeal as college basketball raconteur John Calipari, current head coach of Kentucky, former head coach of Massachusetts and Memphis.
Jonathan Hock’s documentary “One and Not Done”, the latest in ESPN’s never-ending 30 for 30 series, ably captures that middle ground, opening by establishing Calipari as the son of immigrants, tying the coach’s go-getter nature to his parents, and evoking its subject’s inherent contradiction in an early line in which Calipari says his family was “never embarrassed about where we came from because it was all about where you were going”, the latter seeming to be in direct opposition to the former. Hock just lets that lie there, but you sense in this line a mantra for Calipari as a coach, particularly as his star has risen and, on account of an NBA rule stipulating that prospective players can only declare for the league’s draft after one year in college or upon turning 19, he has turned his program into an NBA way station, bringing in many of the country’s top basketball recruits for a single season to win big and then send them to the pros to get paid. It’s all about where his kids are going.
That willingness to gleefully embrace a rule so frowned up on by so many of his peers sets Calipari apart even if, like any other coach, he yearns to win, a familiar sensation seen vividly during in-game moments where Hock has mic’d up Calipari to provide us a wonderful, unvarnished look at a coach’s sideline behavior, which I rather enjoyed because while many coaches like to play up their dignified air, these mic’d up scenes deliberately demonstrate no dignity whatsoever. He screams at referees and bellows at his own players, though in other moments we see the love he has for his players and the love they have for him, perhaps best epitomized in how Calipari brings a plethora of former players on stage with him for his Basketball Hall of Fame introduction ceremony.
If many coaches, like a certain faux General, often make it all about themselves, or while some, like Jim Calhoun, who is interviewed in “One and Not Done”, talk about the sanctity of “the game”, the Hall of Fame ceremony illustrates that Calipari, more than most, brings “the game” back to the reason it exists in the first place – the kids. The game is theirs. At the same time, Calipari is nothing if not a high-powered salesman, a fact repeated numerous times, often with variations of the old he could sell ice to eskimos line, and the documentary gives the distinct impression that Calipari is pitching us, the audience, trying to sell us on a more saintly vision of him.
Yet even if it skews sympathetic toward its subject, “One and Not Done” does not does not glide by the fact that both the Massachusetts and Memphis basketball programs were hit by NCAA sanctions retroactively under Calipari’s watch. Calipari, in fact does his best in the film, as he did in real life, to sort of deflect wrongdoing onto the kids, not so subtly calling into question his stance about it being all about the kids, also evoked in Calipari’s comments that his star-stacked Kentucky teams will only win championships when the kids decide they want to win championships badly enough, a pretty clever way of deflecting blame for his own losses. Even so, if any moment in Hock’s documentary most hit me, it was the revelation that Massachusetts star Marcus Camby, who accepted money and gifts from people outside the program, an NCAA no-no, which led to said sanctions, repaid Massachusetts what he took by donating money to the school. It left me thinking that even if Calipari is not necessarily the selfless mentor he might claim, he nonetheless seemed to have taught Camby right, a contradiction to the end.