Kentucky Basketball — Agony or Ecstasy

Agony or Ecstasy—By John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — I’m staring at Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari up on the podium. He looks weathered, fatigued, and burdened, as if he’s aged a hundred years in the past six months. He jokingly calls them “dog years,” as if the time at the Kentucky helm has been somehow magnified by the overwhelming mantle of suffocating responsibility. With apologies to Sylvester Stallone, Calipari’s bruised spirit, bloodshot eyes, and furrowed brow reminds me of a bloated version of a fading Rocky Balboa. I’m transfixed by his image. I can’t stop staring at him, unable to fully grasp either the reality or the significance of what I’m seeing.

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How on earth could anyone have aged so quickly? I mean, his transformation has progressed more rapidly than any other college coach, company CEO, or U.S. President in my lifetime. Just glance at a video of the youthful Cal when he accepted the Kentucky job back in 2009 and you’ll instantly see what I mean?

To be honest, I’m worried about the guy, so I asked him flat out, “Are you OK?” Calipari answered with a grin. “Kicking dogs, throwing cats. No, I’m dying here,” he said animatedly. “I got a noose around my neck, I’m holding onto a rope, my hands are bleeding, I’m kicking alligators and I’m COACHING FRESHMAN.”

Anyone having to deal with the inexperience and immaturity of first-year players can begin to understand Calipari’s frustration. Just look at the results of Kentucky’s first few games of this season and you’ll see why Coach is pulling a Rip Van Winkle nightmare right before our very eyes. The Cats fell behind by twelve points in their season opener against an overmatched Utah Valley State team before rallying from behind to win. They then nearly blew another close one at home before squeaking by a veteran Vermont squad. This past Tuesday, they played hard but lost by four in their first marquee game of the season against a talented Kansas team. All the while, Cal has been poking, prodding, and pleading with his players to scrap, fight, and claw their way out of lazy high school tendencies and bad AAU habits.

Despite their coach’s rants and travails, the freshmen players under Calipari’s tutelage seem to be in relative ecstasy. “I made the perfect choice for myself coming to Kentucky,” said point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” Forward PJ Washington echoed those sentiments, proclaiming that on a scale of 1 to 10, his experience thus far has been an eleven.

“Now let me say this,” Calipari responded. “I’m happy if they’re having a ball because I’m killing them…but I’m in agony.”

We really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this one-and-done pathway is the one Cal intentionally chose to go down. Steep learning curves are par for the course when you turn over a brand-new team every single year. For a cool seven-million-dollar yearly salary, though, Calipari ought to be up for the challenge. He proclaims this to be his dream job—to make generational changes in the lives of his players while winning national championships for the university along the way. So, even though he claims to be in agony, he’s got to be enjoying it somewhat, right?

“Oh, I’m having a ball,” he recently told me. “Yeah, I love it. I love getting root canals. It’s great, you go in and jab me. Go ahead, do it.”

I’m not sure whether that was a sarcastic retort directed specifically at me or a veiled barb against my former profession. Either way, I feel his pain. Pressure continues to build as the weight and expectations of a hungry BBN come to rest squarely on his shoulders. “I gotta keep pushing them,” Cal said at the Champions Classic. “I’ve been very hard on these guys in practice, probably harder on this group than any team I’ve coached in my—how many years have I been at Kentucky? (Nine) So, it’s dog years. I’ve been there 63. This is year 63.”

As I continue to gaze fixatedly on his grizzled countenance, I’m convinced he’s absolutely right. It’s year 63. “Cut me Mick!” It’s time for another championship run!

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.