NEW ORLEANS –– John Calipari could take his first national championship ring and head back to the NBA, perhaps to the Knicks, and nobody would blame him.
He’s accomplished the ultimate goal in college basketball and now that 800-pound gorilla is off his back for good.
“I can get on with it and I don’t have to hear the drama,” Calipari said after his loaded Kentucky team beat back Kansas, 67-59, to win his first title at the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome. “I can just coach now. I don’t have to worry. If you want to hear the truth, it’s almost like, done, let me move on.”
Yes, Calipari is moving on, but he doesn’t sound like a man who’s in a hurry to move on back to the NBA, where he failed during a three-year stint with the Nets in the ’90s.
Instead, he sounds like a man who loves his life as the newly-crowned King of Kentucky and is anxious to get back recruiting potential one-and-done players.
“I enjoyed my time there [in the NBA],” he said the day before the final. “But I’m having a ball. I’ve got a great job. If there’s a better job in basketball. I don’t know what it is. This is a great job that I have right now.”
Calipari, 53, reportedly makes close to $4 million not including bonuses. He will pick up an additional $350,000 for winning the national title. He has won more than 500 games and could pump out 30+ wins for another decade or so at Kentucky.
“Cal’s an emotional guy, and I knew that he must’ve been feeling gratified, satisfied that these kids sacrificed for all of us and bought into what we wanted,” assistant Orlando Antigua of The Bronx said. “We got unbelievable kids, incredibly talented players that gave up for each other so they can try to achieve a common goal and they could accomplish that goal.”
Asked about the one-and-done rule that he has used to his advantage so well, Calipari cracked: “I hope they change it before this week’s out so these guys all have to come back.”
Then he did an about face on the joke and said with a straight face he’d like to see all his key players go in the first round.
“What I’m hoping is there’s six first-rounders on this team,” he said. “We were the first program to have five, let’s have six. That’s why I’ve got to go recruiting on Friday.”
After Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and his current crop head to the NBA, Calipari will look to reload with Nerlens Noel, Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett to join the class he currently has coming in.
Noel, the 6-10 shot-blocker who would slide into Davis’s spot, seems destined for Kentucky despite what Syracuse and Georgetown fans may hope, sources close to the recruitment tell SNY.tv.
“I took a lot, a lot of pictures [with Kentucky fans] this week,” Noel told the Louisville Courier-Journal while in New Orleans for the All-American Championship game. “They are just wild fans. They are really into their basketball and that’s a great thing.”
The 6-6 Muhammad, the top wing player in the class, has long been linked to UCLA in part because his parents are from Los Angeles and because of the adidas connection between the school and his family.
But there’s no telling what watching Calipari and company cut down the nets might to do Muhammad’s thinking in the days leading up to April 11 when he, Noel and Tony Parker are slated to announce.
Same goes for the 6-7 Bennett, who is mulling five schools including Kentucky and who helped Findlay Prep win the ESPN National High School Invitational on Saturday with a dramatic come-from-behind win over Kevin Boyle’s Montverde (Fla.) team.
“Right now I’m going to have two day sand then I’ve got to go out recruiting Friday,” Calipari said. “So you tell me to look back. I’m just looking forward. Let’s keep on marching.”
The bet here is he keeps on marching at Kentucky, not the NBA.
And why not? The model ain’t broken, so why fix it?
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.