ARLINGTON, Texas -- The one-and-done model works well for Kentucky. John Calipari, coaching a new cast of Kiddie Cats, is going after his second NCAA national championship in three years.
But the model isn’t working for college basketball. When Kentucky’s five freshmen starters take the floor against Connecticut on Monday night, it’s unlikely they will ever play together in the same uniforms again. They’ve been in school for seven months. It’s unlikely they’ll all return for another semester as student-athletes.
No question Kentucky presents a great spectacle. The collection of talent on one roster is audaciously awesome. It’s like a five-face Mount Rushmore. It’s like having five high-performance sports cars in one driveway.
But we won’t get to watch them grow up. After their hothouse season under Calipari, the road ends here, abruptly, for this group of teenagers, who came together for one purpose: To win a title while awaiting their turn in the NBA Draft.
So while we feel privileged to watch the all-stars in blue and white, we also feel cheated. Just as fans have memorized their jersey numbers, learned to spell their names and heard their stories, they are gone. Did you know twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison always chose to share a bedroom even though they could have had their own? That Julius Randle’s mother played at Texas-Arlington, and he wears her number?
The one-and-done system is like a mini-series that ends after one season. It’s the CliffsNotes version of War and Peace.
College sports is sliding down a slippery slope. Unions, paychecks and unlimited endorsement deals are on the horizon. Do we really want to surrender to professionalization? Or can the NCAA and college presidents make the radical choices necessary for reclamation?
College basketball has lost its narrative thread, and thus much of its appeal. We accept the mercenary nature of pro sports; every athlete is looking to maximize his value as a commodity with a short shelf life, and free agency is a hard-won, undeniable right.
But college basketball should be about school, not business. Its charm lies in the concept of student-athlete, which should not be an oxymoron. Remember how much fun it was to watch the Duke team of Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill develop, improve, bond? Remember how we used to make long-term investments in UCLA, Indiana, Georgetown?
Today, it is tough to follow the names spilling out the revolving door at big-time programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis — so long and good luck!
No one can begrudge these kids their opportunity to make a lot of money at the highest level of their specialty.
“If you get a chance to go live your dream, that’s what you do,” Aaron Harrison said. “Simple as that.”
No one can fault Calipari for masterfully using the system to his advantage. No one can blame him for not turning down the $5.2 million he’s paid, which is more than Florida’s Billy Donovan ($3.7 million) and Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie ($1.3 million) make combined.
“My whole thing is, I’m coaching the hand I’m dealt,” he said. “I’m not trying to make this about me or the program or staying or leaving. This is what we have — a bunch of young kids. I’m proud of them. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not this genius.”
Pages 118 and 119 in the Kentucky media guide list Wildcats in the NBA (21 active as of the end of last season). In the past four NBA Drafts, 13 Wildcats have been picked in the first round, including five in 2010 and four in 2012. Calipari, who has sent 29 players to the NBA, must hand out copies of those pages during recruiting visits. He’s had an unparalleled run of success with his pipeline to the pros.
Come to Lexington, leave a millionaire.
He would be just as successful if he worked on Wall Street, selling his formula to a different set of people looking to get rich. The kids he recruits, and their parents and mentors, understand the pitch.
“He was straight up,” Randle said when asked what appealed to him about Calipari. “He was real with me about how things were going to be. The style, the swagger, the way he runs his program — I liked that.”
The problem is the structure of college basketball. Players must attend one year of school before entering the NBA, a restriction LeBron James and Dwight Howard didn’t have. That leaves no choice for the high school senior who isn’t really interested in attending college. Men’s basketball has been plagued by the lowest graduation rates, worst academic progress rates and highest transfer rates of all sports. The kids who don’t want to be on campus are living a charade.
It’s incumbent on the NBA and the NBA Players Association — and the NFL, too — to stop encouraging this mockery of higher education by doing what Major League Baseball does, and create a farm system. Scholarships should go to students who want to be students first.
“I really think the NFL and NBA have been irresponsible in not providing other legitimate opportunities for kids that really don’t want to go to college,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Sunday. “There ought to be some other feeder system than the one that kids get forced into as a result of the profile of our programs.”
NCAA president Mark Emmert and California-Irvine chancellor Michael Drake echoed those sentiments.
“We have a four-year degree because we believe it takes that much time to mature and to get those life skills to go out and have the 60 years that follow college,” Drake said.
Randle was asked about his favorite college experience outside of basketball. He said it was going to football games. What did you expect him to say — taking Econ 101 exams? At least he was honest.
As for the one-and-done label, he had his own creative interpretation, which may come true Monday.
“You mean won and done?” he said. “Like we won, and now we’re done?”