Players First by John Calipari

Kentucky coach John Calipari is a brave man, or a fool, to write about seasons past. Considering his track record, it’s definitely not the latter. His indomitable faith in putting players first despite recurring recriminations from the NCAA indicates it’s the former. Known as the one-and-done dude, he’s not a darling of the collegiate establishment because his philosophy is often misconstrued as cutting the middle man out of billions. The authorities have been going at him retroactively ever since he put Memphis on the map. They’ve held him responsible for dubiously petty misdemeanors he couldn’t have reasonably been aware of, like the kickbacks Marcus Camby received when he was down and out in Amherst. For the legions of jealous ones who still envy, Calipari can’t die soon enough. When he goes, his funeral will undoubtedly be transformed into a standing-room only affair by haters wanting to make sure he stays gone. Calipari’s been around the block a few times, however, and knows what’s really real; it’s doubtful he’ll go gentle into that good night any time soon.

His philosophy, finely articulated with the assistance of Michael Sokolove in his latest book, Players First, is easy on the surface but hardcore between the lines. Calipari, by his own hand-on-the-bible admission is crazy; crazier than Jerry Tarkanian was radical.,because his approach to the game flies in the face of an inequitably shabby institution that’s unsustainable in the long run. Like many coaches, he believes his job is making his players better than they think they were the year before thereby preparing them for competition on a higher level. He mentors kids not only in becoming better teammates but guides and counsels them on their path to evolution as “servant leaders.” He describes the process through anecdotes of developmental experiences with Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and so many others. There’s a reason why his progeny are consistently high lottery picks, and it’s all there laid bare in his book. The chapters about recruiting will be a revelation for any ankle-biter who has aspirations of breaking ankles with Cal because he specifically lays out what he’s looking for in a prospect. The greatest impact on his success of late has been to recruit players in groups, much like Steve Fisher did in Ann Arbor with the Fab Five.

Young heads be forewarned, though. You best protect your neck if you get with Calipari because you’re gonna find out he means everything he says about putting your feet to the fire of a crash course in “failing fast” to stay ahead of the curve. Fortunately Coach Cal isn’t going back to Cali or anywhere else. He opted to stay put on the collegiate level, where he’ll have the greatest impact on the youth before they take their first baby steps in the NBA.