by Ben Osborne/@bosborne17uk-opener

What a difference a decade and a half makes. I still remember attending the 1995 Atlantic 10 Tournament at the Palestra in Philly, cheering on my Colonials of George Washington and booing like hell whenever UMass and Coach John Calipari did anything of note. Cal was slick and successful; I was jealous.

The one-sided beef (obviously Cal didn’t care about some college sophomore cursing at him from the bleachers) abetted somewhat in in ’97-98, when one of my first major responsibilities as a SLAM employee was doing the bulk of the interviews and reporting for Tony G’s classic cover story on my then-beloved Nets for SLAM 25, who were coached by none other than that same John Calipari.

After his Net years (and the one year he worked as an assistant with the Sixers), and some early interactions surrounding DaJuan Wagner (a recruit I covered, knew, and had very high hopes for), I mostly just watched Cal’s years at Memphis from a distance, and with respect. He had brought a moribund program back to the heights of college basketball, and, most relevantly to someone who’s job now involved selling stars, began doing so with the best individual players in the country: Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, etc.

Since Cal got to Kentucky last spring, it’s this last trait that put him so squarely on SLAM’s radar. Yes, having the great Kentucky program amongst the elite is good for college basketball. Yes, Cal’s coaching is inspired. Yes, we’re impressed with any team that can go 29-2 and absolutely roll to a BCS conference championship. And yes, we’re amazed that a college coach can have 1.1-million plus followers on what he calls “The Twitter,” and help lead a Hoops for Haiti fundraiser that raised $1.3 million and generated a thank-you call from President Obama.ukwall

But for the purposes of good old SLAM Magazine, still in the business of printing magazines and needing strong covers to make sure they sell, Cal’s relevance all boils down to the players. And in Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and especially John Wall (inspiration for the catchy Official Do Da John Wall Video” and our early pick to follow Rose and Reke as NBA Rookie of the Year), man, does he have the players. These are current college stars, future successful pros, and the backbone of a young, electric team that we’ve found as enjoyable to watch as any college outfit in recent memory. Put it all together with an issue that drops the same day college basketball begins a four-week takeover of the basketball landscape (we love the NBA and we eat off the NBA, but come April 6, when “March Madness” will officially be over, there will still be eight days left of the regular season, let alone the full Playoffs) and you’ve got your SLAM 137 cover.

How does Cal get all these players? Well, his personality is dynamic, his success (third-highest winning percentage of active coaches with 10 or more years experience after Roy Williams and Mark Few) speaks for itself, and this run of successful pros has become a self-fulfilling prophesy: the more pros he churns out, the more the most talented high school kids want to play for him. I mean, look at this blog dedicated to UK recruiting: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com/. The Cats could lose all four of the aforementioned players on our cover to this year’s Draft and come back next year with an equally talented roster. It’s amazing.

I go into all of this in much greater detail in the issue, which marks the ever-rare cover story by yours truly. Every month, I write the captions, the editor’s letter, the table of contents, much of NOYZ, many of the headlines (though Lang is an ace on those, too), you know, most of the stuff with no byline. And ukcalipariit’s all good. I love doing that stuff, and we have a tremendous group of writers who frankly can do a better job than me on most stories. But I liked this idea. I like this team. I liked the interviews the guys gave me. I like the pictures Atiba took. And I like my story. I also like the host of other goodies the issue includes (high-flying All-Star pics, features on NBA PGs Steve Nash and Deron Williams, extensive college coverage that includes the cover and an Old-School piece on Loyola Marymount’s stirring Tourney run in 1990).

I think you’ll like it, too. So go buy it.

Final note for the passionate Kentucky fans who have been hungering for this ever since it was first Tweeted about by Cal after our photo shoot and again when he released the cover last Wednesday: The issue, which is out in New York, may not be reach subscribers or newsstands deeper in the country for another week or so. But it’s coming to anywhere that sells SLAM, I promise. And if you aren’t in the mood to go to any store to buy it, or if it sells out at the stores you do try, be sure to visit our back issues department. They will have this issue soon and be able to send it right to your house.

As for those fans who may be making their first visit to SLAMonline and wondering what all the fuss is about, I’ll end with something Coach Cal told me he shared on his radio show a few weeks back: “I said to our fans after we did the cover shoot, some of you people may not know about SLAM, but everybody we recruit knows about SLAM.”

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