“There is no I in team.” Most everyone who played team sports either as a youth, in high school, college, or at the professional level, heard this mantra repeated ad nauseam, and for good reason. It means an athlete is not playing just for him or herself, the athlete is playing not for individual accolades and glory, rather, the athlete should be playing for the glorification of the team. Somewhere along the way, though, (maybe about the time ESPN and similar entities became a ubiquitous presence in our lives) many professional and collegiate athletes became more concerned with getting their mug on television for the world to see, and less concerned about winning. When winning is really what it’s all about.
Many college basketball coaches, especially Kentucky’s John Calipari — who recruits like his life, not his livelihood, depends on it — are faced with a very difficult task. For when a coach successfully recruits top tier talent almost exclusively, there is always the chance some of the players are going to be unhappy with their role on the team. It isn’t a reach to expect some of the players will be more concerned with headlines instead of victories. After all, when one is a McDonald’s All-American there is a high likelihood he was the sole focus of his high school team’s offense, and he’s been told over and over again how great he is, how the world just might stop turning if he doesn’t get his 30-points. In many instances the star been coddled, cajoled, and pampered into believing basketball didn’t exist prior to his arrival on the hard-court. By the time the player reaches his senior year in high school, his life has become an exercise in ego stroking run amok.
Then he arrives on his college campus with five, six, or seven other round ball prodigies, and his fight or flight mechanism kicks into overdrive, rendering him ready to demonstrate to the universe why he’s the best of the bunch, which is the exact opposite of what his coach wants him to do. This is when Calipari sings for his supper, and since his arrival at UK, he’s sounded like Andrea Bocelli.
Once again, though, the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season presents one of the toughest challenges a coach can face: Molding a roster full of individual basketball studs into a TEAM capable of playing for a championship — Coaching the selfish out of the player, and coaching the “I” out of the team.
In reality, Calipari, long before his players arrive in Lexington, has already laid the foundation for his ultimate goal, which is team building. By selecting among the elite high school talent those most interested in winning above all else — simply put, those who hate to lose, which is something that can’t be coached into a player — he has made the job of gelling his squad a bit easier. But as the competition of practice begins, and the players are asked to perform at a high level, learn a new system, and adjust to playing with a plethora of other great players, the impulse to become selfish once again rears its team-killing head.
Like Zig Ziglar selling an Eskimo a screen door, John Calipari has to then convincingly persuade each and every player on his team that sometimes sacrifices must be made to win. Meaning fewer shots for the high school superstar, fewer minutes for the player accustomed to playing the full 32, and less ink for the guy who had his name splashed across his hometown paper for four years.
Calipari has to convince his charges that winning promotes everybody involved in the victory. Furthermore, Calipari has to convince his players to put their faith in this Ziglar truism — “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” To prove Ziglar isn’t just blowing smoke, Cal can enthusiastically point to DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Josh Harrellson, Daniel Orton, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans among others, as examples of what winning as a team can do for one’s basketball future.
How will this current crop of ‘Cats respond to Cal’s coaching? If the past is an accurate indicator of the future, the thoroughbreds will take a couple of months to hit their stride, but end the race with the wind in their hair while kicking up a Dust Bowl dirt storm to blind the competition.