Last week was like a hurricane in
Duckburg college basketball, all touched off by two mostly innocuous things: Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski publishing a column suggesting that the NBA bar its players out of international competition, and talented guard Antonio Blakeney decommitting from Louisville. And the way those stories have played out proves how silly some of the overreaction to them was in the first place.
But they also revealed two truths about college hoops.
1. Recruiting is all about beating everyone to the spot.
Wojnarowski's column is really only ostensibly about the idea that the NBA needs to keep its players out of international competition, based on an argument Tom Ziller capably dismantled as pro-owner hogwash that ignores what players want. Really, as most noted, it was about someone(s) sniping at Mike Krzyzewski for making Duke basketball integral to USA Basketball:
As much as ever, USA Basketball has been co-opted into a Krzyzewski leverage play for the Duke Blue Devils. If that doesn't rile Kentucky's John Calipari, wait until the Duke coach is credited for DeMarcus Cousins' maturity with the Sacramento Kings this season.
The end's coming for USA Basketball's grip on the game in the States, but once change goes into effect come the 2018 World Cup, it won't matter much to Krzyzewski anymore. He still has two full summers of USA Basketball access left to him, and that'll make it a full decade of control. As one Duke alumnus would tell you: There is a USA Basketball storefront selling patriotism and duty with a backroom reality that peddles the Blue Devils and Nike swooshes.
When Team USA goes to the U.S. Military Academy to practice on its pre-tournament tour, guess what the stories are: Krzyzewski returns to his West Point roots. There's Coach K with the cadets. There's Coach K in the mess hall. There's Coach K teaching those rich NBA players about sacrifice and selflessness. People call Calipari the greatest self-promoting coach of his time, but Krzyzewski doesn't get nearly the credit due him. USA Basketball is a machine with its tentacles deep into every level of basketball, and Krzyzewski taps into every element.
That sort of reads like something the world's most eloquent Kentucky message board insider would relay from a chance meeting with World Wide Wes, but it's the world's most influential basketball reporter hammering one of the world's most powerful basketball coaches. And, to be clear, Woj has a point: Krzyzewski, the true mainstay of the United States' last two Olympic teams, has been able to burnish his résumé and bask in reflected glory that would probably be there for any of 20-plus excellent coaches who could lead top-line U.S. talent to gold.
But that's not new for Coach K, the guy who has consistently led the arms race that is the Great Coach, Great Man Contest — did you remember that his infamous first American Express commercial ran during a recruiting quiet period? — and whose cult of personality outstrips almost every other college coach's. When the Lakers needed a new coach after Phil Jackson, Coach K's name was one of the first mentioned, and he ended up turning down the job ... and, 10 years later, with the Lakers in need of a new coach, Krzyzewski buddy Jim Boeheim was made to answer questions about his interest, despite Krzyzewski saying in 2011 that he was too old to leave Duke.
What's new is landing recruits with USA Basketball ties, as Duke did in USA U19 studs Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. Woj hints that K making a trip to the U19 team's training camp in 2013 — as USA Basketball's senior national coach, he's the equivalent of Juergen Klinsmann, and thus has the privilege-slash-duty of "scouting" younger players — was helpful in landing both top-15 2014 recruits (and, given how closely tied Okafor and top-five point guard Tyus Jones were, that arguably got Duke three blue-chippers) and writes that "the basketball community" thinks Duke "never would've landed" Jabari Parker without having USA Basketball ties.
That's the sort of thing that pisses off other coaches, and there's no doubt that John Calipari, really the only guy recruiting better than Krzyzewski of late, is one of the peeved, especially considering that there's been a bubbling rivalry between the two coaches for years. It's safe to guess that U19 head coach Billy Donovan and assistants Tony Bennett and Shaka Smart — all listed by name in Woj's story — aren't particularly happy with that, either.
Donovan, thought by some to be next in line for the top job at USA Basketball — one that Krzyzewski decided in 2013 to keep through 2016 after saying in 2012 that he would leave it after the Olympics — has yet to land a single player from his USA Basketball stint, which includes coaching the U18 team in 2012 and 2014 and the U19 in 2013. The lone perk he's been able to apply to his day job, other than the experience of coaching? Putting Florida guard Michael Frazier on the U19 team in 2013 — arguably, a bit of nepotism, though Frazier probably deserved that role a bit more than Mason Plumlee deserved his spot on the senior national team this summer.
But this is how recruiting works in college basketball: You beat everyone else for a prospect because you beat everyone else to a prospect. If USA Basketball (and/or Nike ties) mattered to Jabari Parker, Duke was well-positioned.
The same seems to be true for Blakeney.
Blakeney committed to Louisville in early September, then decommitted a little over a week ago, and is reportedly no longer considering the Cardinals. But, as some have noted, his list now consists of four Nike schools — Kentucky, LSU, Missouri and Oregon — and it sure sounds like his Nike-affiliated "camp," or the AAU coaches and family members and hangers-on who actually get to make money off of their affiliation with Nike-run high school basketball camps (unlike Blakeney himself) were the whispers in his ear that drove him to decommit.
Louisville wears adidas.
Shoe companies' influence isn't always this obvious, of course, and Adam Himmelsbach notes that Andrew Wiggins, seen as a Nike lean prior to his surprising decision to attend adidas-clad Kansas (which has been followed by an endorsement deal with adidas), is a prominent exception to the idea that a program stocking a player's preferred (or "player's" "preferred," perhaps) shoe is the key to securing his services. But Sole Influence was published in 2000, and Sonny Vaccaro has been working for athletic companies since the 1980s, and you would be a fool indeed to think that there's no influence.
In the cases of Okafor and Winslow, it's hard to figure exactly why they picked Duke, but the hinting is heavy that Coach K's positioning as a Nike/USA Basketball power broker was hugely helpful. In Blakeney's case, Nike ties will probably guide his choices, and already seem to have made him a pariah of sorts for making a commitment out of haste. In the case of Karl Towns Jr., Calipari's prize 2014 recruit, Calipari's stint as the Dominican national team's coach, and his surprising inclusion of a 16-year-old Towns on that team in its failed Olympic qualifying effort in 2012, closeness to Cal probably helped him pick Kentucky.
Every coach is trying to insinuate himself with the right people next to the stud basketball players, to forge the connections that will pay off with commitments. Some coaches do that better than others, whether within or slightly beyond the rules of the game. And other coaches are left to complain.
That link to the Coach K-Coach Cal rivalry I gave you earlier details a dispute over charging and flopping from a 2012 game between Duke and Kentucky. The metaphor couldn't be more apt here.
2. It's all about the coaches, dummy.
Ziller's piece on Woj's column last Monday already covered much of this from the NBA side, noting that players need a voice in the dispute, something that Woj seems to ignore. But if NBA players seem oddly muted in this discussion, NCAA players might as well not even have mouths.
Most top-100 high school prospects dream of playing professional basketball. Only a minority of those players will actually make it to the NBA, much less to the upper echelon of the NBA, but some of those players will inevitably go on to make eight or nine figures playing basketball, and wield substantial power over their own careers.
And yet, by writing this post, I may be doing more to create their narrative than they do.
Woj mentions DeMarcus Cousins in passing in his piece, noting that Cousins' summer spent with Krzyzewski is probably going to be credited for his maturity, and noting that Calipari is sure to be miffed that his rival gets credit for that.
Cousins is four years removed from college basketball, about to enter his fifth NBA season. He's 24. And yet his agency in his own maturity is virtually nil — the "credit" for it must apparently be divvied up between a guy who hasn't seen him on a daily basis in quite some time, and a guy who coached him for a summer, neither of whom has served as coach of his professional team.
This is, to be kind, bullshit. The "immature" label has been affixed to Cousins since his first year in the league, because it's a more satisfying way of explaining how a really talented basketball player comes to occasionally do stupid things than "young men occasionally do stupid things," and because it creates a satisfying arc: The prodigal son shall return someday, and chastened, whether by the excesses of the world or the beneficence of Duke's coach. Cousins can't just grow up and realize he's been dumb: External forces must play a role.
This is the bright shining lie of "amateur" athletics, the idea that young basketball players must have the guidance of Great Men and Great Coaches to grow up and get better. It keeps players unpaid or underpaid — your mileage may vary — and swells coaches' salaries, and it feeds patronizing (and often racist) bullshit about how those unpaid players need or have to or are privileged to grow up under noble patriarchs. If you think that's overblown, talk to your parents or grandparents about college basketball sometime, or read one of the dozens of books written about these college coaches. I only buy books infrequently, and mostly from a library charity sale that allows me to drop literally a dime per tome, but I'm confident I've got a dozen books about college basketball coaches — and I own two written about Florida coaches who aren't Billy Donovan.
But people eat this up and regurgitate it without a second thought. Calipari parlayed doing the same things he's done his entire coaching career with bigger constellations of talent into a best-selling coaching book that he spent the time immediately after this year's Final Four promoting; one wonders how it might have been received in 2013, after Kentucky lost in the first round of the NIT. (It's one of four books available at CoachCal.com.) Woj credits Coach K for being "on a tremendous run" without mentioning that Duke lost to Mercer in Greensboro in its first game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and has more losses in the first round (two) than Sweet 16 wins (one) since the Blue Devils' national title in 2010.
The idea that talented basketball players are talented basketball players by their own dint is lost in the din of praise for these deans of coaching. And flaps about who deserves credit for what, or who landed which recruit, or which newspaper apologized to which coach for an illustration, come to be the stories of any given college basketball season, not what the players do on the court — players would have to be more accessible and visible for that to change, and coaches have been and will be "protecting" their players by shielding them from the media more and more of late.
But we do get important updates from coaches like this one:
So yay for that, I guess.