CRAWFORD | How a four-game 'epic fail' let Calipari spark Kentucky
After a four-game losing streak, John Calipari said the prospect of failure scared his team into success, and he took steps to put them in position to win an SEC Tournament, and more.
BOISE, Idaho (WDRB) – “Fail” is a four-letter word. It is the lowest grade, “F.” Its prospect has inspired fear and fame. Nobody wants to fail. But just about everybody has experienced it.
Rare is the company like Facebook, which posts signs around its compound encouraging employees to “Fail Harder!” and “Move Fast and Break Things!” At Facebook, out of other failed ideas came the concept of tagging a person in a photo or the ability to post video.
On this date one month ago, John Calipari had a basketball team that was failing. His University of Kentucky Wildcats, a team of blue-chip prospects and can’t-miss recruits, had lost four games in a row. It had a losing record in the Southeastern Conference. Yes, it had lost to pretty good teams. But this is Kentucky. Four in a row is a four-alarm fire.
Not only were the Wildcats losing, they didn’t really show any signs of winning. They lacked toughness. Their body language was poor. With the home stretch of the season in front of them, they showed all the signs of a team in danger of letting go of the rope.
“Sometimes I get away with they’re big and they’re long and they’re athletic and they’re men,” Calipari said. “No, they’re not. They’re young men. They needed this experience. For them to grow, they needed to fail, this team.”
There were discussions. Big-picture, not necessarily basketball discussions. Everybody hates failure. Not everyone is equipped to handle it. In fact, kids today many times aren’t allowed to fail. Nobody loses. Everybody wins. “Epic fail” is more a meme to laugh at than a problem to deal with. Calipari had to get players to deal with it.
“How many of you go down that crap hole and you’re fighting to get out?” he said he asked his players. “You can’t make a shot, you can’t make a play, you stink. And every one of them raised their hand, at one point in the season they were down in that hole and they had to figure out how to come back out of it without being enabled.”
Calipari told them they had to stop making excuses, and listening to people who made excuses for them. He told his marching band story. A hundred-member band, and one person marching turns the wrong way. What does his parent say, or his guardian, or his advisor?
“Ninety nine turn left and your kid turns right and you say, ‘What’s wrong with those 99?’” he said. “. . . They just had to say, this is me, and I’ve got to get myself out of it. They needed to fail. And they also needed to fail as a team because we weren’t coming together. We weren’t playing it for each other. We had more turnovers than assists, because everybody was trying to play for themselves. They had to have the adversity.”
Calipari, it must be said, didn’t just let them lose four in a row. He circled around after talking about the necessity of failure to give players tools to, as a team, rise out of it. He met with everybody individually. He explained their role on the team.
Ask a Kentucky player today what his role is and he can recite it.
“Being an energetic guy,” Hamdiou Diallo said. “Coming out, guarding the best guy on the court. Taking it to the rim, when I get a shot, take it. I’m pretty much just a glue guy for this team, trying to be an ultimate lock-down defender and not try to have lapses. . . . Sometimes I feel like I can do more, but I’ve just go to do what the team needs me to do and play my role.”
Kevin Knox: “Play aggressive on both ends, be engaged on defense, be able to rebound, especially with Jarred (Vanderbilt) out, get some more rebounds every game, and on the offensive end, if the ball goes in the paint and is kicked out to you, hit the shot, and if it’s swung to you on the perimeter, be ready to drive. And that’s what he’s been on me all year to do a mixture of both.”
You can go on down the roster. Now, if it were as easy as just explaining it, everything would’ve fallen into place long ago. But again, you’re dealing with youth, and guys who have had nothing but success in their basketball careers, guys who came in with people whispering “NBA” to them from Day One. Those are not the easiest guys to get to listen.
Ask a veteran coach like Bob McKillop, whose Davidson team will face Kentucky on Thursday.
“John has molded them into a team,” McKillop said. “And that’s not easy. Everyone thinks it’s, ‘If I had those kind of players, I’d have a great team.’ It’s not easy. And that’s why he’s done such a marvelous job as a coach and that’s why he’s a Hall of Famer, because he’s taken young men and put them together as teams, even though they were the stars. Yes, he has a host of high school All-Americans, yet he still has to mold them into a team. So, hat’s off to him for accomplishing that, not just this year, but that’s been a tradition that John has had wherever he’s been.”
Since those four straight losses, Kentucky has won seven of eight. It won the SEC Tournament championship. The team that couldn’t shoot straight – get this – has made 60 of 133 three-point tries, 45.1 percent from three. They are defending. They are rebounding. After beating Missouri, Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin said, “We couldn’t match their toughness.”
Failure is fertilizer, a former Kentucky coach liked to say, and this team appears to be blossoming after staring it down.
“When we struggled, there was a look in their eye of fear,” Calipari said.
That fear of failing, and remembering that fear, made players more receptive to their roles.
“That’s definitely important, because you need to know what you need to do for the team,” Diallo said. “You may have other things that you can do, but what the team needs you to do is this, and that has to be your No. 1 priority.”
If Kentucky keeps its postseason roll going, you might well be able to credit their willingness to learn the lessons of some failure to plant the seeds of success.
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