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Super Kittens to Crashcourse ’Cats

Wildcat great Kevin Grevey on the one-and-done debate by JL Weill

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ne-and-dones. They’re killing college basketball. Or they’re grown men making their own choices about their lives. It’s the NCAA’s fault. Or it’s the coaches’ fault. Forget facts. We’ve reached the point where all that’s left is an endless and often rancorous debate. Like any debate injected with hot-button class, race, and economic issues—on cable news, on Internet message boards between anonymous heroes— nuance is swiftly obliterated by hyper-animated partisans flush with a seemingly bottomless supply of ignorance and vitriol. Perhaps most unfortunate is that in all the noise, despite the passionate feelings on all sides, barring unforeseen changes, none of it is changing anytime soon. So the screaming match continues. No stranger to controversy, at the forefront of the one-and-done debate sits Wildcats head coach John Calipari, whose program turned the college basketball world on its ear in June when a record five members of the same team, four of them freshmen, were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, including top overall pick John Wall by the Washington Wizards. It was an unprecedented achievement, and one that brought peals of delight and disgust. Calipari, perhaps wearing his showman’s glittery garb a bit too comfortably, termed it, “The biggest day in the history of Kentucky’s program.” More than a few former players quibbled with that statement, including the school’s all-time leading scorer, Dan Issel, who told the Lexington HeraldLeader, “If these prospective players see coming to Kentucky as a step to the NBA, then that’s great. But the goal is to win a national championship, and the Kentucky program is such that that should be the goal every year.” Maybe. But for elite high school prospects today, the entire landscape has changed, from the youth level to the professional level and everywhere along the way.

© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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history and tradition

100 | Wildcat Tip-Off 2010–2011

Patrick Patterson was Kentucky’s only non-freshman to get drafted in the NBA this year. the commercial appeal and star-making power that today’s mega-tournament carries. It was principally of interest to fans of the game only, and was dwarfed by the cachet of football and baseball. Making a name for yourself as a player was also quite a different pursuit. Players the likes of a Grevey, Austin Carr, and Elvin Hayes spent years accumulating a national reputation before finding a professional future within their grasp. Now, it can be accomplished with a single notable performance in a first-round tournament game. Subsequently, the aspirations of the players themselves have morphed considerably over the years. With the stratospheric rise of the NBA under commissioner David Stern and players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, today’s star hoopsters have more likely dreamed of NBA glory before collegiate success, in part because it’s a more tangible and visible dream. Thus, when fans complain of one-and-done players lacking the appreciation of hearing “My Old Kentucky Home” on a Wildcats Senior Night, or of appearing in CBS Sports’ syrupy, tourney-closing classic “One Shining Moment,” it should

© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo on previous page: Collegiate Images/Getty Images  Photo this page: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Among those watching on television as the Kentucky freshmen (and junior Patrick Patterson) strutted through their dream evening was a former Wildcat All-American whose own history of Big Blue glory and professional achievement seems quaintly traditional in light of Calipari’s Cash-in Quintet. One of the school’s all-time scorers, an NCAA Tournament runner-up, and an NBA champion, Kevin Grevey—himself a former first-round pick of the Washington Bullets—couldn’t help but marvel at the changes the past three decades brought. It was 28 years ago that Grevey arrived in Lexington an admittedly green, sharpshooting teenager from Hamilton, Ohio, part of a highly celebrated recruiting class himself. Now a new passel of teenage Wildcats—a quartet that barely spent enough time on campus to know the rec center from the student center—were already history, setting off alarm bells among media and fans within and without the Commonwealth. In their brief spell of just over a year on campus, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton had played on national television over 20 times, traveled as far as Cancun, played at Madison Square Garden in primetime, reached the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament, and given hundreds of media interviews between them. They even stepped away from the court and used their local celebrity to rally the Big Blue Nation for Haiti earthquake relief, eventually receiving a congratulatory phone call from the president of the United States for their efforts. Quite a change, indeed, from the staid freshman season Bob Guyette, Jimmy Dan Connor, Mike Flynn, Steve Lochmuller, G.J. Smith, Jerry Hale, and Grevey experienced in the fall of 1972. In what would be the final season that freshmen were ineligible by NCAA decree, that sterling group—Adolph Rupp’s final recruiting class—would play no games on the official record, receive zero television coverage, and experience not a lick of NCAA Tournament play. Suffice it to say, there were no presidential communications forthcoming. Instead of finishing off their rookie campaign jostling for a first-round guarantee from NBA teams, the “Super Kittens,” as the 1972 class came to be known, wrapped up their first season merely working their tails off to impress the man who would be their new head coach, Joe B. Hall, on the freshman team. Undefeated at 22–0, impress the Super Kittens did. It’s easy to try and dismiss today’s hotshot frosh as the spoiled result of a generation’s worth of monetizing youth basketball. But it’s worth noting that the structure surrounding college basketball has also changed considerably since Grevey’s heyday. While winning the NCAA Tournament was certainly a major accomplishment even then, the event had none of


Photo at bottom: Focus on Sport/Getty Images  Photo at top: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Super Kittens To Crash-Course ’Cats be remembered that these are a program’s fans’ dreams more than they are those of the nation’s best youth basketball players. For Grevey and his peers, using college basketball’s grandest stage as a steppingstone to NBA riches wasn’t even an option. “There wasn’t another level,” Grevey said in an interview at his restaurant in Falls Church, VA. “When I was a high school kid or a junior high school kid, my goal was to play on my high school team and maybe have a chance to play college basketball. The pro game, you couldn’t even watch it on TV. It was a joke. There were only eight teams!” John Calipari said that he would have opposed John Wall’s He added, “There wasn’t any return to Kentucky because of his likely draft position. carrot out there, no money. The money? You could make more being a painting contractor pro early. Even after 1971, when the NCAA instituted what than playing in the NBA back then.” would be known as the “hardship” option—where players Beyond the lack of processional riches available in could plead to the NCAA that they could not afford to postGrevey’s era, there was also effectively no such thing as going pone the leap to the professional ranks—with a few exceptions players played out their full eligibility before moving on. But if money was once not a primary factor for most college stars’ basketball futures, make no mistake, it’s a deciding factor nowadays. While lip service is paid to matching up against the best players in the world, the bottom line is that for NBA-caliber talents, the sooner that rookie contract starts ticking, the sooner it can expire. How else to explain the exodus from Kentucky’s campus of backup center Orton, he of the three points and three rebounds per contest? A 2005 report from the University of Pennsylvania’s acclaimed Wharton School of Business entitled Turning Pro Young put this financial element into numerical perspective: “[University of North Carolina at Greensboro economist Dan] Rosenbaum estimates that a likely star sacrifices $70 million to $80 million (in present dollars) if he goes to college and stays for four years. Even an average player can lose as much as $20 million.” For a player given even a remote chance to make that caliber of money, how do you walk away from $20 million? And for what, more chemistry classes? Calipari, for his part, has built no illusions around his feelings on the issue. As he told ESPN Radio’s Dan Patrick, “If [John Wall] came to me and he was the number-one pick in the draft and he said he wanted to come back, we’d probably be wrestling around on the floor. Because there’s no Kevin Grevey (33 in white) played with many NBA greats, including Pete Maravich (shooting). reason other than me trying to win more basketball games.” © 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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one-and-done? Well, it’s the rules. And he’s taking advantage of it. And he’s doing it better than any coach in America. “And I think there’s a lot of envy and a lot of jealousy around the country. I talk to a lot of coaches, I’m not going to name names, but it’s kind of like politics: If you can’t beat that other guy, then let’s tear him down. So John Calipari is getting a lot of arrows, a lot of backstabbing. I know it because coaches have talked in front of me, knowing that I’m a Kentucky player. I’ve heard writers talk about it. I’ve heard Bobby Knight on TV talking about it. It’s not fair.” However high and mighty they may get, old guard coaches like Knight Calipari’s effusive personality makes him had no similar worry about departing arguably the best recruiter in the game. freshmen in their time. At least until Refreshingly candid or brazenly opportunistic? Depends 1973, the issue was solved: go to college and learn the ropes on whom you ask. But for an old pro hand like Grevey, there for a year. is little mystery. But perhaps a larger question exists that is not being “These kids want to play in the NBA,” he said. “How can asked: Who’s to say one way is better? you get me into the NBA and help me achieve my ultimate Asked whether he lamented that he received no records goal? Their ultimate goal is not to play at Kentucky or Indiana or accolades for his freshman campaign, Grevey was sanguine. or UCLA or Kansas or Duke. Their ultimate goal, almost “What’s more important?” he asked. “Those things, every one of these kids, if you’re that good, is to play in the those records, or the relationships that were being made, and NBA. Because the money’s unbelievable, the fame, and so on. learning how to play this game at a high level, and having “Calipari is a vehicle. He’s done it with others, he’s time fun, and being a normal student, and getting to know the tested. The Derrick Roses, all these other great players think, fans, and understanding the history and tradition of Kentucky ‘John can get me there a lot better.’ And he can. Frankly, he can.” basketball. Knowing that this is a lot bigger than anything I But however realistic he might be about it from a busiever imagined.” ness angle, Grevey the fan isn’t a fan of one-and-done players. Now listen to Wall, this year’s poster boy for one-and“I think every coach, every fan, anyone who’s ever played dones, speaking similarly about his collegiate season. the game wishes that these kids went to school for four years,” “People thought I was just going to look over college Grevey said. “There’s no question it is better for everybody. basketball and not take it seriously, not do my school work It’s better for the NBA to have these guys mature when they and just look to the draft,” Wall told ESPN.com. “But that come in. It’s better for a fan, because they get to see a player wasn’t my goal or my mindset. I went to Kentucky to be a and a team have continuity. Coaches: they don’t have to better player. Coach [Calipari] and [assistant] Coach [Rod] reload every year. It is the system, and it’s messed up. But this Strickland helped me get better. The college experience is the way it is. These are the rules.” jumpstarted me to the NBA.” Rules or no rules, Grevey, who as an NBA scout and Grevey, too, noted the impact of that rookie year in broadcaster is well traveled and well versed in the business Lexington on his basketball self. of basketball and with the practice of negative recruiting, “I got better that year—faster, with more depth—it was a knows that even if Calipari works within the existing NCAA new velocity,” Grevey said. “I couldn’t believe from my senior framework, with such candor and approach come huge risks, year and after my freshman year, the kind of player that I had for Calipari and for the Kentucky program. become.” “Thank God for John Calipari. I think he’s great,” But for Grevey, the importance of that freshman experiGrevey said. “I love how he’s brought these kids in. Are they ence extended beyond basketball development.

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© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

history and tradition


Super Kittens To Crash-Course ’Cats

Photo: Collegiate Images/Getty Images

“I would never give up that year. That was maybe the most enjoyable year I ever had in my life,” Grevey recalled. “All of us were so close. And we were undefeated. It’s the only undefeated team I ever played on. Part of it was playing together with guys that you really cared about coming together, playing as a team, learning this game at another, higher level than we had ever imagined.“ And yet, while Grevey may not trade his year of personal growth in the quietude of dorm life and his transition to big-time college basketball, can’t one argue that the experience Wall and company had was not equally character-building? If the rigors of the current youth basketball system are making men of young men athletically, it seems logical that, on the whole, today’s 18-year-old basketball wunderkind may be more receptive to the whirlwind that is the life of a major college basketball player in today’s era. It seems fair to say that speaking with the leader of the free world and learning to use basketball glory to ease the plight of others trump college mixers and twoa-day basketball practices in terms of personal development. Or, at worst, they are advantageous in polarized ways.

Kevin Grevey and teammate Mike Flynn (24 in white on the left) came up just short against Marques Johnson (54 in blue) and UCLA in the 1975 NCAA final.

For his part, Grevey believes that today’s one-and-done kids can’t share in the true college experience in that single season on campus. “Probably not,” he said. “Every year, I was getting more knowledge about the school and the university and the Big Blue Nation, and by the time I graduated I knew this was a one-and-only kind of place. But ‘one and done’? I don’t think so, no.” But Grevey admitted his edition of the Super Kittens belonged to a very different time. And each group can claim its own legacy in the storied annals of Kentucky basketball history. While Wall and his comrades may have earned no comparable nickname, it’s hard to argue with their on-court results or with their public and private devotion to the university and the program. None of them suffered any off-court embarrassments and none—not even Orton, who had some frisky quotes taken out of context over the summer—have expressed anything but admiration and love for the Big Blue faithful. For all their differences, the feeling that playing at Kentucky is something irreplaceable is a constant, whether the player stays one year of five. “I had no idea until I played there and you only got more knowledge as you were there for four years,” Grevey explained. “And then you knew you were in something special. About my sophomore year, I finally learned to stop during ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ [laughs] and pay attention to these fans, and then when we would travel and play other SEC schools and you had something to compare it to, I’m like, ‘Wow. This is night and day.’ Bama, Ole Miss, LSU, wherever. I’m seeing this is something incredible. “You didn’t want to disappoint these fans, you didn’t want to disappoint your teammates, yourself, your parents, and that’s pretty much how it ends, but there was something a lot bigger than just us. It was all these other great players that played before me, and Coach Hall would bring them in and I got to meet Wah Wah Jones and Cotton Nash and Dan Issel and Louie Dampier, Mike Pratt, and all these great players and they would say, ‘Hey, guys, these are pretty special years.’ But to a man they all had a common thread and that was: You’re playing at the University of Kentucky and this is something special.” On that point, folks on all sides of the one-and-done issue, at least folks who bleed Kentucky blue, can surely agree.  MSP A graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program in creative writing, JL Weill has covered college and professional basketball for over a decade, including as a staff writer for DraftExpress.com. Creator of and contributor to A Sea of Blue, an online community and blog dedicated to University of Kentucky sports, the writer currently resides with his wife and young son in Washington DC.

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Super Kittensto Crash Course’Cats