The devil walked into church.
He goes every morning, no matter what town he’s in. It’s part of his daily routine, and the devil loves his routines. This church is in an odd location, across the street from a tattoo parlor in Colorado Springs. A motorcycle peeled out as we pulled in. On the way here, as the sun rose in the east, we drove past the golden red rocks of the Garden of the Gods in the high desert, arriving just moments after mass had begun.
“Are you Catholic?” he asked me quietly as we crossed the threshold.
No, I told him. I am not.
His eyes lit up mischievously. “We’ll get excommunicated if you take communion!”
John Calipari, the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, didn’t want me to come to church with him. I had to ask, again and again and again. He’s an old-school Catholic from a Pennsylvania steel town, private with his faith, and his unease was palpable. I even offered to wait outside. But at the last moment, he said I could join him. It wasn’t just penitence that held him back; if anything it was the opposite. The devil never wants to be seen as too pious. He never wants his players—especially his future players—to see him as a fraud.
“I’m still uncomfortable bringing you,” Calipari told me. “You want to put that in there? Okay. Just say this: When you really sin a lot, you go to mass every day.” He laughed. “That’s why I go to mass.”
Atonement seems to be on his mind a lot these days. Calipari, after all, was once considered the most hated man in college basketball, and depending on whom you ask, he still is. He’s the kind of coach whose obsession with winning is matched only by an alacrity to exploit the rules in his favor. It’s almost Belichickian.
He is also a pioneer—the man who popularized the idea of one-and-dones that has diffused throughout college basketball. When he was hired at Kentucky in 2009, Calipari immediately signed the top recruiting class in the country. His promise to star players was simple: In exchange for one season in Lexington, he would do everything in his power to put them on the path to NBA success. One year. That’s it.
In the holier-than-thou world of collegiate athletics, Calipari’s brazen attempt to game the system was, at the time, considered sacrilege. His detractors—like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the most celebrated coach in college hoops, and Rick Pitino, Calipari’s cross-state nemesis at Louisville—suggested that Kentucky didn’t do things the right way. In their eyes, the Wildcats weren’t even a college basketball program anymore. Kentucky was an NBA factory.
Fast-forward to today, as the NCAA is roiled in a corruption scandal that threatens to upend the sport. It’s one thing when a coach is accused of breaking NCAA rules; it’s quite another when four coaches are indicted on federal charges, as was the case last year. Meanwhile, the one-and-done model is everywhere—including, notably, at Duke. What was once a revolutionary practice for an elite collegiate coach is now standard issue. Kentucky even won a national championship in 2012, but this season, the Wildcats have had their struggles as the youngest team in the country, despite being stacked with future NBA players. At the center of the college basketball typhoon is Calipari, who suddenly finds himself as one of the most prominent faces of a system under scrutiny, and as a progressive visionary who sees the NCAA’s attachment to antiquated and exploitative ideals of amateurism as its own kind of scam.
“I’m not a fan of the NCAA,” Calipari said. “I don’t think they make decisions for the kids. They make decisions for bureaucracy and for their structure.”
Not so long ago, the most talented high school players in the country were able to skip college and go straight to the NBA, where they would become instant millionaires. The trend started with Kevin Garnett, who entered the NBA draft in 1995 straight out of high school, which ushered in a decade where many of the most promising youngsters went straight to the pros: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James. Those were the success stories. The stories of the busts—Kwame Brown, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair—spooked NBA owners, who considered it too big of a risk to commit millions to the wrong teenager.
Owners thought the system was broken, so in 2006, the league’s new collective bargaining agreement patched things over. The deal required draftees to be at least 19 and one year removed from high school. This ensured that college basketball remained where the most talented teenagers toiled for at least one season—an unofficial minor-league system that, conveniently enough, came at zero cost to the NBA.
After he retired, Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, railed against collegiate sports, calling it an “airtight racket of supplying cheap athletic labor.” It’s a familiar American dynamic: Elite teenage basketball players, typically black, go to institutions of higher learning where they play for coaches, usually older white men, who are incentivized to attract the best talent they can.
This all came to a head in the past six months. Last September, ten people in the world of college basketball, including four coaches at major programs, were indicted in a federal corruption probe. The indictments exposed a dark underbelly and attached names and details to the most open secret in sports: Coaches pay to get players; agents curry favor with future NBA players; and sneaker companies pull all the strings. Pitino, for example, was summarily fired after the indictment detailed a scheme to funnel $100,000 to an elite recruit. And in February, Yahoo Sports published a report that documented players on more than 20 elite programs—including Kentucky—as accepting money, trips, or meals from agents. To the casual observer, these indictments became something of a scarlet letter attached to the nation’s top programs.
This scarlet letter, of course, is mostly sanctimonious bullshit. The NCAA makes $1 billion annually (most of which comes from the NCAA tournament television contract and is redistributed to member universities). And while most NCAA sports do not make money, the two “revenue sports,” football and men’s basketball, do. The star players who help generate that money are paid far less than their market values, getting compensated in scholarships, room and board, and living expenses. Specifically, it is this gulf between a player’s market value and what a university is permitted to “pay” him that creates the black market. NCAA president Mark Emmert said the FBI probe indicates “systematic failures,” but the failure seems to be more in how the system itself is set up.
“I am not a fan of the NCAA,” LeBron James told reporters in February. “The NCAA is corrupt, we know that.”
The idea behind embracing one-and-dones offered a different kind of solution for a system over-reliant on amateurs. Instead of pretending these players wanted to stay in school, Calipari assumed most would leave. He often encouraged them to leave—to go get paid. Instead of holding that against them, he planned for the eventuality. As soon as one group of one-and-dones was out the door, another group was on the way in.
“I beat that guy to the corner table!”
The devil was shouting as he walked up to his beach house in Lavallette, New Jersey, with two Dunkin’ Donuts coffees in hand. His wife, Ellen, rolled her eyes. Every morning, no matter what town he’s in, Calipari goes to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes it’s before mass, sometimes after, and often it’s both—but he’s always there, usually in the corner making phone calls. He calls it his office. The problem with the Dunkin’ Donuts in this town is there’s another man with the same daily routine who likes to commandeer the same corner table. But that morning in August, two minutes after Calipari ordered his coffee—large, one Splenda, regular cream—the man walked in. Cal waved at him from the corner table and grinned. A small victory. But his all the same.
This beach house is his sanctuary, where he and Ellen go on twice-a-day summer bike rides with their two dogs in baskets, a Pomeranian named McGruff and a Bichon Frise–Shih Tzu mix named Palmer. The devil enjoys his leisurely bike rides. In a few ways, Ellen and her husband are opposites. She’s from small-town Missouri; he’s the grandson of a Pittsburgh coal miner. She loves anonymity; he thrives in the glow of cameras. She frequents the shooting range and owns a concealed-carry permit and three firearms, including a Ruger .380 with a laser sight. He does not know how to shoot a gun. “I’m the man, he’s the woman,” Ellen said once, laughing. “He gets the mani-pedi, I don’t. Look at his hands—his hands have never seen a callus!”
The thing Ellen has never made peace with is being married to a man whom outsiders consider the devil. The bad guy. Calipari calls his public villainy his “black hat,” like in old Westerns, and the reputation preceded him long before Kentucky. His black-hat days began in the ’80s, when he was an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. There, he helped recruit players away from established Big East powers like Villanova and St. John’s. Mind you, Pitt was not supposed to be a destination for recruits, and other coaches accused him of playing dirty on the recruiting trail; one apocryphal tale alleges he told a recruit that St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca was dying of cancer.
It is this monomaniacal obsession with winning that helped Calipari land a head coaching job at the University of Massachusetts in 1988. He was 29, making him one of the youngest coaches in college basketball. “I made us all come to the office in a shirt and tie every day,” he said, “and the reason was because we all looked 16.”
He had a bad habit of making enemies along the way. Take February 13, 1994, a day that lives on in college-basketball infamy. (And YouTube.) Calipari was at the podium answering questions after a victory over Temple. The opposing coach, John Chaney, interrupted the presser and accused Calipari of playing dirty and working the referees. Calipari stood there unflustered, which only made Chaney more heated. A scuffle broke out. The clip ends with Chaney charging at the podium and screaming, “I’ll kill you!” while players hold him back.
When I asked Calipari about his reputation from those days, he shrugged. “I probably wouldn’t have liked me either.” (Today Chaney and Calipari are friends.)
The same traits that turned Calipari into a villain have also fueled his success: hyper-competitiveness; a frequent habit of saying exactly what’s on his mind, no matter the consequence; a vengeful streak. “Someone comes after you, you’re trying to kill them,” he told me. “I wish I wasn’t that way.”
When he got to UMass in 1995, it was one of the lowliest programs in college basketball. Calipari turned it into the No. 1 team in the country. But the Minutemen’s 1996 Final Four trip was erased from the record books after it was discovered that one of Calipari’s players, Marcus Camby, had accepted money from an agent—the first of two major blemishes on Calipari’s résumé. Not long afterward, Calipari went to the NBA, briefly, to coach the New Jersey Nets, where he was fired 20 games into his third season. In 2000, he became head coach of the University of Memphis, where he had another season wiped from the record books: After ruling that Memphis star Derrick Rose was academically ineligible due to an invalid SAT score, the NCAA erased Memphis’s 2008 Final Four appearance. Calipari was not personally implicated in either case, but the second infraction cemented his reputation as someone to whom rules were just obstacles.
Then a job opened up at the University of Kentucky in 2007. Calipari lobbied hard for it. Kentucky fans were vocal in their antipathy, and the school hired Billy Gillispie instead. “When he was at UMass and Memphis, he was the bad guy of college basketball, another Jerry Tarkanian,” said Gary Parrish, who covered Calipari in Memphis and is now a national college basketball analyst. “It was not something he liked.” Influential Kentucky radio host Matt Jones similarly bristled. “When the job was open, I said, ‘I’d never want a guy like Calipari at Kentucky, because we know he does it the wrong way.’ ” (Jones is friends with Calipari now, too.)
When Kentucky acquiesced and hired Calipari in 2009, signing him to a $32 million contract, suddenly a man who had done everything he could to claw his way to the top found himself at the top of his field. He didn’t arrive with a grand plan to upend the power dynamics of college basketball. The one-and-done thing just kind of…happened. In his nine years at Memphis, only four players went the one-and-done route. At a first-rate school like Kentucky, he knew he could recruit better players. So he did.
Before his arrival, Kentucky was a legacy program mired in mediocrity. (The only school with more national titles is UCLA.) Enter Calipari, who blew it all up and immediately signed future NBA stars John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. He transformed a genteel southern school’s legacy program into a glitzy destination to play basketball: Drake, who counts Calipari as a mentor, is regularly on the sidelines wearing Kentucky blue; Jay-Z has hung out with players in the team’s locker room.
Against the odds, the University of Kentucky became…cool.
What Calipari figured out before anyone else was that these elite players saw through the platitudes of higher education and appreciated his no-bullshit pitch: Come to Kentucky, play with other elite players in the national spotlight, and I will do everything I can to ensure your NBA success. His approach was player-centric. Calipari lobbied for the NCAA to allow schools to pay for insurance for elite players in case they get hurt, and he talks openly with his players about financial planning. Calipari doesn’t even call what Kentucky does a freshman year; he calls it a “gap year.”
“That’s an agreement between the players’ association and the NBA,” Calipari said. “I have nothing to do with it, have no say in it. So I’m dealing with the situation that at the end of the day is like a gap year, for a kid leaving his bedroom and his mom waking him up every day, playing on a high school team that he was the only player. He didn’t get pushed, he didn’t get challenged. Never played in front of 20,000. He’s going to go to us for a year, and we fill that gap year.”
Calipari sees his getting these young guys to the NBA as a spiritual calling, and would argue that the results speak for themselves.
“Of the seventeen lottery picks that we’ve had at Kentucky—you ready?—THEY’VE ALL MADE IT!”
(Meaning they weren’t busts.) (He was shouting that last part, as he sometimes does.)
“And we ended up being fine,” he said. “The university, the program: Nothing happened that damaged anybody as we helped these kids and their families. Now, what would have happened if my first year those kids all left and we didn’t go to a Final Four and then win the national championship? That’s why I say the good Lord must have been looking after us, knowing that we were doing right.”
The devil was on an elliptical in a Colorado Springs hotel, a few days before the NBA Draft in June. His eyes kept darting between the television showing ESPN and his phone, which was buzzing nonstop.
Calipari was singularly consumed with how his guys were gonna do in the draft, telling any NBA executive who’d listen that Malik Monk (who would go 11th to the Charlotte Hornets) could blossom into an All-Star. De’Aaron Fox, a speedy point guard who would be taken with the fifth pick, wanted the coach at his table on draft night. Calipari got on the line with front-office executives from the Milwaukee Bucks, who were interested in Bam Adebayo, a six-foot-ten center with a linebacker’s build, with the 17th pick: “If you end up getting him at 17, you have the steal of the decade!”
Calipari is the the consummate salesman in that you don’t actually feel like he’s trying to sell you anything. When he talks about his players, he makes it sound like this is what he was put on God’s earth to do. “He’s probably one of the few coaches in the whole entire game that is all about his players,” said Karl-Anthony Towns, who played a year for Calipari before becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft. “He looks at us as his sons. And he puts us first before everything.” Calipari has this one moonshot idea that could get him into some trouble with the NCAA. He wants the children of every player who has ever played for him—UMass, Memphis, Kentucky—to get full scholarships to any college in the country through his foundation. He doesn’t care if the NCAA might consider it “extra benefits” and come after him. He sees it as an extension of his calling.
These are the kinds of things his players love him for. Take Anthony Davis, who led Kentucky to the national title in 2012. As a high school senior, he had his selection of elite programs, but ultimately decided on Kentucky because of Calipari. “He’s not afraid—that’s really all it is,” Davis explained. “He came into my neighborhood, one of the baddest neighborhoods in Chicago. He’s not scared, he’s not afraid. When he came to my neighborhood, we told him, ‘We can meet you somewhere.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m coming to your house.’
“He pulled up and walked out like he’d lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Kentucky’s not for everybody. This No. 1 player bullshit doesn’t mean anything. You come here and have to earn your spot.’ That just stuck with me. Because no other coach said that to me.”
Calipari considers himself a teacher, and his job is to prepare his students for their future in the NBA. “Change does not come easy,” Calipari told me. “Especially if you do not understand it, and you’re just looking like, in a selfish way, ‘Those kids are supposed to stay for us. For four years. For our enjoyment.’” He took offense to the counter-argument that these young men should be gracious for a free education.
“Yeah, but—they can be Anthony Davis and after a couple years and a couple contracts, he can buy your university.”
I asked Davis about Calipari’s embrace of players like him, and why Calipari was so hated. Davis laughed. “To see now how college basketball’s been shaped after Cal, it’s funny,” Davis said. “Everyone’s trying to be one and done. Everyone wants to go to Kentucky and leave. Even the people who ripped on Cal for it, they’re trying to do it with their programs now! College basketball has started to take shape around the way that Cal is. It’s funny now when people try to say that. They’re using his tactics because it works.”
Nothing seems to get Calipari worked up quite like Duke. In 2010, the Blue Devils won a national title despite having zero players drafted that June. It was a team that captured everything that Duke at the time represented: The traditional student-athlete experience, where the recruiting pitch—“set for life”—seemed to be a subtle rejoinder to Calipari’s promise to set freshmen up for the NBA.
“It began to change because Duke did what we did. And now it’s become respectable.”
Somewhere along the way—maybe it was the risk of falling behind—Duke shifted its approach, and the school went all in on recruiting one-and-dones. (As The Ringer’s Mark Titus put it recently: “Krzyzewski is no longer taking a page from Calipari’s book when it comes to recruiting—he’s taking the whole damn book.”) In 2015, Duke won a title with three one-and-done players. This season, four of Duke’s five starters likely are one-and-dones.
And Calipari—never one to shy away from a touchy subject—suspects this is why the tone of the national conversation around one-and-dones suddenly changed.
“It began to change because Duke did what we did,” said Calipari definitively. “And now it’s become respectable.”
He continued: “I’m happy they did it, so I can go about my business and not have to hear the crap about it—you don’t hear it any more. Five years ago, that’s all it was. When Duke did it, then it’s kind of gone away.”
In January, a 17-year-old named Zion Williamson, whose viral dunks have already made him a mixtape legend, announced he was committing to Duke over several other schools, including Kentucky. (This gave Duke the top three recruits in the nation for next season, which has never happened before.) Calipari took it as a personal affront, attacking Duke and what he saw as that program’s false promises to recruits. “I don’t sell, like, ‘When you come here, the university and the state will take care of you the rest of your life,’” he said at a press conference a few weeks ago. “You may buy that, and I’ve got some great property in some swampland down in Florida to sell you, too… We’re not trying to say this university or this state will take care of you the rest of your life. There’s no socialism here.”
But there’s an irony to the way college basketball has developed around Calipari’s embrace of one-and-dones. What Calipari and Coach K have learned is that recruiting the best players does not always translate into victories. “The guys that are trying it,” Calipari told me, “they’re also finding out it’s not easy.” In February, the Wildcats lost four in a row. (Teaching 18-year-olds the finer points of team defense often goes exactly how you would expect.) It was the first time since 2005 a Calipari team lost three games in a row. Meanwhile, Coach K’s freshman-dominated team has had its own ups and downs despite the most talented roster in the country.
All of this bleeds into one of Calipari’s more interesting tics—he’ll look for slights and transgressions from his enemies, imagined or otherwise, and use them as motivation. It isn’t unlike what Michael Jordan—another cutthroat competitor—would have done. “I’ve heard people say that, that he plays us against the world,” Calipari said. “I don’t think it’s paranoia if the guy’s chasing you and he has a knife. I don’t think that’s paranoia. It means you better run like hell. But the other side of it is I do believe you’re defined by your enemies much more than your friends. There are certain people I do want to absolutely dislike me. And I want them to paint me as their enemy. Because I want nothing to do with them.”
One rainy day, sitting on the front porch of his beach house, I wanted to get a sense of how much Calipari was still tempted by the NBA. I asked him to play a game: Construct a realistic NBA roster of his Kentucky players. I set salary cap restrictions that are too prosaic to get into here. “I can’t do it,” he said adamantly. “I’m their coach, man. If I leave someone out, they’re pissed!”
I expected this. So I had compiled my own all-Kentucky roster. His ears perked up: “Go ahead, tell me—who is it?”
I told him my team. He told me he couldn’t engage in such hypotheticals.
But then…he couldn’t help himself. He grabbed my slip of paper and gave into temptation. His former Kentucky players have already surpassed $1 billion in past and future NBA salaries, and he’d once told me his all-Kentucky starting five would be John Wall, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins. But staring at a realistic roster seemed mind-boggling even to him. We got into an argument about players I’d left off my list. He tossed the scrap of paper back at me. “Those are all fun games to play,” he said, “unless you’re coaching them.”
In the last few years, Calipari has been attached to just about every open NBA coaching job, including the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks, the Sacramento Kings, and the New Orleans Pelicans. But the big one, for him, was the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2014, he was offered a 10-year, nearly $80 million contract (plus full control of basketball operations) for a team that, one month later, signed LeBron James, the best basketball player on earth.
Did he regret not taking that job?
“The Cleveland thing was real,” Calipari told me. “And if I had done that, I probably would have been fired like the guy [David Blatt] that was there. … LeBron wasn’t on the team at that point, and I hope it would have been the same decision. But the opportunity to coach one of the great players of all time would be appealing.”
A garbage truck rolled by. Calipari swatted at a fly gnawing on his leg. He told me the Cleveland decision, the closest he’s come to leaving Kentucky, kept him awake at night for weeks. But he felt like he made the right choice.
“You’re coaching Kentucky—and you have a chance to change lives,” he said. “That’s not what this is up there in the NBA. You have assets. You’re trying to piece a team together. You’re trying to win more games than the other guy. You’re trying to advance in the playoffs, and if you don’t they’ll find somebody else that can…”
He went on like this for a while. It’s clear he’d given the idea of returning to the NBA some thought. Why wouldn’t he be tempted? And then…
“I don’t really think about [the NBA], to be honest with you,” he said.
In a roundabout way, I believed him. When he told me that if he were still coaching a decade from now, it’d be in Lexington? I believed him there too. Because John Calipari is the easiest man to believe on earth. I believed him when he talks about the joy he gets from coaching at the collegiate level—which, conveniently enough, he has a few ideas for how to fix. “If you want kids to stay in school longer, let their families take loans, the ones that have pro potential,” he told me. “Players with pro potential should be able to request a loan from the NBA. They can say no. They can say there’s a max of $50,000 for your family. Maybe that gets a kid to stay in school a year longer, because he’s like, ‘Mom, just take that.’ And now we eliminate the third party, and when the kid becomes an NBA player, he pays back the money.”
The idea is a perfect distillation of the boundary-pushing that’s brought Calipari both trouble and success. He does not want to blow up the broken system. He knows this system has made him very wealthy and has benefited his players, too. “Use the system the way it is,” he said. “Just make it better.”
As he walked into church, he dipped his hand in the holy water, made the sign of the cross, and shuffled into the back row. The old wooden pew creaked as the priest read from the Gospel: “If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the left as well.”
A few congregants turned toward us. They recognized him, and the looks on their faces betrayed surprise that he was here, of all places. The devil is used to the attention.
Morning light streamed through the stained glass. The congregation bowed their heads and prayed for God’s forgiveness. When it was time for communion, the glint of mischief re-appeared in his eyes.
“Come on,” the devil whispered. “You can come with us. I won’t tell.”
On his way back from communion he lit a candle, bowed his head, and prayed. He did not look much like the kind of guy who’d do anything to crush his enemies. His face showed the creases of a man mature in his faith and secure in his legacy, who didn’t care if others thought him the devil. “I did my penance,” he once told me. “Let somebody else be the black hat guy now.”
Before mass had finished, he made the sign of the cross and snuck out before anyone could catch him.
Reid Forgrave is a writer in Minneapolis.