So, John Calipari is about to wrap up his big trip to China. A lot of the conversation around the trip has had to do with its impact on the NCAA Infractions Committee meeting on Saturday. Not nearly enough conversation has taken place about what the trip and what comes out of the trip could mean for Kentucky Basketball in the future.
I chalk that up to the fact that I just don’t think many people fully understand exactly what John Calipari has in mind.
Let’s be clear. This is no casual trip halfway across the globe. It was at least his third trip to the Far East, even though it is his first as UK coach. You could just tell he’s thinking big with the way he went out of his way to mention the trip at his press conference a few weeks ago. You could tell he was thinking big when he was just as excited talking about his plans for China as he was about Patrick Patterson’s return to UK.
In those comments, he mentioned having two Chinese coaches spend next season with the UK team almost as interns. He mentioned the million 7 footers in the world’s most populous country. He mentioned the game played by his Memphis team against the Chinese national team that was viewed by 50 million people, in spite of the fact that the Chinese played without Yi Jianlian and Yao Ming.
Calipari’s plans are also not new. While the prestige of the UK brand could be a slight help in Calipari’s quest, Kentucky Basketball doesn’t mean much, if anything, to anybody in China. Much of the groundwork for this trip was laid while Calipari was at Memphis making the same plans for the Tiger program. As much as we’d like to delude ourselves into thinking this is all about UK Basketball, it’s not.
In preparing to write this article, I found an interesting New York Times article from about 2 years ago that talks about Calipari’s Chinese aspirations. It was written just about the time that Calipari really started to make some headway, as Memphis singed an agreement with the Chinese Basketball Association for Calipari to host camps in China and a coaching camp in the US for 10-15 Chinese coaches.
Here’s what Coach Cal had to say about the moves in China: “I’ll be honest: In the worst-case scenario, this never includes a player,” Calipari said. “It’s still good for our campus and our city. It’s an advantage to our university as well as our athletic program. There’s no downside.” Clearly, this is a quote that still applies today.
Also, you’ll never guess who first helped Calipari come up with the idea: William Wesley, aka Worldwide Wes. “William Wesley told me that I wouldn’t believe how big this thing was,” Calipari said. “He told me that LeBron was like a rock star over there.”
When Kentucky lured John Calipari away from the Memphis Tigers, they didn’t only get a basketball coach and the top recruiting class in the nation, John Calipari also brought his baby with him: bringing college basketball to China.
These things don’t just happen overnight. A lot of work has already gone into making connections in China and there is a lot of work to go still. However, to try to put some shape to what to expect it to mean for UK and the NCAA, let’s take a look at the impact I see in the short, medium, and long term.
Short term (2 years) – I think we can look for John Calipari to schedule another set of games in China for his team as a preseason exhibition. That set of games a couple years ago helped the 2007-2008 Memphis Tigers get ready for a season that saw them accomplish some great things. They lost all 3 of their exhibition games in China, more than they lost during their entire season in the US.
I also expect John Calipari to take at least one trip to China each offseason, hosting camps and making contacts. During this time period, I think we could see John Calipari begin to do some scouting in China to try to uncover a player to play for UK. There are obviously issues to ensuring eligibility for a Chinese player, so those will need to be addressed.
Medium Term (5 years) – I think there is a pretty good chance a Chinese player will be on scholarship to play basketball at UK in the next 5 years. By this time, John Calipari should have figured out how to address the eligibility question and once this is done, it’s a matter of identifying the right fit.
I think John Calipari has his eye on UK being the stepping stone for the next Yao Ming. He wants a guy with a professional future and he wants to sell that player on playing college basketball at UK being the best way to prepare for that.
During this time period, John Calipari will also seek to establish some brand awareness for UK in China. If a Chinese kid has a favorite college basketball team, Calipari will want it to be UK. I think he will seek to start getting college basketball (preferrably UK) on Chinese TV. The NBA is already pretty well established in China, so look for Calipari to really use his NBA contacts as much as he can.
Long Term (10 years and beyond) – By this time, Calipari wants to have established a pipeline of elite Chinese players to UK. Chinese players wanting to get to the NBA will see UK as a logical means to that end.
I also think that Calipari wants Kentucky Basketball to be the face of college basketball in China. That means he wants UK on TV all the time. He wants Chinese kids wearing UK blue all over the place.
Calipari is also doing a lot of work that will benefit the rest of college basketball, “It is fascinating to watch Coach Calipari as he grows the relationship with China and Chinese basketball,” the NCAA president, Myles Brand, said in a statement. “It speaks to the global appeal of intercollegiate basketball.”
Translation: “Thanks for doing my job for me John Calipari.”
I’m looking forward to hearing about Calipari’s trip from the man himself over the next couple days (we’ve already heard a bit via Twitter). Hopefully he will have some interesting stories and even more interesting next steps to talk about.
I believe that John Calipari is going to do great things on the floor as head coach of UK (and Chinese players could be a part of that). However, John Calipari could win 5 national titles at UK and could still be remembered for what he did in China for UK and college basketball as a whole if he accomplishes what he has set out to accomplish.