John Calipari's hidden recruiting weapon: ties with Jay-Z, Drake
The Kentucky coach's friendship with the popular rappers helps him attract recruits
Calipari's relationship with rappers isn't the deciding factor for players, but it helps
Calipari isn't the best strategist in the college game, but he's by far best recruiter
On Monday night, twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who live outside of Houston and are consensus top five recruits in the Class of 2013, announced that they will be making their college decision this week.
Schools like Baylor, Villanova and SMU were valiant in their pursuit of the two, but the Harrisons -- who may go down as the greatest package deal in the history of college basketball recruiting thanks to the way that Aaron, the point guard, complements Andrew, the shooting guard, on the floor -- have essentially trimmed their list down to two programs: Maryland and Kentucky.
I know what you're thinking, because I've thought it, too: Maryland doesn't stand a chance. It doesn't matter that the twins' father, Aaron Harrison Sr., who doubles as their AAU coach, is from Baltimore or that he has plenty of extended family a short drive from Maryland's College Park campus. It doesn't matter that Harrison Sr. has a great relationship with Maryland assistant Bino Ranson, or that he's developed a measure of reverence for Mark Turgeon for the way that Turgeon handled the death of recruit Tobi Oyedeji. Oyedeji, who hails from the same area in Texas as the Harrisons, was committed to Turgeon at Texas A&M when he was killed in a car accident the night of his junior prom. The way Harrison Sr. tells it, that inspired him to contact Turgeon about recruiting his sons, who were high school freshmen at the time.
Should I also mention that the Harrison's AAU team, the Houston Defenders, is sponsored by Under Armour, the same company that sponsors the Terps? What about the fact that Under Armour's founder is a former Maryland football player? Or that a former Defender teammate and close friend of the Harrison twins, Shaquille Cleare, is currently a freshman forward for the Terps?
In a normal recruitment, that's a lock.
But chasing down the Harrisons is anything but a "normal recruitment".
It never is when Kentucky and coach John Calipari are involved.
Most UK fans probably assume that statement is meant as a shot at Calipari, and it's not. I always use the "Lance Armstrong theory" when it comes to coaches "cheating" on the recruiting trail. Whether or not Armstrong was doping doesn't change the fact that he was the greatest cyclist of all-time, because he beat a bunch of other cyclists that were doping as well.
What that means is that, all things being equal, there is something else about Calipari's recruiting pitch for the Wildcats that is making them such a desirable landing spot for the nation's elite prospects, something beyond the stereotype of the dollars tossed around by boosters that every armchair recruiting pundit believes is the key to bringing in a loaded recruiting class.
And this past weekend, Calipari provided us with a perfect example.
Last Friday night, the Barclays Center -- the new home of the Brooklyn Nets -- opened up with a concert from Nets part-owner Jay-Z. Jay-Z and Calipari happen to be friends. If you remember, the rapper was fined $50,000 by the NBA for visiting the Kentucky locker room after the Wildcats advanced to the 2011 Final Four, an inconvenience he immortalized in the first four bars of the song "In Paris" off of the Watch The Throne album. Calipari didn't hesitate when it came letting his 1.2 million Twitter followers know about his backstage pass to the concert, tweeting out this picture of himself in front of the stage while name-dropping hip-hop producer Irv Gotti, NBA coach Avery Johnson and Magic Johnson during the night.
Calipari also tweeted that he "told Jay-Z that I might get fined 50K for being in HIS locker room tonight. He said "I got you". #Lafamilia". Not only is Calipari letting every recruit, every fan and every rival head coach know that he's friends with Jay-Z, the hashtag at the end of the tweet is a not-so-subtle reference to Roc La Familia, the name of an album that Jay-Z released in 2000 and a record label he started a few years later. Apparently, Calipari knows his hip-hop as well.
That's not the only artist that Calipari is associated with, either. It's no secret how close Drake is to the program. The rapper has said publicly that the family atmosphere around the Kentucky program inspired him to return to school and get his GED. He received a 2012 national title ring. He's even being used as a recruiting tool by Calipari. Drake was an honorary coach at UK's alumni game and spoke with top recruit Julius Randle while at the game. That had enough of an effect on Randle that he wrote about it in a blog for USA Today, which isn't surprising: Randle admitted that Drake was one of his top three favorite rappers.
Jay-Z is No. 1.
Let's ignore, for a second, the fact that Calipari's reputation at Kentucky is to take elite recruits, get them better during the course of a season where they are idolized by an entire state, and then push them out the door and into the NBA Draft -- turning them into instant millionaires -- as soon as possible to make room for his next batch of superstars. Let's also ignore the fact that, in three seasons at the helm in Lexington, this style has resulted in trips to the Elite 8 and the Final Four in addition to last season's national title. Thus, we're assuming here that spending a year on a pedestal while getting put onto the fast-track to the NBA and biding time by competing on college basketball's biggest stage isn't enough to convince the best players in the country to attend Kentucky.
Now Calipari is giving his players the chance to get to know their favorite rappers while under his tutelage. Not just meet. Get to know.
That's what makes him the absolute best in this profession.
As a pure basketball mind, Calipari is smart, but he's not Bob Knight. He's not Dean Smith or John Wooden or Pete Carrill. He's not the kind of hoops tactician that is going to revolutionize the game. Think about it like this: if your team is in a one-game playoff and you can pick the guy who is coaching them, where does Calipari get ranked out of all the active coaches? Behind Tom Izzo, Brad Stevens and Mike Krzyzewski, for sure. Probably behind Bill Self and Billy Donovan as well. And then there are guys like Shaka Smart and Roy Williams and Rick Pitino. What about a Thad Matta or a Bo Ryan?
Simply put, Calipari's strength is not his ability as an in-game strategist. It's his ability to connect with kids and attract them to his campus. He understands what these kids want, and he's not afraid to build and promote his program around that. He does things that impress 18 year olds that some of his coaching competition wouldn't even think of doing or have the connections and moxie to pull off.
Rubbing elbows with Jay-Z and Drake will have that effect.