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Before the Wildcats played Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final, Kidd-Gilchrist approached Calipari. "He said, 'Coach, we need Darius in the NCAA tournament, and he's not playing well right now. Let me come off the bench,' " recalls Calipari, who honored the request. "That is neat. That is one where I said to my staff, 'We're good.' " The first signs that this team could be extraordinary were evident during summer pickup games at the Craft Center. With the NBA lockout in effect, Calipari had reached out to a number of pros—some former Wildcats, some not—and offered the use of Kentucky's facilities. On a few occasions the pros played open-run pickup games that the college players could join. In these sessions the callow Cats absorbed a few critical lessons.
"Playing against guys on that level, you've got to learn to share the ball and move it around because you can't beat them off the dribble as easy as you can with players on your level," says Teague. "That's when we learned how to play together." In one session, recalls Lamb, Kentucky's starters held court for four games, including two against an Oklahoma City Thunder contingent that included Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Nazr Mohammed and Russell Westbrook. "Beating pros four games straight means a lot," says Lamb. "We knew we had great players and a great team."
The Wildcats blitzed through their nonconference schedule, stumbling just once in a 73--72 loss at Indiana on Dec. 10. Around that time Calipari told his team the story of Michael Jordan's Breakfast Club. His Airness and several other Bulls would gather at Jordan's house early in the morning to get in a workout with his personal trainer before his chef whipped up a meal. Inspired, Kidd-Gilchrist started his own type of Breakfast Club during Christmas break, urging teammates to show up at the Craft Center at 6:30 a.m. for weights and extra shooting. Says Kidd-Gilchrist of that time, "I think we got a lot better as a team."
In late December, Kidd-Gilchrist sent Calipari a text asking to lead the team. But Calipari didn't want just one leader. "I like it to be like the geese fly," he says. "So Michael will lead, then sometimes Darius will, then Anthony and so on. I'm trying to teach every one of them to lead. Leadership is about everybody else, not yourself."
Calipari has had to learn that lesson, too. When he made his first Final Four, with UMass, "it was about me," he says. "Now it's more about everybody else. I look back on my early coaching career: We did good, but I didn't do as good as I'm doing for the kids here now. I feel bad about that, but I didn't know any better. As I've gotten older, life has become easier, and we've won a whole lot more games when it has been about everybody else and not about me. When it's about the players first, they play for you."
When Calipari speaks of his legacy, he doesn't mention titles or wins, though he is adamant about the legitimacy of the victories the NCAA vacated. ("We've been in four Final Fours," he says. "What, you going to tell the kids who played in those that they didn't play all year?") He talks instead about relationships and his players' financial success. "I want my legacy to be that families' lives have changed through our relationship," he says. "[Kentucky] Senator Mitch McConnell said to me, 'How many guys leave off of this team, do you think?' I said, seven—five starters and two seniors. If we play well, they'll all have opportunities. He said, 'You're creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm!' What if that number is 70 by the time I retire? How would you say I did? Because the cycle on those families, that cycle of poverty or whatever it may be, has just changed."
BEFORE ANY OF THE WILDCATS could cash in on future riches, before they could even claim the title so many observers had assumed they would win from the start of the tournament, they had to survive what was being called the Kentucky Derby, a semifinal showdown with in-state rival Louisville, a scrappy, undersized team with a ferocious defense. Facing a gamelong press for the first time, the Cats fought their way through, shooting 57.1% and getting a dazzling performance from Davis, who had five blocks, 14 rebounds and 18 points (on 7 of 8 shooting), including a breathtakingly acrobatic alley-oop slam with 1:08 to go. As students in Lexington started to riot, student body president Micah Fielden urged restraint via Twitter: "Let's be smart and act like we've been here before." Davis, who rarely shows emotion, pointed to the court, furrowed his famous unibrow and shouted, "This is my s—!" After the game Davis claimed he said, "This is my stage!" Either way, he owned the moment.
Against Kansas he owned it again, but he was happy to share it with his teammates. As the players gathered on the dais for the presentation of the Most Outstanding Player award—Davis became the first freshman recipient since Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony in 2003—and the championship trophy, Lamb danced around, appearing to give bunny ears to school president Eli Capilouto. In the end Calipari couldn't contain himself either. After the last of his players had cut a piece of the net, he ascended a ladder with scissors in hand. This is what he had come to Kentucky for too.