As the Kentucky Wildcats proceed on their march toward an historic season, the national media’s parlor game of persistent UK-bashing turned up its volume to 11. What began the moment John Calipari strode on campus with his first class of one-and-done recruits, has now obsessively transfixed the main street media zeitgeist, so much so that a new round of backlash-against-the-backlash stories have popped up, defending Cal and his Cats from some of the more outrageous and hypocritical charges.
But as the cable TV screaming heads continue to assert that the Cats represent everything that is wrong with college athletics, the young men in blue and white were quietly doing the opposite: providing positive societal meaning by exhibiting the kind of values that any good parent desperately desires to instill in their children. And while we complain—justly—that sports has a disproportionate influence on our community, this particular group of ballers have emerged as ideal role models for America’s youth.
Indeed, four essential, universal moral values are being modeled every game day for a national audience by The Purr-fects:
Every single one of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions holds at its very core the same notion: That when we act on behalf of others, when we abandon our own selfish instincts and serve society, that’s when we are acting as our highest selves—that’s when we are truly doing God’s (or humanity’s) work. A principal ideal of universal morality is scrubbing away egomania and me-centered thinking, and focusing one’s attention on the interests of the greater community. The instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” can be found in some form in every world culture since we started drawing on cave walls.
Now turn on Sportscenter at any point of the day, and your senses will likely be barraged by individual achievement—a gravity-defying dunk, a sweet three, an über-confrontational block, or maybe an ankle-breaking dribble-drive. Discussions of the game’s greatests often focus on personal statistic —points, rebounds, triple-doubles.
Certainly, this Kentucky team has put on its share of breathtaking artistic exhibitions. But the magic of Cal’s Platoon system is how each one of these McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA stars has been willing to sacrifice his minutes, stats and personal glory for the team’s greater achievement.
Athletic success at an early age can easily inflate the ego, or worse, lead to a false sense of entitlement. But The Purr-fects learned to surrender their own self-interest (high scoring averages) for the common good (winning a championship), focusing on the uncelebrated lunch-pail, blue-collar fundamentals of the game: lifting up teammates through picks, screens and sharp ball movement, and beating down opponents through suffocating, tenacious D. In so doing, they’ve provided a noteworthy lesson in unselfishness and the ‘Golden Rule’ for the boys, girls, and grownups who consider these hardwood heroes role models.
The imposition of strict penalties against Syracuse for its decade-long series of infractions—ranging from forged classwork to cash handouts to inadequate anti-drug enforcement—shined yet another spotlight on the seedy underbelly of elite college athletics. Any day now, the NCAA finally will get around to severely punishing (hopefully assessing the death penalty on) the University of North Carolina for its abhorrent, twenty-years-plus academic fraud conspiracy.
Now admittedly, neither Kentucky basketball, nor Coach Cal in his previous positions, has been immune from charges of corner-cutting, as the programs coped to compete under the wilting pressure of big-time, big-money college sport. Indeed, the infractions of the Eddie Sutton Era still leave a black eye on the Big Blue Nation, an instructive reminder of how cheating undermines the very integrity of student athletics.
But this is a nation that sanctifies second chances; and during Calipari’s entire tenure in blue—with the possible exception of the very ambiguous Enes Kanter case—the Wildcats haven’t even emitted a whiff of scandal. Credit Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart’s dedication to probity and compliance guru Sandy Bell’s laser-like focus on the true interests of the student-athlete. But even Cal’s most vociferous critics—those that will never forgive him for episodes at UMass and Memphis — have to admit that there’s been no evidence that he’s run anything but a clean program in Lexington.
I’d argue that above the championship(s), more than the NBA draftees, this is Coach Calipari’s most important accomplishment, particularly as it relates to the youngest Kentucky fans. As I argued in more detail in my rant against flopping, when players and teams cheat and then triumph, sport sends a sinister and destructive message: that dishonesty is permissible on occasion, that deception is acceptable societal behavior. In a culture where winning is everything, the lesson that can be learned is that spin, artifice and clever chicanery are the necessary arsenal to achieve the American Dream.
By winning without cheating, The Purr-fects have demonstrated to the newest generation of the Big Blue Nation that the greatest glory actually comes triumphing when playing by the rules.
The Purr-fects have by no measure played perfectly. Falling behind early to Columbia at Rupp, and nearly losing to Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida, and LSU, Cal’s Cats have shown that even the most talented of teams can, at times, demonstrate weakness, frailty and immaturity. Which again is a good thing—it’s critical that our children understand that it’s OK to fail, to make mistakes; that we learn some of our best lessons from adversity.
But what’s remarkable about this band of brothers is how they refuse to lose—that no matter the circumstances, they never gave up. They got up from the mat, dusted themselves off, avoided the natural human temptation to panic, and found a way to win.
Like many of my fellow fans, there was never an occasion during the regular season that I thought the Cats would succumb to defeat. Last week, I sat on an airport tarmac watching the Georgia game from my iPhone, and just as the Cats fell behind by nine points, the flight attendant reminded me curtly of FAA regulations. Between “airplane mode” and the pilot’s announcement an hour later that we’d won, I felt the calm serenity that victory was at hand. The Purr-fects’ enduring resiliency is both instinctive and intuitive and a powerful lesson for fans of all ages—who will often be tempted in the real world to lose hope and give up when the going gets tough.
In a magical 31-game regular season, the most enchanting moment came with 46.6 seconds left in the final game. Cal lurched to the end of the bench, and instructed his three walk-on seniors to remove their warmup jackets and finish off their careers basking in the glow of the iconic Rupp hard court. As the game expired, Andrew Harrison hung onto the ball at the top of the key, but the 24,000 plus on hand were transfixed on the transcendentally joyful faces of the three young men who had played so few minutes, but had participated in every practice, running drill, and academic exercise. It was the only time I teared up the entire season, and like most everyone around me, I didn’t want that moment to end.
A decade from now, we probably won’t remember their names (except for Sam Malone, of course, because he shares his with an iconic TV character.) But Cal’s Senior Day decision to start the three walk-ons, risking the game’s opening momentum against our most storied conference rival, and then allowing them to share the final moments of an unprecedented season with the home crowd, was a special tribute to the virtue of loyalty.
The Purr-fects will be forced to endure even more scrutiny from an ever-increasing toxically judgmental media and Twitter-verse. But as the team’s critics desperately search for warts and Achilles heels among our young and all-too-human squad, a new generation of the Big Blue Nation will be drawing powerfully positive lessons from their extraordinary example. And that, sports fans, is yet another reason why Kentucky basketball truly matters. •