LEXINGTON, Ky. – During Sunday night’s live-television broadcast of a Kentucky basketball practice, fans were rightly focused on and fired up about the half-dozen (or more) future NBA draft picks running through drills in front of about 90 pro scouts.
But as it relates to the long-term health of the program, Big Blue Nation should’ve been most excited by ESPN’s brief shot of a 6-foot-tall, 178-pound walk-on hugging coach John Calipari’s wife, Ellen, on the sideline during a break in the action. That was his son, freshman guard Brad Calipari, who represents the most concrete evidence available that his dad isn’t leaving Lexington any time soon.
“My thing to him: ‘If you really want to play, you probably gotta go Division II or a lower Division I.’ (But) he had a reason why he wanted to come here,” John said. “He said, ‘I think I want to get into coaching.’ I said, ‘Well then you’re doing the right thing, and I’ll get you around (Kentucky’s assistants) and we’ll get you around some of the video stuff and you can … see all that side of it. You’ve got four years to really study what we do here.’ ”
And there it is. You’ve got four years. Music to Kentucky fans’ ears.
MEET THE 2016-17 WILDCATS
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John Calipari has talked often about the sacrifices his family made as he climbed the coaching ladder, but spending those four years teaching Brad is a chance to get back some time. After initial hesitation — few players are more scrutinized than a coach’s son on his dad’s roster — neither of them could pass it up.
“It’s a great opportunity to be a part of the team, be in the practices, hanging out with the guys all the time,” said Brad, who weighed the appeal of leaving Coach Cal’s enormous shadow, “but at the end of the day, when it came down to it, this was the right decision for me.”
And a big one for the Wildcats.
This is the "Cal ain't going nowhere for the next 4 years" shot. pic.twitter.com/3nTFYIBQsw
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 9, 2016
The youngest of Calipari’s three children – and only son – Brad has transformed himself from pudgy kid at John’s introductory press conference in 2009 to a slim, sculpted shooter who was recruited by smaller colleges. He transferred to the MacDuffie School in Massachusetts for his final year of high school, hoping to refine his game, and led the team in 3-point percentage.
He hit 47 percent from deep and averaged 15.3 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds.
“He’s shooting the ball well,” John Calipari said. “He’s a walk-on that, if he doesn’t try to go and play like the rest of these guys, if he doesn’t turn it over and he can make shots, he can play a little bit. Like, you can be up 20 and put him in.”
Brad wants more than that. He said he plans – if not this season, some day – to prove he can contribute to the Wildcats. Ellen believes in her boy. But his father, who has coached 28 NBA draft picks in seven seasons at Kentucky and has another bumper crop this year, is more realistic.
“His mother thinks he’s playing,” John said. “She’s out of her mind. She’s like, ‘You’re playing him. I’m telling you, you’re going to play him.’ OK, all right, just stop. What are we having for dinner?”
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 9, 2016
Teammates say they expect Calipari to be just as hard on Brad as he is on the rest of them, if not harder. After all, he isn’t monitoring their attitudes during summer vacation.
“He had a friend and we were down on the shore and he was just, you know, being a typical 18, 19-year-old jerk,” John said. “So I finally said, ‘Son, come over here. Do you understand that you’ve got to make me like you? Do you know that? This stuff has just changed.’ ”
On the flip side, none of Calipari’s players has ever had as much dirt on him as Brad. The son giddily tells the story of a time they were riding bicycles together in Memphis – where Calipari coached before Kentucky – and his father was trying to “walk the dog” by tethering its leash to his handlebars.
“The dog took off down the hill and flipped him over the bike and scratched him all up – both elbows, both knees, ripped his shirt up,” Brad said between laughs. “I don’t know if he’s ridden a bike since then.”
Make no mistake, though, if anyone else comes after John Calipari, Brad is ready to rush to his defense. He tries not to, at his parents’ request, but it’s hard. Kentucky’s coach is one of the most polarizing figures in sports and his critics can be nasty, even to his children.
Sometimes social-media attacks are directed at Brad and sisters Megan and Erin. They try to let Erin, who has a doctorate in neuropharmacology and her father’s quick wit, deal with those. She smashes Internet trolls with regularity.
“Yeah, she does,” Brad said, grinning. “But I can’t, or I would. You can’t control what people say or how they see things. They see things from the outside in, so you can’t really be upset at them for what they don’t know. You’re like, ‘What did I do? Why are they saying this to me?’ But my older sister, she kind of showed me the ropes, taught me that I can’t really say certain things other people can, so you just have to suck it up and let them say what they need to say.”
Especially now, because Brad is no longer just one of John Calipari’s children. He’s a Kentucky basketball player, which comes with a level of responsibility he understands more than the Wildcats’ other freshmen.
“You’re under a microscope,” he said. “I’ve had to deal with it really since we’ve been here.”
There’s something else for which Brad has a better feel than most: his father’s moods. With five 5-star freshmen and a nucleus of productive veterans on the 2016-17 roster, the vibe in the Calipari household these days might best be described as giddy.
“He is excited,” Brad said of John. “He’s talked to us about it. He’s extremely excited, and I know when he’s ready to go, that means something.”