LEXINGTON, Ky. — If you can believe it, John Calipari is about to begin his ninth season as Kentucky basketball coach. Even harder to fathom: For all his freshman-heavy teams, the 2017-18 Wildcats are going to be his youngest yet.
There are many challenges in replacing the top seven scorers — and eight of the top nine — from a team that lost on a buzzer-beater in the Elite Eight against eventual national champion North Carolina. But starting over and winning fast is nothing new for Calipari.
He sat down with a handful of local reporters for a preseason Q&A earlier this summer (before 5-star freshman Jarred Vanderbilt suffered an injury that will cost him three months) to talk about all the new faces and familiar hurdles for Kentucky.
On having plenty of young teams in the past but how different this one is: “Well, it’s two [things]: First of all, Wenyen is playing way better, thank God. So he’s not the same guy he was a year ago. So that one guy you have coming back, he could be in that rotation and be fine. The other guys seem to be freshmen. So that’s one thing: you’re playing freshmen. But the biggest thing is last year, we had like three point guards on the floor almost all the time. Now you’re going to have either one or none that are, like, true point guards. And that’s going to be the biggest change. So you may have a team of where it seems basketball is going to: no point guard, no center. Just players. So now it’s kind of like, ‘OK, that’s different than what we’ve had.’ For the last few years, it’s been three guards. And literally three point guards. Jamal Murray was a point guard; that’s what he is. That’s one change.
“So what I’m looking at right now is different in how we’re playing. Still play fast, play unselfish; we should be a pretty good defensive team if we choose to be. But how we play offensively when you talk that kind of team, I’m in the process right now of meeting and talking with some NBA guys about [what to do] away from the ball. We are a spacing offense and that’s good and we’re not changing that, but you also have to be a movement offense now: hard cuts, a high-motor offense — in the half court. In the full court, I’m not worried about it. But you’ve got to be able to play that. And second thing is [opponents] are going to play a zone. That’s what I would imagine, either sag man or a zone, so we’ve got to be prepared from Day 1. Probably put in a zone [for UK’s defense]. And this could be a team that should play zone; whether I’ll play zone, I don’t know, but you’re long and big and this could be a good zone team.”
On if assistant Tony Barbee has been chipping away at him each year to play more zone: “Well, this year, again, I think from Day 1 we have to have a zone. Start breaking it down, start adding it and then start working on it, because we’re going to have to play against it. If we can play against our own zone, I’m imagining we can play against anybody else’s. I mean, we could play with Nick [Richards] or you could play with one of those other bigs or we could play with all 6-9 guys. You could play with Hami and Quade, who is better than I thought he was, which is a good thing — I knew he was good but there were some things because of his size I was worried about, but he’s fine — Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] at 6-6, you could have two 6-6 guards and three 6-9 guys. What? I mean, that’s — you say, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have a center.’ What? Who does? Who has that guy you throw the ball to and he just can score in the post.”
On not mentioning Sacha Killeya-Jones when talking about Gabriel/returning guys: “Sacha went to England and played for the national team. He was there two weeks. But I haven’t seen him play here yet. He and Tai, I saw Tai over in Egypt. Tai’s better; they’re both better. Nick is probably, looks about 7-foot tall. He’s big.”
On what held SKJ back last year: “He’s young. His age. He’s now the age of a freshman right now. This is all new to him. Inexperience. Bam was better than him. We went to a small lineup, so I wasn’t playing two of those bigs together. Derek [Willis] gave us — and again, we’re totally different this year. Derek gaves us a stretch four at 6-9. These are playmaking fours. Derek was a shooting four. That’s what he was. These guys, they can do it on the bounce. They’re not as good a shooter as he was, but they can do stuff off the bounce. So now, OK, how do you play? Your pick-and-roll becomes more of an action to get the ball in the hands of the four so he can make plays. With Derek, it was get him to the 3-point line so it opened up for a guard or he could shoot. I’m not trying to get ahead of myself, but there are things we’re going to have to teach that I haven’t done before with this team.”
FINAL FOURCAST: How each Wildcat can help make another deep run
On SKJ learning to fight through pain, etc.: “Way better. There’s things they get away with that, ‘I’ll still be OK,’ and then you get behind. It happened to Wenyen. Then you get behind and all of a sudden every game is on national television and all of a sudden you shoot three airballs and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t play,’ and all of a sudden the season ends. I mean, this thing is a daily grind of building your own self-esteem, your own confidence. I can’t build it for you. You work and then you have to have demonstrated performance. If you’re not building your own confidence, more than likely you’re breaking it down yourself. By not working, knowing you’re not doing what you’re supposed to, knowing you’re not doing everything and thinking it’s going to be OK and then when it doesn’t happen and things go south, you know, ‘It was me.’ And now it doesn’t matter what you say or I say or the fans say. I always come back to that: They build their own confidence and they build their own self-esteem. Yeah, we’re there to be positive when we need to be and tell them no when we need to tell them no, but at the end of the day you’ve got to get in and prove to yourself what you are.”
On if Kevin Knox is really a guard: “Yeah. When you talked about shooters, he might be — he and Jamarl [Baker] — be our best shooters. But I’m trying to get him to — I want him to drive the ball and have to make decisions. We’ve done some of the dribble-drive stuff, but because of these new rules, we’ve had to give them time off now, so the way they’re doing these days, we haven’t started. But he’s good. He’s good. He’s a good player. He’s young. He just turned 18, so he’s kind of like Michael Kidd was and Sacha way and Isaac [Humphries] was. They’re really young. They come in, they’re not older that way.”
On if Knox successfully kept him in the dark on where he was committing as well as any recruit: “You know, probably. But Hami was really — no emotion, wouldn’t say anything and then call you and say, ‘I want to come in midseason.’ What? And I thought Hami was important for this class because of his athleticism and his ability to get to the basket. We haven’t mentioned him. What I’m trying to get these guys to understand is none of them are there yet. And if you think you are, you’re delusional — or you really don’t want this. Like, you don’t want to work. Or you’re delusional. None of the guys are where they need to be. This is going to be one of those season-long [processes]; we’ve been through it before. It’s hard. It’s hard to be patient for me and our fans and everybody else, but you’re just going to have to be. Because we’re not even going to know exactly how we’re going to be playing in February, in March. We won’t. But we’re talented, we got a great group of kids.
“Again the fantasy campers — two or three players are with each team — probably had 20 guys come back to me and say, ‘What a great group of kids.’ Some of you in the media that met with them the other day and just said, ‘Another great group of kids.’ So we have that, but it’s just individually they’re not there yet. Collectively, obviously, we’re not there yet. And it’s not just athletically, running up and down the court. It’s, ‘OK, how do we play?’ It’s not exchanging baskets. How do we play to win? They have absolutely no idea. They’re exchanging baskets. ‘You get one, I get one. OK, watch this. I can’t get one, here, you try to get one.’ That’s where they are right now and that’s where they should be. They’re a bunch of young kids who were the best player on their high school team, took all the shots, and now we come in and say, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to have to play.’ They’re attentive, they want to be coached, they want to win. It’s just going to be that road that we usually take here: it’s going to be hard.”
On why Quade Green is better than he thought: “Quade is a — I want to say almost a walk-it-up kind of point guard. Like, would get it and have to … He runs the run floor like Tyler runs it. Now, I’m not comparing him to Tyler because that wouldn’t be fair to him, but he runs the court like Tyler did. You guys will say, ‘Wow, he has a lot of those traits.’ But that doesn’t get it here. You have to be able to play fast. Pace matters here. And pace matters because we need more possessions. Why do we need more possessions? Because we’ve got more players. We have to get a minimum number of shots so that everybody gets some shots, to be honest. That’s the bottom line. If we walked it up and took 50 shots a game, I’m not sure it would work here with what we’re doing. So I told him that: ‘You have to either sprint it or throw it ahead, one of the two.’ I didn’t see him in a high school game do it. So the summer unfolds, we do some workouts, they have some stuff and he’s playing fast. Like, he’s really sprinting the ball up, he’s throwing it ahead, he gets people involved.
“Got some things to do defensively, be more disruptive and all those things, because of his size. But I said to him in front of the team the last meal before we went home for summer, ‘You know, Quade is better than I thought.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know you were this fast.’ And you know what his comment was? ‘I didn’t know either. I didn’t know I was this fast either.’ And I said, ‘So why are you playing like this?’ He says, ‘Because you told me — and you told me if I didn’t, I wouldn’t play.’ And that’s good for the other guys to hear, like, ‘I told him you’re not going to play now, so the rest of you understand you’re going to play the way you have to play for you and for us to be on that floor and I don’t care who you are, where you came from, what [all-star] game you were in. Doesn’t matter to me.’ So that was a good thing and for him to be able to tell his teammates that.”
On if Shai can play on the ball some, too: “Yeah, because Shai is not like the pure [point guard]; Shai can run the point — he’s good — but he’s more of an, ‘I’m going to try to get some baskets; I’m going to break this off,’ that feel to be that position. He’s not to the level of Quade, but this kid is 6-5, he’s long, he can go get baskets. He’s got kind of an old man’s game, flips and all that other stuff. Great work ethic. He’s playing. And they can play together, he can play by himself, could play those two and Hami together if you wanted to.”
On if all the freshmen hurt defense: “The hardest thing is that on defense they don’t play every position and one basket doesn’t matter to them. ‘Come on! They get the ball and I’ll run toward the ball and they throw it over my head and get a layup.’ Well, you gotta go back. ‘Ah, come on, let’s go.’ I mean, that’s the typical freshman, not you’re fighting every possession defensively, you’re trying to make it so hard on them — and if you do and you rebound the ball, we’re not really running offense. Go, make plays, if you don’t have it up one side, get it up the other side. It’s an easier way to play if you defend. Sustaining an effort and staying in a stance and talking, one of the things I asked a couple of them, I said, ‘Tell me, when you were playing against the Pelicans [who practiced at UK some during the summer], what was the biggest thing?’ They talk! I said, ‘Yeah, and they won like 24 games last year.’
“They were like, ‘Man, they talk.’ You have Rondo — Rajon with talking with Anthony [Davis] about how they’re playing pick-and-rolls and they’re talking to each other and the weakside guys are talking and these (UK) guys now are hearing. If you don’t talk, we can’t survive. If it’s about winning, you will force yourself to talk to each other, because you’re trying to win. That’s the hardest thing for young kids to do. But for me, it’s going to be if we’re doing new things offensively, if we’re playing away from the ball different than we have, the good news is none of these guys know. It’s not like I have a whole team that I’m trying to change how we play. It’s a new canvass. ‘This is what I want this to look like,’ and I’m not sure it’ll be right. We’ll try it. We’re going to start this week on Friday-Saturday for the first time. And I’m going to throw in some stuff, just see how it looks.”
On things he figured out P.J. Washington and Hamidou Diallo can and can’t do on the Team USA trip: “Most of it is get in great shape. Most of it is every possession matters and you can’t act like stuff doesn’t matter. Things that I’m not worried about, that I can get them to do. Consistency in different areas of their games. What happens to young guys: They don’t know how to truly practice, like, for example, shooting. If you go in the gym and you tiptoe shoot and then you jump shoot and then you tiptoe shoot and then you get in and start playing and you shoot it different. You all think different is like this one, this one, that one [various arm angles]. Different is how you elevate. So it’s OK if it’s a deep-shot three to elevate [more] or have a little different shot, because it’s a deeper shot. But every other shot you shoot — off the bounce, off the catch, stepping in, two dribbles — you elevate the same way.
“These guys don’t know that, so now they get in the game and their elevation is different every time they shoot, which means they’re shooting a different shot. You watch a professional player: he shoots it exactly the same way every time. It doesn’t always go in, but it is exactly the same shot. And they work on shooting exactly the same shot. So it’s more muscle memory than mental memory. If it’s mental memory, you will go mental. If it’s muscle memory, you have amnesia, because you’re not thinking about it. And that’s when they say, ‘The dude’s in a zone!’ Yeah, he’s not thinking; he’s just going to muscle memory. They have no idea. P.J., Hami, even Kevin, there are times he’s kind of leaning [back] and it’ll go straight up. Every shot’s got to be the same kind of shot.”
On communication: “Everything is about them [in high school]. So you either talk to me or … Whether it’s defense or offense, you think about bringing in — Malik Monk’s high school team, he had no one to practice against, and then he played probably two showcase games where someone could play him and give him problems. De’Aaron Fox, the best player on his team other than him was a ninth-grader. I mean, I can go on. These kids are in situations where they’re not forced to talk. Like I said, you sit on the floor and you’re watching an NBA game, dudes are screaming at each other. Not mean. They just gotta talk loud because they’ve got to hear each other. So there is so much chatter going on in those games.
“That’s when a team is empowered. When I talk about an empowered team, they’re talking to each other, they’re really playing off each other. If something happens, I don’t need to say it; they go to each other: ‘What happened? OK, so when he does that, make sure you’re … OK, we got it. You two know what you’re doing? OK, yeah, let’s go. Alright, offensively …’ That’s when a team is empowered. This team, you still have this: Things will go wrong; will they take responsibility? They’re 17, 18 years old. Will the people around them have them take responsibility? Oh, no. So they’re going to be enabled and they’re going to start blaming. That’s the part of what we do.
“I put up an excuse board sometimes with some teams. You know what I’m talking about? I number like 10 excuses. My girlfriend was … have a cold … a hamstring. They get like 1-10. I say, ‘Look, I don’t have time to hear your whole excuse. Just give me a number.’ And then I’ll tell them you can give me combinations: You can give me a 3-5, doesn’t matter, but I don’t need a whole sentence. Just give me a number so we can move on.”
On if girlfriends are usually No. 1: “It’s one of those. It’s in the top three, I can tell you.”
On Egypt: “The experience, to be able to be there, I enjoyed the experience. It’s just, to spend that kind of time away is a hard deal. I did the DR thing for a while. But I will say I walked away — it helped give me a better picture for those two guys [Diallo and Washington] of where I need to go with them. Also, there was some good stuff that was run over there that I can look at, because FIBA plays a little different. Different spacing, the players are different kind of players, so it was good for that experience. We didn’t let them ride the camel. But I rode the camel. The hard part is when they go to get you off, you feel like you’re in a dive. But the pyramids and all that stuff, to be able to say — it’s one of those places I’d never been.”
On Quade Green saying he wants to be the best defensive guard he’s coached and if he saw that in HS: “He’s a tough guy, but Tyler Ulis was ridiculous and Eric Bledsoe, I can think back. We’ve had some really good guards. It’s a great thing for him to challenge himself with. The biggest thing he’s got to be is disruptive. The other thing he’s got to be able to do is, ‘How are you going to play in pick-and-roll defense? Are you a guy who can either fight the screen or figure out how to get over? If we switch, can you fight a big?’ Like, the best way to play pick-and-roll defense is just swtich and then there is no offense. But you’ve got to be able to guard — a big’s got to be able to guard a guard, which I think we’ll do; the other side of it is the guard’s gotta be able to guard the big. Can he do it? You can say, ‘You could pass him off.’ Well, there’s some coaches that do it in a way that you can’t. When you switch, those two gotta play those two. Those are things he’ll have to learn, and we’ll have to learn if he can do them.”
On Ulis being able to switch onto 7-footers: “And guard him. He’s just, that’s why I don’t like comparing anybody to him. The first time I saw De’Aaron Fox, I wasn’t sold. The first time I saw Tyler, I wasn’t sold. And then the more you watch him and you get all the little things and you say, ‘He’s good enough.’ ”
On if Diallo could be a stopper like Deandre Liggins: “No, Deandre was — again, I don’t want to compare him to him like that, because that kid would go in and just … he might not let you catch the ball, and then he’d go after it. He had a different mentality. But (Diallo) has the athleticism, the length — matter of fact, he’s bigger than Deandre. He doesn’t have the discipline, but I would imagine neither did Deandre early on. But he doesn’t have the defensive discipline. That’s right now. None of them do. He could, but that’s a tall order right there. And when you saw Deandre playing that way, he was, what? A junior? Probably 23 years old.”
On a having a string of elite shot-blocking teams and a recent drought in that area: “You’ll have shot blocking. Nick is a shot-blocker. Jarred and PJ and now all the sudden your other guys are big. We will be a long, athletic team. That’s not the issue. The issue I keep coming back to is how are you going to play in the half court? How are you going to play if you have three forwards? What are you going to do if you play a smaller lineup and what does a smaller lineup need? How will you play then? Those are the questions that have got to be answered.
“Defensively, what’s your best defensive team that you can put on the floor. Can you press with this team? It would be better to press to get more people in games. Can you play a zone with this team? We’re walking in where we are so far behind every other team. We are walking in with, I don’t know. You don’t have the time in the summer, working two hours a week. They come back, we can’t touch them for seven days or whatever it is. We’ll be behind. That’s all part of it.”
On if he’s better prepared to coaching such a young team after eight years of coaching young teams: “I’ve always played young players. Even, you know, like when we were at UMass, I played guys as freshmen. I’ve always played freshmen. All freshmen played. I just didn’t always play all freshmen — three guys, four guys, five guys. But there were always one or two freshmen on my team. What they have to do is catch up to the other guys. But in the end, they were just as good, if not better, than the (older) guys. They just had to get more disciplined, get a better feel for their teammates and stuff like that.
“This is a totally different deal. This is kind of like what we had in 2014 where you have a good group of kids, you have a talented group of kids, but they’re not ready to win basketball games. They’re exchanging baskets. That’s where this team is. So, hopefully, because I’ve been through it. You know what, that’s like saying, ‘You’ve been through a root canal, you can do this again, right? You’ll be better prepared and you’ll do fine, right? You know what’s coming.’ No. It’s still going to be painful.”
On who this team will turn to for leadership: “It will develop. When you watch the court, you say Quade will lead. But you need Hami. If you’re going to be that guy, you gotta lead. And leading means you gotta serve them. I’ve talked to Hami about that. I said, ‘Man, you can’t go off in your room and put your headphones on. These guys gotta know you are there for them. They gotta know it. They gotta know you’re not just here to do your thing. You cannot lead if that’s who you are. And when your stuff goes south, no one is going to help you if you’re that way. If you want to lead, everyone here is going to be about you. That means they got to know, Hami is for me. But that’s all new to these guys. Bob Rotella [famous sports psychologist] tells me all the time, ‘You’ve got to teach them how to lead. If you want them to lead, you better teach them because if you think they know that, you’re crazy.’ They don’t.”
On roles for the ‘older’ guys on such a young team: “We haven’t gotten to that yet, but in most cases they will dictate what their role is. What I always say here is that if you want to play at Kentucky you’ve got to be willing to carve out your own space because you’re not going to be the only guy. You will need to carve out your own space. If a guard calls John Wall and says, ‘I’m thinking about going to Kentucky.’ He’ll will say one thing: ‘Can you get your own shots?’ The guy says, ‘Why?’ And John says, ‘Because he’s not running plays for you. You gotta got go get your own shots.’ When somebody came back to me and told me he said that, I said, ‘I hate to tell you, he’s right.’ So guys like Wenyen, Sacha, Tai, they’re going to have to carve out space.
“When Karl came here, both Willie [Cauley-Stein], Dakari [Johnson] and even Trey [Lyles] were better than Karl. We all forget that. ‘He was a pro before he got here.’ He was rated ninth or 10th or 11th in the McDonald’s game. When he showed up here, Willie and Dakari were far ahead of him. Then he carved out his space. Now, he forgets that path. He has amnesia about everything. You ask him, ‘From Day One, I was this.’ No you weren’t. Stop. He figured it out. And we’ve had other players that have had to carve out their space. That’s what you have to do here. In Wenyen’s case, ‘Wenyen, there are some other guys just like you, but they’re young. They haven’t been through this.’ But I can’t do it for you. Well, you’re older. That’s not how I do this.
“That’s why when you ask me about freshmen, I’ve probably started, my guess is, 30 to 40 freshmen since I’ve been in coaching. I’ve probably had the freshman of the year in the league 20 years. I’m guessing, how many years have I coached? (23 years). I’m guessing 20 of those years I’ve had freshman of the year. I’ve had national freshman of the year. And if they weren’t freshman of the year, they were on the all-freshman team and the reason they weren’t freshman of the year is that someone else on our team was freshman of the year and now you’re just first-team all-freshman. I’m playing freshmen if they are better than the players that were already here. That’s not my fault. If you were here, you had the experience, you’ve been coached, you’ve been challenged. If you let that guy be better than you then he’s better than you. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to play or you won’t make it. Devin Booker came off the bench and has done fine. So that’s how it kind of rolls.”
On if he has an alpha-dog personality on the roster: “PJ has that mentality. I would say Hami has that personality. I think Quade has the personality. You know, I think you have a couple.”
On the most ‘positionless’ guy on the roster: “Probably Jarred. What the hell is he? He’s 6-9 and everybody loves him. You talk to anybody that evaluates us and they’re all like, ‘Wow.’ ”
On a P.J. Washington-Chuck Hayes comparison: “He doesn’t — Chuck had a bigger body, like just a wider frame kind of guy. Your arms (wing span) are supposed to be the same as your height. Now most of you in here, you have short arms. You [can’t even] reach in your pockets and that sort of stuff. Like alligators, you just can’t reach for anything. But PJ’s are plus-eight inches. It is so ridiculous. Plus-eight inches when he does this [extends both arms]. Around the goal, it’s a basket. But we’ve got to prepare him for more than that. Running the floor. Being the initiator. If he rebounds it, bring it up and be the point guard. The same with Jarred. If you rebound it, you’re the point guard. Go and everybody fly. But the other side of it is that his strengths around that basket, rebounding the ball and coming up with balls, he’s good. He’s good.”
On poor free-throw shooting for Washington and Diallo during FIBA World Cup: “In Egypt, [Washington] was awful. I told him, ‘This is good you are getting this out now because you know you can’t be in the game late if this is who you are.’ But there is no reason for him to be a bad free-throw shooter. But I think again, everything comes down to his lift. Even if you’re getting just on your toes for free throws the lift makes it about muscle memory. If your lift is different, it’s just you’re mental with it. It’s more mental than muscle memory.
“I think they’re both tough enough that late in games they’ll make shots, but that’s one area they’ve got to improve. There is one way to do it. Get mechanically right and then get in the gym and just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot so that you build your own self-confidence. You can’t there and say and say, ‘All right you’re going to be OK,’ when he’s in his mind thinking, ‘No way I’m making this.’ ‘You’ll be fine, you’ll make this.’ ‘I’m not making this.’ ‘Yes you will, you’re gonna be great, he’s making this.’ Walk to the line, ‘OK he ain’t making this. You guys, make sure you rebound.’ ”
On how having good passing forwards will help the Cats: “Weak-side actions, which we haven’t done before, which is part of why I’m saying what I’m saying. All these guys can really pass. So if that’s the case then you can’t put them in situations where they’re just catching it to score. Now, you’re initiating offense through them. So the pass goes to seven feet and they square up, they are now the point guard and if they are the point guard what are you doing away from the ball? That’s what I’m talking about. I’m still walking through exactly, like you have to put them through drills to get them to understand what you’re doing. Defenses will sag, they’ll switch, OK now what are you doing? What you going to do? They’ll try to go under. They have to learn how to play basketball.
“Just like the dribble-drive, which we will teach. Teaches them how to play, the drills. How much dribble-drive have we done? Depends on the team. How much have we played through a four the last couple of years? Derek as a playmaker? Alex as a playmaker? OK, now, you’ve got playmakers. It is different. How we play to their strengths is totally different. That’s why I’m saying, somebody said to me you’re going to be a better shooting team than you think because your guards, this guy, this guy, that guy. You’re going to have enough on the floor and the other guys are going to have enough. You’re going to be better than you think. I still think teams will sag and play zone. That’s what I think teams will do to us. I don’t think anybody is going to stretch the floor, which they haven’t most years. If they stretch the floor and try to press us it plays to our advantage.”
On former UK star Karl-Anthony Towns taking a stand for social justice: “I liked it, reading it because it was thoughtful. I liked it because he had an opinion that was an educated opinion. There were people probably read it that didn’t agree, there were people who agreed. People really happy, probably people really mad. So he has an opinion, but it was educated opinion, it was well thought out and it made you think. It was good.
“I said it a year ago, educate yourself. Don’t be at the front of the line because they want you at the front of the line because of your name. Educate yourself. What are they protesting? Do I agree with what they’re protesting? Is everything involved in this what I agree with? What are the consequences if I do this act? If I break windows is it worth me going to jail? Is there another way I can make it known, is there another way to protest, is there another way to get my point across? Karl’s point is the he wrote a blog. I’m going to let people know how I feel. There are all kinds of ways. Now educate yourself, understand what you’re now protesting and what it stands for.
“We’ve had that talk [with the current team]. I walked through the Civil War with the guys. A little disappointed they didn’t know more. What in the world? All the stuff that could happen, should happen. People are going to come at you. Do you understand what this is about? Do you understand it’s not just this? We walked through it. Now you have athletes again choosing not to stand for the Anthem. I said we’re not there yet because we’re not going to be in front of the anthem, but we will talk about it and, ‘I need you — you need to talk to me. Tell me know what you think. You educate me, I’ll educate you and we’ll talk about it.’ I will be with them like I’m with Karl. I may not agree with everything or how they choose to let their feelings be known, but if it’s educated, if they understand the risk, they understand the consequences, I’ll be with them.”
On the power of his position as Kentucky’s coach and if he’s careful about using it to make social or political statements: “There are some times when I’ll say some stuff and [support staff at Kentucky are] like, ‘Why don’t we hold that back?’ But the best thing that we have going here is I cannot tweet myself. I have to give it to somebody to do it because I don’t have a computer at home, I can’t see the phone. I’d probably mess it up. So it goes through somebody first and then it hits six eyes, maybe eight eyes, before my stuff does anything. And then we talk and the reason is because I am sensitive to the seat I hold. I’m also sensitive to not getting into the political fray of Republican-Democrat. Just kind of, ‘Here is how I feel.’ But I am an American. I’m an Italian citizen, too, but I am a citizen who has the ability and the right to speak my mind. But it’s different for me because I have a seat that I shouldn’t try to sway politics. I shouldn’t. If I’m not in this seat, that would be different. But I am in this seat. That’s just how I feel. I know some people won’t agree. ‘Well, you should [speak out] even more.’
“There are things that I will stand up for, if I think something is right and something is wrong, that’s a totally different deal. But how you get to the end result of taking care of people, getting more people to work, health care – there are different ways of doing it. Now, I think we should have more jobs for people. I think we should have health care that works. I think our immigration should be fixed where there are people within the country that have worked and done. How do we fix it? I can’t stand ISIS. I mean, but basically, what I’m say to you is that there is stuff out there and there are all kinds of ways of doing it.
“It’s really funny: If I stood with President Bush, which we have, I mean I got people mad that I would even go near this guy. When I sit down with President Clinton, they go nuts. When we showed up and took a phone call from President Obama, bang. I’ve talked to President Trump, before he was President Trump, and people go nuts. If I’m sitting with Mitch McConnell, they go crazy. When I took a picture with Congresswoman Pelosi, oh my gosh, you would have thought, I was just …
“Me meeting with somebody or talking to them or asking them questions — I sat down with Leader McConnell when I was in DC and we had a great conversation. Whether he’s a Republican or Democratic or Independent, those guys are impacting lives. I would like to know what they’re thinking. I would like to talk to them. In this seat, it’s not my job to move somebody to believe, or that here is the issue and this is how we should deal with it. You know? I don’t think I should do it. Some don’t agree with me. Some think I should do it because I can impact. Well what if I impact it the way you don’t see it. Well, don’t impact it? Oh really. So I should only impact it if it’s the way you think I should impact. OK. That works.”
On if he’ll run for office some day: “No. I don’t know where that came from. Let me just say this: It’s getting — we are above the fray [as coaches], but it’s still nasty. People say stuff. Like, just what? Like none of those guys are one-and-done, just say stuff, it is nasty. Let me say this, compared to politics, we’re in a playpen. So, no. I could have a better impact donating money and doing stuff like that.”
On how well he knows Donald Trump: “I don’t know him that way. I didn’t meet with him, I talked to him by phone. Everybody that tells me they met him in person tells me he’s totally different in person than he is when he gets in front of a camera. That’s what everybody said to me. And I may try to get with him just to — look, my grandparents came through Ellis Island. Didn’t speak English. My parents were high-school educated laborers. And I can sit down with presidents? ‘Well, you shouldn’t do it.’ Screw you. If I’ve got a chance to do it, I’m going to sit down with the president, whoever that president might be. Are you kidding me? So, at some point I would love to sit down with him and just, you know. But everybody tells me the same thing: In front of a camera he’s a certain way, but if you meet with him and you’re around him he’s different.”
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