Appearing at Harrah's Tunica, Kentucky-bound former University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari heard himself praised by emcee Dave Woloshin and by Calipari's youthful coaching successor, Josh Pastner, a former Calipari aide, for what they said was a high proportion of graduating seniors among his scholar athletes.
Well, fine, but how does that fact stack up against the prevalence of "one-and-done" stars like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, who sparked the Tigers' 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournament contenders, respectively? Which is to say, the high graduation rate was based only on seniors and not on the totality of the players in Calipari's program.
The guest of honor Monday night, former National Basketball Association great and current TNT commentator Charles Barkley, said something which we regard as more salient. Speaking against the current de facto compact between the NBA and the NCAA, which requires that a full year must pass from the time of a prospective player's high school graduation date and his eligibility to play in the NBA, Barkley opined that the bar should be raised to at least two years. That idea was consistent both with his belief that the additional year of college play better equips a player for the rigors of pro play and with a more expansive theme of Barkley's.
Acknowledging that which anybody with the remotest knowledge of the NBA knows — that pro basketball is primarily a black man's game — Barkley argued strongly, as he said he does in his speeches to high schools, that African Americans should think of themselves as something other than potential athletes or entertainers. That idea is hardly novel with Barkley, but it's underscored by the fact of its being said by an undisputed Hall of Famer. Barkley has also said that he prizes his current media job at TNT more than he does his years of basketball glory. Why? Because it gives him a bully pulpit to discuss the whole range of important life lessons.
As do most Memphians, we hope that Josh Pastner is able to recruit and coach to a level consistent with the bold declaration sported by a prominent Poplar Avenue billboard, which touted the Tiger basketball program during the recent NCAA tournament: "Local Pride/National Power."
The last we looked, the billboard was still there, but its message has become grimly ironic, given that Calipari is taking with him to the University of Kentucky the cream of the recruiting crop that might have kept Memphis playing next year at the same exalted level as it has for the last few.
It's good to be realistic about these things, including the possibility that the ambitious young Pastner may not be with us long: If he loses consistently, he'll be fired. If he wins, he may be plucked, as Calipari was, by some other basketball program.
Barkley is right, both in his insistence on the virtue of staying the course and in his advocacy of looking beyond the impermanence of athletic glory. After all, Coach Calipari helped teach us that last life lesson quite recently.