Don’t Live and Die By the Scoreboard



Winning isn’t everything.  But playing to win is.

This post is sort of about sports.  Sort of about UK basketball.  Sort of about life.

Life mirrors sport.  Or does sport mirror life?

Sometimes we need to shy away from the obsession with measuring results.  Pass/Fail?  What’s on the scoreboard?

Effort.  Heart.  Intentions.  Shouldn’t these count for something?

A few years back, I coached a middle school girls basketball team that played their hearts out every game, but always had terrible trouble putting the ball in the basket.  So many times they heard this phrase, “Girls we did so many things well tonight.  Competed hard. Showed tremendous heart.  But unfortunately, this gym has a scoreboard too.  Don’t let our lack of points showing on it trick you into thinking you didn’t play well.”

Judgement in this case needed to be based on effort, not results.  Don’t let results discourage you.  Keep working hard.

Conversely, don’t let wins trick you into thinking your level of play is acceptable.

My wife runs marathons.  I don’t run.  If I challenge her to a one-mile race and she beats me by one yard, who really wins?  Which one of us needs to make changes in their approach to competition?  To allow me to finish close behind her, one or both of these had to happen:

1)  I showed more heart than her and out-competed her.  I raised up to her level.

2)  She didn’t give maximum effort.  Did just enough to win.  She dropped to my level.

Is that acceptable?  Yeah, if you’re satisfied with where you are.  Not if you want to be a champion.

It’s better to lose than to consistently play poorly and win.

Losing necessitates the need for change.  Winning does not.

Why the obsession with results?  Measuring results.  Keeping score.

Sometimes we look the other way when somebody half-way does something.  Sometimes we have no reaction when somebody does something that lacks good judgement.  Our reaction only comes comes when the aftermath of their actions affects us.  Everything is peachy as long as results are good.  But results are overrated as a measuring stick.

But what about intentions?  Effort?  Motivation?

So many times bad results grow from good intentions.  I find myself soothing peoples’ reactions to bad results with the half-joking,

“Well, she meant well.”

But it’s true.  Otherwise, we are measuring ability rather than heart.

When a friend presents a laundry list of all the things that another friend is doing wrong, do we simply agree?  Or do we try to look at the heart and effort of the accused?  “I know they do ____ poorly, but they are trying their best.”

The person who recognizes their faults and works to improve is more admirable than one who can “produce” more with little effort.

The UK basketball program lives under the constant microscope of fans and media.   I suppose my microscopic assessments tend to irritate my fellow fans.  I’m too critical.  I can’t be pleased.  They’re just kids, you know.

What sets me apart?  Most fans watch games looking for a win.  I’m just strange.  I watch games with an eye for players doing things right.  The amount of effort that goes into doing things the right way.

Regular season games are learning opportunities.  The impact of the lesson is diminished when poor effort and execution still results in a win.

It’s better to lose than to play poorly and win.  The scoreboard becomes more important in March.

This holds true as long as your goal is to make steady improvement, day after day, game after game…… order to win when it really matters.

Last year’s Kentucky team lost 10 regular season games then made an incredible run to the NCAA finals.  A highly regarded team, loaded with ultra-talented freshmen  struggled throughout the season to the point of nearly missing the tournament.

Talent didn’t automatically result in wins.  Performance became so bad that I quit watching for a while, but not because of losses.

As a middle school basketball coach, I’m certainly not an expert on basketball, especially at higher levels.  But I do have a  firm grasp on the scope of fundamental skills and basketball knowledge that are necessary for success in high school.   If you can’t understand and carry out certain things, you don’t play.

Last years freshmen were the equivalent of passing a student through to high school that couldn’t read……….just because they were really good at math.  We had college freshmen who were absent of things that should have been present as high school freshmen.

As long as we’re winning playing zone defense, we don’t even have to learn any of the finer points of man to man defense.

As longs as Rivals has you rated high, there’s no reason to change your mental approach to game and practice.

As long as you can dunk over everybody, there’s no reason for you to learn basic low post footwork.

You get the picture.  Calipari’s team development was set back months due to the absence of fundamentals.  His elite freshmen had been allowed to skip over the finer details of basketball at all earlier levels simply because they produced results.

As a team, they were just beginning to grasp and execute concepts at the beginning of tournament time that should have been taught in their middle school days.

I was mortified at what 5-star recruits had become.  If we were going to get players like this every year, let’s change the model.  If 5-star guys have evolved into fundamentally poor underachievers, let’s get some 3-star guys that have failed enough to learn from it.  Let’s change the model.

Thankfully Cal has changed the model somewhat.  Kids that were headed for the D-league have stuck around for at least another year.  Cal’s fascination with winning a championship with all freshmen is a thing of the past.  And this year’s freshmen class has restored my faith in incoming high profile players.  These kids understand the game.  They compete hard.  They were properly prepared for college basketball.

In tough environments on the road, they understandably play like freshmen.  It’s part of the maturing process.  At home, they get complacent.  They get too comfortable.  They get outscored in the second half by teams that they lead by 20 at halftime.  And sometimes you look up and the opponent has a 34-17 rebounding advantage against our team that’s bigger than every NBA team but one.

Cal speaks one language to the media and public that sends a constant marketing message to incoming recruits.  He speaks another language to his players to make them the best they can be.  And he speaks yet another language to his assistant coaches (this would be the language of brutal truth).

I often speak the language of brutal truth when it comes to UK basketball.  Some people don’t  like to hear it.  If you only look at wins and losses, it seems to be harsh criticism of kids.  But if you listen closely……and watch closely, you’ll realize that I don’t criticize guys who lay it out for their school and their teammates, every second of every game.

When talented guys do this, the score will take care of itself.

Side notes:

*Why the Chris Gettelfinger picture?  Because if you don’t know who he is, don’t even try to argue with me.

*I have been accused of being too harsh in my criticism of the Harrison twins.  Cal has brought them along quite well.  They were grossly overrated coming in and expectations of them were unrealistic.  But they (along with James Young) may have possessed the poorest grasp of basketball fundamentals of anyone to ever wear a UK uniform.  And Andrew has the burden of playing out of position.  He isn’t a point guard and will never play a game in the NBA as a point guard.  His best bet for an NBA career is if his brother is drafted next year and he plays two years at 2-guard.

*If we don’t lose a game before the tournament, I think our chances of being national champs diminishes greatly.

*Lack of playing time for Hawkins and Willis has more to do with recruiting than it does with any other factors.  5-star guys in high school can’t see 5-star guys having to wait for playing time.

*For young high-profile athletes, I think there is too much hero-worshipping and butt-kissing on social media by fans and not enough honest correction and accountability by coaches and parents.  They float in the clouds because we put them there.  And we make excuses for them when the stumble………Jameis Winston is just a kid, you know.  But his actions are most likely a result of his heart & character…….not because he’s just a kid.  It’s ok to expect better.




Big Blue Nation- Some Things You Learn the Hard Way


“Shoot yeah, man!  We’re just gonna reload and compete for the Final Four pretty much every year”

Yes, I celebrated  a championship in 1996.  Never liked Pitino.  Just tolerated him while he was here.

Yes, I celebrated in 2012.  Calipari is ok.  He seems to be a little kinder to people .

I still think John Calipari was a great hire.

Of course I celebrated in 1998.  Tubby was my guy.  Integrity.  None of that northern arrogance.  A gentleman.

If you don’t like Tubby as a person, you may not like people.

If you loved Pitino when he was here but hate him now, then you will probably hate Calipari when he leaves too, like he left you at the altar.

But I kept a list of all the people who used the phrase “10-loss Tubby”.

I love coaches who can take their guys and beat your guys and don’t have to have supreme talent to win; winning ugly is acceptable.

I never bothered to learn how to spell Bill G’s last name.  I remember that there were people actually celebrating like it was actually a good thing that we’d fired Tubby and hired him.  Some things you learn the hard way.

Calipari’s potential 40-0 team quickly approaches becoming his 2nd consecutive 10-loss team (“Tubby has to go.  He just can’t recruit.)  Some things you learn the hard way.

My dad took my brother and me to our first UK game the first year Rupp Arena opened.  I remember actually saying a prayer as I listened on the radio when we trailed Providence in the NIT semifinals in 1976 (and of course the prayer was answered and we won).  I remember crazy details of the 78′ championship game as a 10 year-old boy.  Never missed a game as a student at UK, even Eddie Sutton’s last miserable year.  Saw adults cry after the 92′ Duke loss.  Scraped my knuckles on the ceiling during the 94′ LSU comeback.  Drove 15 hours with a pregnant wife to watch a regional final vs Tim Duncan’s Wake Forest team in 96′ in Minnesota.  Took an infant to the Final Four in 97.  Drove 22 hours with a toddler to San Antonio for the Final Four in 98.  Made it back to the Final Four with my son in 2011 in Houston and to the regional semifinals and finals in Atlanta with my son in 2012.  I bleed blue.  I take UK basketball kinda serious.

But this year, the craziest thing happened on the way to 40-0.  I quit watching.  No heart.  Lack of effort.  No fundamentals.  Mistakes that you’d expect freshmen in high school to get benched for, are repeated over and over and over, and the same kids stay on the floor giving the same lame effort.  Accountability?  Will to win?  Nope.  Laziest, most selfish team ever?  Definitely.

Gee,  I could park myself in front of the tv and watch bad teams compete hard and play with a sense of pride and lose night after night.  But I just couldn’t watch that crap any more.  Thirty years.  The worst.

All the irritating things that I have heard in recent years begin to sound so lame and based on wishful thinking.  Most of it can be filed under the category of “the same basic cloud of salesmanship that coach Cal spews 24/7/365 toward 18 year-old kids”.  People actually believe that we can fill our roster with high school kids and win a national championship even though it’s never been done before.  It hasn’t.  Don’t try to revise history on me.  And it’s not going to happen.  This year’s group of so-called super freshman have no clue how to play basketball.  I’d go as far as saying that anyone who coached them in middle school or high school should be tarred and feathered.  Calipari falls into that same category.  “Oh, it doesn’t matter if ____declares for the draft, we’ve got ____ coming in next year” (and he looks awesome on this mix tape that I watched on YouTube dunking against 5’10” guys)

Too much of this season is spent as a recruiting poster for next season.  The message is clear from Big Blue Madness on.

1) “We are a players first school”  FALSE.  That only applies if you are Anthony Davis or John Wall (then you are his recruiting pitch).  If you are Kyle Wiltjer or Ryan Harrow, you transfer because you may not have a scholarship.  If you’re Archie Goodwin or Marquis Teague you quietly walk away to the D-League.  If you are Jarrod Polson or Jon Hood you live like a 2nd class citizen while the 5-star guys get 40 minutes a game while giving horrible effort and embarrassing the Kentucky uniform.

2)  It’s all about the NBA.  All Calipari wants to talk about is how many players are in the league and this is the place to come if you want to get there.  Constantly parading former players around to impress the recruits.  Sure, it’s effective.  Perhaps it’s shallow and perhaps we have a shallow pool of players?  It’s certainly a shallow pool of basketball IQ, heart, will to win, and any resemblance of unity.

3)  Instant gratification.  This is the killer.

If the coach wants to develop players, he needs to shut up about one and done.  He needs to shut up about the draft. 

Kids are showing up that don’t know how to play.  They don’t need to show up on campus with intentions of staying only one year.  They need to have intentions of learning the game of basketball.  And here’s a novel idea that this year’s group seems to have missed out on their entire life:  they might need to set out to do all the things necessary to help their team win basketball games.  That brings us to the final point.

4)  Me.  It’s all about me.  The “One and Done” world has evolved a bit over recent years as this generation of players has passed through middle school and high school with the “elite” label, having the disadvantage of seeing the instant success of too many Derrick Rose types while their AAU & high school coaches have failed them with accountability and fundamentals…….and at the same time, college coaches are telling them they can be the next Lebron or D Rose.

5)  Me #2 is Cal’s ego.  He gets a little too caught up in draft numbers and NBA players and forgets about WINS in the ongoing system of the sales pitch production that UK basketball has become.    Coach has to kill the draft talk and get into some Vince Lombardi type stuff.  Nobody really cares about the NBA, especially UK fans.  Besides, he’s in danger of absolutely flooding the D-leaugue and Euro-leagues.  Cal owes it to his players to give them better and firmer life advice than to let them enter the draft when he knows they’re not going to get a sniff of an NBA roster, not to make his next year’s roster better but because he is in a position to give them advice that can have a huge impact on their financial future (Goodwin and Teague?  Really?  just another notch on his draft belt and get them out of the way for the next crop?  A chance for an actual nba career after 4 years of college? probably)  Selfish fans blindly drink it up and those players begin to fade into obscurity.  Who sees it coming and is in a good position to steer them away from it?

tubby and chuck

This picture is what college basketball is really about.  A man of integrity that can flat out coach.  And a player that did everything he could to help his team win……for 4 years.  I’m sick of the year-round production.  I’m not 18 and I get tired of propaganda geared toward the next crop of recruits.  I get tired of seeing kids on the floor wearing UK uniforms that act like they should be playing for Louisville.  Some players can make any coach look bad.  You can’t teach a kid to play with heart.  Cal better start recruiting some kids that have it.  He might even want to take Chuck Hayes with him to help him identify what it looks like.  Some things you learn the hard way.