Stench on Final Four: Indiana bigotry, Calipari one-and-doneism cloud a classic field 

click to enlarge Sometimes-controversial coach John Calipari is chasing history with an undefeated Kentucky team. - DAVID RICHARD/AP FILE PHOTO
  • David Richard/AP file photo
  • Sometimes-controversial coach John Calipari is chasing history with an undefeated Kentucky team.

Celebrating Americana should have been easy enough this weekend, down yonder in the Indiana heartland, where the highest glories are extended to God, Steak 'n Shake and basketball (though often not in that specific order). Spring is upon us, and so is a uniquely potent Final Four, oozing of men and missions worthy of mass appreciation.

Mike Krzyzewski, at present the finest coach in any sport, has brought necessary dabs of dignity to the sport's one-and-done culture at regal-as-ever Duke. Tom Izzo, whose in-season reclamation projects should be channeled by CEOs at struggling corporations, is back with Michigan State. Close the eyelids, hear Bo Ryan preach fundamentals and fun at Wisconsin, and this could be 1972, with a star named Frank the Tank and a bunch of Cheesehead kids giddy just to meet Will Ferrell last week.

Maybe, hopefully, one of those teams will win the national title come Monday night. But for now, they are mere dustballs on a stage dominated by bigotry and exploitation.

From the Olympics to the Super Bowl to the Masters, the sports classics sometimes collide with societal failings. What a damned shame. I'd prefer this Final Four not be remembered for Indiana's repulsive Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the damage already is done, with Hoosier folk free to discriminate against gays and lesbians who merely want a quick bite to eat. I'd also prefer the championship coach not be someone who, for decades, has been playing a naked greed game — and twice has had to vacate Final Four appearances because of dirty dealings in his programs. Yet there is John Calipari, with Jay Z and LeBron James on speed dial and $103 million worth of former players balling in the NBA this season, poised to complete the eighth perfect season in college basketball history when no one is entirely certain he's running a college basketball operation.

"Scared money don't make no money," Coach Cal yells at his players in huddles.

Not exactly what Norman Dale told Jimmy Chitwood in "Hoosiers."

But then, just as the movie was fictionalized, the state of Indiana also has exposed itself as intolerant. Regardless of how the law is written — it is positioned to protect religious freedom when a circumstance "substantially burdens" those beliefs — the purpose clearly is to defend businesses that don't support the LGBT community in a church-going state. So, rather than ask Krzyzewski about why he never coached in the NBA or ask Ryan about his old-school methods or ask Frank Kaminsky about why he eschewed pro millions to return another season, some media members will skip those very cool stories and drive to Walkerton, Ind., where a restaurant, Memories Pizza, became the first Indiana business to publicly support the new law.

If nothing else, you'd think Gov. Mike Pence would understand the foundation of Indiana's economy. So much there is grounded in sports prosperity. The NCAA loves Indianapolis as a Final Four host for its men's and women's tournaments. The NFL loves Indianapolis as the annual host for its draft combine and was so impressed by its first Super Bowl runout that another might be coming in 2019. The NBA has a team there. The Big Ten Conference does business there. Hell, the NCAA is based there.

Why would you want to chase them away — and their megabillions — to appease a few bigots who get queasy when a gay couple holds hands in a diner? And make no mistake: In these complicated social times when sports leagues are required to be more image-conscious and progressive than ever, they'll all flee Indiana quicker than a race car at the famed Speedway if the law is not repealed.

"Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard," said a statement from the NFL, which welcomed openly gay Michael Sam into the league last year. "We are continuing to analyze the implications of the law."

Said NCAA President Mark Emmert, in an ESPN interview: "As it becomes better understood, we're going to have to sit down and make judgments about whether or not it changes the environment for us doing our work and for us holding events."

The week's headlines have been dominated by those who aren't attending the Final Four — Pat Haden, the University of Southern California athletic director, is staying home as the "proud father" of a gay son; the University of Connecticut, following an executive order from the state governor banning spending on Indiana-related travel, didn't send men's basketball coach Kevin Ollie, whose team won the national championship last year. If next year's women's Final Four remains in Indiana, expect a boycott by UConn's famed program.

Given the tension, it would be convenient for a nation's collective comfort level if Anyone But Kentucky won this weekend. That very well could happen if the Wildcats play unevenly again, as they did Saturday night in surviving a Notre Dame team that should have won. They needed to hit their final nine shots to escape.

"Desperation, probably," Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison said of the bailout. "We had no choice, or we were going to lose."

"We're undefeated. We're not perfect," Calipari keeps saying.

Wisconsin was near-perfect in the second half of the West Regional final against Arizona. A similar performance puts Kentucky-bashers and Coach Cal-haters out of their misery. "I came back because I thought we had a chance to win a championship," Kaminsky said. "We're two games away."

Not that Calipari isn't masterful at what he is: a lockdown recruiter who woos the parents with promises of funneling their prodigious children to the NBA, where riches await. Since landing at Kentucky, where he recently signed a $52.2 million extension for seven years, Calipari has sent 12 players to the league after one-and-done seasons, with Anthony Davis and John Wall selected No. 1 in their respective drafts. He is a tireless networker and social-media maven who understands 2015 and squeezes it for all his salesmanship might.

But is this truly college basketball? We were asking the same thing when agents were dealing illegally with Marcus Camby at Massachusetts. We were asking the same thing when someone else took a college-entrance exam for Derrick Rose at Memphis. The NCAA took away Final Four berths, victories. Somehow, Coach Cal survived and kept thriving. That is not a success story as much as Whitey Bulger surviving on the lam, until the authorities finally nailed the fugitive years later.

"Ain't that America, for you and me," native Hoosier John Mellencamp sang.

This ain't my America.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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