Stumbling in a savior situation
A decade ago, Calipari's demanding ways as Nets coach rubbed some the wrong way
He was going to be the savior. And he let everyone know it. In a sense, those two sentences sum up the brief, controversial and turbulent NBA coaching career of college basketball's man of the hour, John Calipari.
Thirteen years ago, Calipari, who this week was given a record-setting eight-year, $31.65 million deal to coach the University of Kentucky, was in a similar position at the game's top level. Fresh off leading UMass to its first-ever Final Four appearance, Calipari was basketball's It Guy. At the tender age of 37, the New Jersey Nets, hoping he could lead them out of the doldrums, handed him the keys to their franchise.
They gave him a then-astounding five-year, $15 million contract that made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league and named him executive vice president of basketball operations. He was going to work magic in the Meadowlands, just like he did at UMass.
It never happened. Within three years, Calipari was gone, fired after losing 17 of his first 20 games in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
But, kind of like the man he's replacing at Kentucky (Billy Gillispie), Calipari's failure had at least as much to do with his dealings off the court as with his lack of success on it.
From day one, Calipari's talk of "changing the culture" rubbed members of the organization the wrong way. Sure, he was right (after all, the Nets had won just 30 games in each of the previous two seasons), but the holdovers, who had essentially run the place like a mom-and-pop operation, took offense at the way the savvy young hotshot pooh-poohed their way of doing things. He was also demanding to the point of absurdity, driving secretaries and underlings crazy.
"He would ask you to do something that can't be done in three days and he'd want it done in three hours," said one former member of the organization who was there for Calipari's final season. "You'd tell him it can't be done, and he was like, 'Yeah, it [bleeping] can.'"
And, accustomed to being the kingpin on a college campus, Calipari would stick his head where it didn't belong. He'd offer advice to those on the business side of the franchise, telling them a better way to do things. Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich can do that. But a 30-something pretty boy from the Atlantic 10?
His enemies within the organization began piling up. Outside of it too.
He fell out of favor almost immediately with the probing New York-area media, which never bought into his smooth-talking shtick. In March of 1997, it got ugly, as he called Dan Garcia, a reporter for The (Newark) Star-Ledger, a "Mexican idiot."
After offering what some characterized as a detached, insincere apology (he called it "my ill-advised attempt at humor"), Calipari was fined $25,000 by commissioner David Stern. It was the highest amount of money a league coach had ever been fined. With his team en route to a 26-56 record, Calipari was presiding over a disaster.
But even his detractors have to admit that Calipari knows basketball. And after making a few nice trades to get Keith Van Horn, Sam Cassell and Chris Gatling, he soon had things looking up on the court. Employing somewhat outside-the-box strategies for the NBA, he had the Nets constantly trapping the post, constantly fronting the post, and trapping every pick-and-roll.
It was a hard and grueling way to play, especially for undersized center Jayson Williams, but it paid dividends. The Nets went 43-39 and played competitively in being swept by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Williams, finishing second in the league in rebounding, became an All-Star and received a six-year, $86 million contract before the next season.
When the lockout ended and the 50-game 1999 season finally began, the Nets were expected to make the playoffs and make some noise once they got there. They had a talented starting five of Cassell, lottery pick Kerry Kittles, Kendall Gill, the budding star Van Horn and Williams. With Jordan having retired, they were being mentioned as Eastern Conference contenders.
While he still had plenty of foes within the organization, Calipari was indeed "changing the culture.'' The Nets, who practiced in a shabby gymnasium at a North Jersey trucking company in previous seasons, had a plush new practice facility that Calipari got the franchise to build. He upgraded the level of the team's road hotels and charter planes, and the club was getting national attention and developing an aura of panache.
But it all came tumbling down -- literally -- in the first game of the season, a thrilling, brutal, fight-marred loss at Atlanta. Already without the injured Kittles and Rony Seikaly, the Nets watched Cassell sprain an ankle and Williams suffer a broken nose, courtesy of a Dikembe Mutombo elbow. Cassell, the team's quarterback, would miss 13 of the next 17 games, putting three of Calipari's top seven players on the sidelines.
Williams continued to play but, armed with his new contract and face-of-the-franchise status, he was no longer gung ho about busting his tail in Calipari's punishing defensive schemes. The two never hit it off anyway, and Williams, team president Michael Rowe and GM John Nash felt no sympathy for Calipari as the Nets crumbled amid the injuries. Calipari had Cassell, Van Horn and Kittles in his corner, but Seikaly, Gill and assistant coach Don Casey were in the Williams/Rowe/Nash camp.
As the Nets' record got worse and worse -- 2-9, 3-12, 3-15 -- Calipari's detractors grew more emboldened and pounced on him, convincing the team's new ownership that the polarizing coach had to go. By the time the Nets made what they thought could be a season-saving trade, sending Cassell to Milwaukee in a three-team deal that landed them Stephon Marbury, Calipari's fate was sealed.
The day after Marbury made his Nets debut, Calipari, with hardly any allies left within the organization, was fired with a 3-17 record, 72-112 overall.
"We hit a bump in the road, but I wanted to push forward and get over it,'' he said on the day of his dismissal. "It's funny -- Bill Parcells called me today and said his third year in New England he was 6-10, and in his fourth year, they went to the Super Bowl.''
Even on his way out the door, Calipari remained a silver-tongued salesman, name-dropping with the best of them. It didn't work in the New York metropolitan area, but it's likely to have them eating out of his palm in the Bluegrass state.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.