John Calipari won't fail again in NBA

Jayson Williams is actively rooting for John Calipari to lose, and yes, this one is personal. As a New Jersey Nets power forward in a different life, Williams did not accept the coach's relentlessly abrasive approach. As a man who later faced charges connected to the accidental shooting death of his limo driver, Williams did not appreciate Calipari's choice to break from a largely supportive circle of past and present colleagues by publicly questioning his character.

So all these years later, with a 26-month prison stay behind him, the former Nets All-Star rooted for Hampton in Kentucky's first NCAA tournament game and for Cincinnati in the second. Williams will root for West Virginia on Thursday night, and for any other opponent that might stop Calipari from completing the first 40-0 season in college basketball history.

"Cal kicked me when I was down," Williams said.

So when he ran into Shabazz Napier, the former Connecticut guard who last April in the NCAA tournament denied Calipari his second national title at Kentucky, Williams hugged him and thanked him. Over the phone the other day, Williams wondered if NCAA detectives would ever chase Calipari back to the NBA and delete the same kind of records and memories they'd erased at Memphis and Massachusetts.

It wasn't an unfair thought, not when you consider what then-Kentucky president Lee Todd revealed about Calipari's 2009 job interview while he stood on the floor of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, after the Wildcats advanced to the 2011 Final Four: "It was a three-hour conversation," Todd said, "and then he convinced me that this banner won't come down."

This morning, there's no evidence that John Calipari runs anything but a clean, mean fighting machine at Kentucky, and one serving as a worthy model for all. Basketball people love to point out that a team is a reflection of its coach, and even Calipari's most ardent detractors can't deny him the obvious or, as he'd say, steal his joy on this front. The Wildcats play hard, play unselfishly and even honor some virtues John Wooden forgot to include in his pyramid of success. That's got to say something encouraging about this 56-year-old version of Coach Cal, right?

If some familiar faces on his enemies list (it's a long one) don't quite see it that way, count Williams among them. He hated how Calipari berated Nets players and staffers over the coach's two-plus seasons in New Jersey from 1996 to '99 and how he'd mocked the player in his book, "Bounce Back," by saying he should've "done everything in my power to trade Jayson Williams. Heck, I would have traded him for a mascot."

So Williams doesn't want Kentucky to lose; he just wants Kentucky's coach to lose, even if the oddsmakers say he won't get his wish. And whether or not Calipari does go down in this tournament, he'll surely be part of the same post-dance dance he engaged in last year, when he negotiated with the Cleveland Cavaliers before signing a $52 million extension to stay in Lexington, Kentucky, he wouldn't have signed had he known LeBron James was taking his talents out of South Beach.

Calipari could stand among the most coveted NBA free agents this spring, and chances are owners will throw offers of obscene money and unlimited power at his desire to right his Jersey wrongs.

"Can you believe I got fired there?" Calipari still asks associates.

He failed with the Nets, failed miserably, and people who have known him a long time say it bothers the you-know-what out of him, and that a shot at a redemptive comeback might inspire him to leave the perfect job he now holds.

Williams said if he crosses paths with Calipari between now and then, theirs won't be a pleasant conversation. But in the most unlikely event they shake hands and make peace, Williams said he would offer this advice to Calipari on how to manage a successful return to the NBA:

"Let it be about the players this time. The NBA game isn't like college. This game is about the players, and you have to learn how to communicate with them. You have to know there's a big difference between talking to an 18-year-old and a 26-year-old."

Can Calipari figure out that difference? Has he already figured out that difference? Of course, it won't matter if Calipari remains at Kentucky and refuses to follow the lead of Rick Pitino, who left Lexington for a $50 million score with the Boston Celtics he would come to regret.

But if Calipari does follow his outbound Wildcats to the NBA, the facts as we now know them suggest he'd be wildly successful when measured against his Nets standards, if not his Kentucky standards. Truth is, the odds of Calipari joining his mentor, Larry Brown, as coaches who won titles in college and in the pros would be exponentially better than the odds of Calipari again starting a season 3-17 and getting humiliated like he was after a blowout loss at Miami in 1999, when the Nets owner about to fire him, Lew Katz, marched him to the waiting Cadillac that would whisk him away while reporters watched.

If Calipari is as smart as this 36-0 Kentucky team has made him look, he won't commit the not-so-venial basketball sins he committed on his first go-round in the NBA. Some of his mistakes were staggering, none more so than the first one he made on draft night in 1996.


You've probably heard the Kobe Bryant story by now, but here's the CliffsNotes version: In his first act as the $15 million coach, president and savior of the Nets, Calipari and general manager John Nash were set to take the high school star, Bryant, as the eighth overall pick in the draft. The Nets executives had dined the night before in a Secaucus, New Jersey, hotel with Bryant's parents, Joe and Pam, who were thrilled their son would be playing his home games within driving distance of their suburban Philadelphia home.

But then, Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem, and sneaker benefactor, Sonny Vaccaro, hatched a plan to deliver their client to the legendary Los Angeles Lakers and the legendary GM -- Jerry West, who had agreed to trade center Vlade Divac to Charlotte in the event Bryant slipped to No. 13 -- salivating over him. On draft day, Tellem and Bryant called Calipari and Nash to explain that they wanted no part of New Jersey and that Bryant would play in Italy (he'd lived there while his old man was playing overseas) if the Nets picked him at No. 8.

Nash implored Calipari not to fall for the bluff, but the draft was being held in the Meadowlands, and after talking so much about changing the culture of his loserville franchise, Calipari was terrified of being embarrassed by a teenager on his first big night in his own building. Superagent David Falk was pressuring Calipari to take his client, Villanova's Kerry Kittles, and one of the Nets owners, Joe Taub, wanted to take Syracuse's John Wallace and to stay clear of a high school kid who would probably abandon the Nets as soon as he hit free agency.

Bryant had blown away the Nets in multiple pre-draft workouts, and Nash reminded Calipari that even if Bryant somehow turned out to be a bust, the coach's five-year contract guaranteed him at least two or three more drafts to make up for it. But with his head spinning as the witching hour approached, one of the college game's great hustlers and salesmen allowed himself to get played. Calipari picked Kittles instead of Bryant, and if it wasn't the equivalent of the Portland Trail Blazers drafting Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan at No. 2 in 1984, it was close enough. On the way to his car that night, Nash ran into league executive Rod Thorn, a close friend of West's, who told him that he'd just blown the draft.

"John Calipari and I might still be with the Nets if we took Kobe," said Nash, who was let go in 2001. "We might both be in Brooklyn right now."

In his second NBA job, the older, wiser Calipari would never make such a dreadful rookie mistake. He knows the league now, knows how agents operate and, given his recruitment of the one-and-done likes of John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns to Kentucky, knows top-end high school talent like never before. Not only would today's Calipari draft Kobe Bryant; today's Bryant would order his reps to scam other executives into dealing him to Calipari's team.


Though the NCAA never directly tied him to a violation in the UMass scandal that centered around Marcus Camby and led to probation, Calipari knew the posse was closing hard on him when he grabbed the same Nets job Pitino had twice rejected after his Kentucky team defeated Calipari's at the Final Four.

The Nets had offered Pitino $20 million in a meeting at The Pierre hotel in Manhattan and threw a bigger package at him weeks later inside a Cincinnati airport hotel. Pitino left the room without accepting, headed to Ireland for a golf trip with Kentucky boosters and friends and later phoned in his rejection from overseas, opening the door for the younger coach so often compared to him.

"But if you take a pro job without any pro experience," Pitino, who had a successful run with the New York Knicks, would warn, "it's so hard to make it."

The Nets had a long history of being jilted at the last second by big-name college candidates (Jim Valvano, Rollie Massimino) and of being abandoned by big-name pro coaches with time left on their deals (Larry Brown, Chuck Daly). They needed Calipari as much as Calipari needed them, so they handed the novice complete control of basketball operations and cut him loose. Big mistake.

Seven men owned the Nets, often with seven different ideas on whether to sell the franchise, and Calipari's presence only added to the instability. He was a coach who thrived on chaos, on creating enemies inside and outside the organization. Calipari actually never signed his five-year Nets contract -- he only signed an employment agreement and forever haggled over second-tier details that weren't ironed out -- and that drove some executives mad.

"Cal had an us-against-the-world mentality," said then-Nets president Michael Rowe, who now runs Positive Impact, a sports management company. "That personality wasn't just about the players; it permeated through the media and administrative offices and the ownership group. It was a lone-wolf, get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way style. ...You need a big village of people to support you. If you decide you're the king of the island and the water starts coming up and you're the only one on the island, you're going to drown. No boats are coming to save you."

Calipari would have some lifeboats ready for his NBA sequel. He's already conceded he should've done more to build a positive relationship with Katz and his partner, Ray Chambers, who purchased the Nets from the Secaucus Seven in 1998 (Calipari had unnecessarily angered Katz by threatening to fire one of the owner's favorites, assistant Don Casey). Next time around, as a far more credible figure than he was in 1996, Calipari should have his pick of employers who can promise near-immediate success. He will likely seek the kind of partnership with an NBA owner that Pat Riley sought and established with Micky Arison after Riley left New York.

"Cal would also come back without having to chase that ghost anymore," Rowe said.

He meant Pitino, the Louisville coach now reduced to campaigning for Calipari's All-Americans to be allowed an express lane from high school to the pros.


We think, anyway. The natural aging process has a way of adjusting the moral compass and mellowing those in dire need of mellowing.

Back in the bad old days, Calipari jumped all over public relations people for failing to control the news media message and low-level staffers for pulling up to the wrong pickup point at the airport. He blitzed a trainer for once suggesting in a preseason game that he call a 20-second timeout. He wouldn't allow certain employees to enter certain offices inside the team facility, and he once ordered an executive to tell one well-regarded scout that if he ever again picked up a basketball in one of Calipari's practices he'd be fired on the spot. Calipari once ripped into an assistant, Hal Wissel, for talking to a reporter in the team's parking lot; they'd been chatting about Wissel's daughter, an accomplished skater, not the wayward state of Cal's Nets.

"I know I was loyal to Cal and other people were not," Wissel said. "But he did bring a lot of it on himself. He wasn't good with the media, and he wasn't good from day one with the players. Cal was going to treat them like he did in college, and they didn't like it."

Calipari was fined by commissioner David Stern in his first season in New Jersey for directing an ethnic slur at a reporter. But again, that was the 38-year-old Calipari who was handed the kind of franchise control Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy earned the hard way, the kind Coach Cal didn't deserve.

"You get more wisdom the older you get," Wissel said, "and I think that will be the case if John ends up back in the NBA."

As far as internal relationship building does, Rowe said, "a little more maturity in that regard from Cal would lead to a much more successful result. ...That's got to be a top agenda item for him, one of the first five things to work on."

Odds are, Calipari has figured this out.


He's the man now. Calipari isn't the screamer who went 72-112 with the Nets way back when and who got swept in his only playoff series (though it was against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. No shame there). He isn't the rogue who got those banners taken down at UMass and Memphis, either.

He's the man every basketball prodigy in America wants to play for. It seems half the NBA used Calipari's program as an internship before getting hired in the first round.

"Cal has coached so many of these pros and his relationships with the players and agents are way ahead of where they were when he started in New Jersey," said Knicks radio analyst Brendan Brown, who was a Nets video coordinator at the time and later a Memphis Grizzlies assistant when Calipari was at Memphis.

"Cal was a total newbie in 1996 trying to learn how the NBA worked, and he came into New Jersey wanting to fight everyone. His year as Larry Brown's assistant with the Sixers had to help him after he got fired, and I think he has a much better understanding of how the NBA works now. Now he'd be in a position of strength with agents because he's had so many No. 1 picks."

Like Brown, Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark was among the few Nets employees in '96 who hit it off with Calipari. The two remain close friends; Calipari keeps booking his teams for Yormark's buildings. Yormark said that the Kentucky brand now "rivals NBA brands" and that he witnessed the by-product of that over All-Star Weekend in Brooklyn.

"He's beloved by those players," Yormark said. "I saw the reception he got from the NBA All-Stars, all his former players, and it was like they were seeing an old friend for the first time in a while."


This one might be hard to believe, but Calipari did write in his book that he realized after the fact he was too loud and rambunctious on the sideline for your average NBA player's liking.

"Dennis Rodman, of all people, once came over to Cal and said, 'Hey, you need to calm down and just let 'em play,'" recalled Kendall Gill, one of the stars of Calipari's 1997-98 playoff team. "If hearing that from Dennis Rodman isn't a message, I don't know what is."

Phil Jackson once told Keith Van Horn he shouldn't let Calipari talk to him in a degrading way. Michael Jordan once asked Jayson Williams how Nets players could let Calipari get away with coaching as angrily as he coached; Jordan later stared daggers through a shouting, gesturing Calipari during Game 3 of Chicago's first-round sweep.

"I was just trying to understand what he was doing," Jordan said. "He probably uses more energy than his players. ... I haven't played against a guy that runs up and down the court as much as he does. I have a lot of admiration for his players, being able to deal with that."

More than anyone, Kerry Kittles absorbed a verbal pounding from his coach, for reasons nobody could adequately explain. Calipari couldn't stand it when Williams talked about his contract demands with the media. He had run-ins with Robert Pack, Chris Gatling and Khalid Reeves, among others, and he often talked of the need to make his players "uncomfortable."

Only, according to one team official, Calipari didn't like to engage in uncomfortable conversations with players scheduled to be disciplined or cut and sometimes asked assistant Kenny Gattison -- a former NBA power forward -- to sit in on meetings as something of a bodyguard. Calipari angered some in the organization by swearing in the papers he'd never trade a particular player one day, then quietly trying to ship him out the next. Calipari amused some in the organization, according to one official, by waiting to release Kenny Smith a mere three days before the 1997-98 season opener in the hope that TNT -- which was considering Smith as an analyst -- would lose interest and hire Calipari's friend, Bob Hill, instead. (TNT ultimately hired both; Smith became a regular.)

But if Calipari flunked Player Relations 101, his wasn't a 24/7 house of NBA horrors. Willis Reed, who lost his front-office power when the UMass coach arrived, said he never had a problem with Calipari and thought of him as a great coach and nice man who had walked into a difficult situation. Van Horn, the No. 2 overall pick acquired in a megatrade with Philadelphia?

"I played for Rick Majerus [at Utah], one of the five toughest coaches to play for in all of college basketball, and, to me, playing for Cal was almost like going to the beach," said Van Horn, now the executive director of the Colorado Premier Basketball Club, a youth development program. "Maybe it was different for veteran NBA players who weren't used to that, but I thought Jayson, Kittles, Sam Cassell and Kendall all played really good basketball under Cal.

"I always knew where I stood with him, and I never thought he was a big yeller or rode players too hard. I thought overall he was a positive coach. ... We made the playoffs and then we had the lockout in '99, players came in out of shape and Cassell goes down with an injury. To fire a guy 20 games into a season like that was pulling the trigger way too quickly. They should've given him the ability to ride out that year."

Calipari had no management allies when he needed the benefit of the doubt at 3-17. The player he feuded with most, Williams, actually made the devil-you-know case to keep Calipari to one of the owners, but it was too late. Calipari's NBA career was over and, less than three weeks later, so was Williams' after the power forward broke his leg.

Still trying to rebuild his life after doing hard time for the shooting and a drunk-driving conviction, Williams does a podcast ("Jayson on the Rebound"), speaks to students and inmates who might benefit from his traumatic experiences and watches some college and pro basketball when he gets the chance. He believes if Calipari returns to the NBA, he should try the quiet, dignified, Chuck Daly approach.

"Because when Chuck said something," Williams said, "everyone listened."

Calipari has been screaming at players ever since he was an anonymous young counselor at Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star Camp, shredding a high school star named Danny Ferry in front of Ferry's father, Bob, who decided two things that day: (1) This is exactly what my son needed and (2) this kid coach is going to be a great one.

Maybe Calipari will decide that his style would burn out NBA players over 82 games, that he's destined to go down as another college coach who couldn't cut it in the pros. Maybe that "air of contentment" about this year's Cal observed by Jerry Tipton, who's covered Kentucky basketball for the Lexington Herald-Leader for 34 seasons, suggests Calipari is starting to think he should finish his career as another baron of the bluegrass.

But we'll offer the final word on Coach Cal to Kendall Gill, who said Tuesday he teaches his son some of the defensive techniques Calipari taught him in Jersey, techniques Gill said "turned up my defensive game astronomically" after six seasons of playing for other NBA coaches.

"I had the best year of my career under Cal," Gill continued. "Yeah, he had to learn you can't scream as much at grown men with families, but I played 15 years in the league, and he definitely has what it takes to turn a team into a winner. He's not a good coach. He's a great coach. I don't know why Cal would ever leave Kentucky, but I do know this:

"If he did leave and I had an NBA team ready to go to the next level, I'd hire him."