As Kentucky’s John Calipari returns to Memphis, is he more hated or appreciated?
Calipari, who coached Memphis to new heights in 9 seasons, remains a divisive figure in the city
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari was at The Peabody late Wednesday. On the top floor. Surrounded by about 100 old friends. In the Skyway that overlooks downtown Memphis -- a place where he went 137-14 in his final four years coaching the Tigers while making four consecutive Sweet 16s, three straight Elite Eights and the national title game of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
He was a king here once.
That’s not an overstatement.
Calipari, for years, was the most popular person in the city by a wide margin. And anybody who dared question him -- for enrolling a known gang member, for pulling a scholarship from a signed prospect, for barely suspending a player charged with domestic violence -- was labeled a “miserable.” He was the man pointing and essentially saying “fake news” before that other man started pointing and saying “fake news.” And Memphians ate it up. In Cal We Trust, the diehards insisted. Those were fun and weird times.
But everything changed the moment Calipari changed addresses.
When he left Memphis for Kentucky on April 1, 2009, while the NCAA was investigating Derrick Rose’s fraudulent standardized test score that ultimately caused the 2008 season to be vacated, UK fans who previously called Calipari a slimy cheater embraced him with open arms while Memphis fans who treated him like a god decided he was the devil. It’s all ridiculous, of course, because Calipari’s not much different in 2017 than he was in 2007. His zip code changed. But he didn’t. And I’ve never understood how hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even millions, can have their view of a human flip so drastically based on where that human works.
But that’s sports, right?
In any other world, it makes no sense for Oklahoma City fans to despise Kevin Durant for spending nine great years with the franchise and then deciding, accurately, that he would have a better chance to achieve his dreams with Golden State. But in the sports world, it feels mostly normal. Likewise, in any other world, it makes no sense for Memphis fans to despise John Calipari for spending nine great years with the university and then deciding, accurately, that he would have a better chance to achieve his dreams at Kentucky. But in the sports world, it feels mostly normal.
Which is why this week is so interesting.
Calipari is back in Memphis and preparing to coach inside FedExForum for the first time since March 14, 2009 -- 18 days before he formally accepted Kentucky’s offer to replace Billy Gillispie. His Wildcats will play UCLA late Friday in the same building where capacity crowds of 18,119 used to watch him make light work of Conference USA opponents. Now a lot of those same fans will sit in front of their televisions and root against him just as intensely as they used to root for him.
With this in mind, I asked one of my buddies a hypothetical question. His name is Donnie Marrs. He’s a lifelong Memphis fan. He even has a dog named Pastner, after former Memphis coach Josh Pastner. So you know he’s serious. And my question was this: If I could guarantee that either Memphis will go to the Final Four next year or that the NCAA will launch an investigation at Kentucky that uncovers major violations and costs John Calipari his job, which would you pick? Would you take the Final Four at Memphis or the NCAA investigation and subsequent firing at Kentucky?
“I would want the NCAA to bust Cal,” Marrs said. “He ruined my life.”
To be clear, Marrs said this with a smile. He’s a funny dude who was trying to be funny. But the sentiment is very real. At worst, know this: For a large percentage of Memphis fans, the best thing that could happen is Memphis returning to national relevance and making a fourth Final Four under a fourth different coach. But the second-best thing involves bad stuff for Calipari and UK.
Obviously, not all Memphis fans feel this way.
But lots do.
Which is confusing to the Memphians who actually call Calipari a friend.
“Memphis fans should just be glad he was once here,” said Van Weinberg, owner of James Davis Clothier, where Calipari shops to this day. “Nobody should be upset that he took the greatest job for a college basketball coach. I don’t think any Memphis fan should be mad at John Calipari. Cal took this program to places it had never been.”
Added Don DeWeese, owner of Gibson’s Donuts, a popular spot Calipari routinely visits: “He had to take the Kentucky job. ... Now I understand some people’s bitterness because if he would’ve stayed we would’ve had those players -- [John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Xaver Henry and Eric Bledsoe] -- and we would’ve won the national championship that next year. So I understand the bitterness about that. But John Calipari was good for Memphis. He was good for Gibson’s Donuts. And he has done so many good things for people in Memphis that people don’t even know about. He’s still probably the biggest supporter of Streets Ministries. So he’s still helping the youth in Memphis today. People don’t realize that.”
Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong resident of the Memphis area and a University of Memphis graduate who went on to be the Memphis beat writer at The Commercial Appeal for four of Calipari’s nine seasons. My first game on the beat was when the Tigers topped Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 14, 2002. My last game on the beat was when Memphis lost to Darren Collison and UCLA in the Elite Eight of the 2006 NCAA Tournament at Oracle Arena. And while it would be insincere for me to suggest I’m emotionally attached to the program anymore, there was a time, as a kid, when I was a huge Tigers fan. I didn’t have a dog named after a coach. But I did briefly have a bunny named Penny.
(Penny escaped and we never saw him again.)
I say all that to say this: I agree with Weinberg and DeWeese.
I’m not here to tell anybody how to feel, if only because that rarely accomplishes anything. But it is true that Calipari produced the best years Memphis basketball has ever experienced, and I don’t believe my three children will ever see Memphis basketball again be what it was in that four-year stretch from 2006 to 2009.
And I have young children.
Additionally, I never thought there was anything wrong with Calipari taking Memphis recruits to Kentucky because those recruits were never enrolling at Memphis without Calipari as the Memphis coach. And, for what it’s worth, these days, it’s fairly common for coaches to take recruits with them, which just means Calipari was, per usual, several years ahead of the game. Granted, Calipari leaving Memphis in the middle of an NCAA investigation that resulted in probation wasn’t ideal; I can admit that. But the only alternative to Calipari leaving Memphis in the middle of an NCAA investigation was Calipari rejecting Kentucky and remaining at Memphis solely because of an NCAA investigation, and does that make any sense to anybody?
Simply put, I understand the disappointment from Memphis fans.
But I don’t get the hatred.
If Calipari had remained, Memphis would’ve been No. 1 in the preseason AP poll the following November and a serious threat to become college basketball’s first 40-0 team. But he didn’t. So the Tigers instead went to the 2010 NIT. And if Memphis fans remain disappointed that they never got to experience that magical season, that’s fair. But having total disdain for the person who elevated the program to unimaginable heights before merely taking a better job makes less sense to me.
Especially all these years later.
But I recognize I’m likely in the minority here.
Either way, I think, there will come a day when John Calipari is honored in Memphis for his accomplishments and contributions just like, I think, there will come a day when Kevin Durant is honored in Oklahoma City for his accomplishments and contributions. But those days will not come anytime soon. For now, Kevin Durant is a cupcake, a traitor, a take-the-easy-way-out frontrunner. And John Calipari is worse. So, yeah, he was surrounded by old friends Wednesday night, atop this city’s most famous hotel, roughly 48 hours before he coaches again in the arena he used to call home. But the average Memphian who doesn’t run in Calipari’s circle of wealthy supporters isn’t anxious to witness him take UK to the Final Four for the fifth time.
Eight years ago, they literally begged him not to go.
But now they just want him to go down hard.
Late Friday night. To UCLA.
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