I spent plenty of time around John Calipari during my years in Memphis. I conducted countless interviews with the man, sat a few feet from him as he shouted at his players during games and practices, made small talk with him during random run-ins downtown … and even rode in a rental car with him as we made our way to a mall food court in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for a pre-game meal before playing Southern Miss.
(Sound like stalker behavior? Welcome to the world of covering the Memphis Tigers.)
I share this information because, after all of that, you’d think I’d have a good feel for the man. Just the opposite.
John Calipari always fascinated me because, to this day, I think he’s one of the hardest people to peg. Gary Parrish summed it up well in this column. An excerpt:
“Understand, in a previous life I covered Calipari fulltime at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, spent pretty much every day from November to March with the man in some form. What I learned is that he’s a better on-the-court coach than most acknowledge, a more complex individual than many understand and the absolute best salesman I’ve ever encountered.”
We all know he’s an amazing salesman. And I agree with Gary, he’s a much smarter basketball mind than people realize (take in one of his practices, watch how meticulous he is with his team, and tell me you don’t agree). But my favorite line is when he says Cal is “a more complex individual than many understand.”
It’s hard for me to put into words how I feel about the man because I’m not exactly sure. He was always nice to me, never snapped (even when being asked pointed questions) and treated me with respect. On the flip side, Cal was never averse to stretching the truth or, in some cases, flat out lying. The man is a PR maestro, better at getting out his message than anyone I have ever seen. Some say he’s a great interview because he’s extremely quotable. I couldn’t disagree more. To me, a great interviewee is someone who gives good, honest answers. Cal doesn’t answer questions; he gives prepared statements. After every game, the man had his talking points and, well, good luck getting him to stray from them. If you wanted to talk about the 15 rebounds Joey Dorsey pulled down but Cal was more impressed with Antonio Anderson’s defense … well, guess which one he was going to talk about? And this is why I still, to this day, don’t know what makes John Calipair tick.
When a person never — ever — lets their guard down, how do you judge them? Candid moments with Cal were rare, and when I thought I was having one, I’d always question its validity. So then, he’s a fake, right? Not exactly.
On the flip side, actions tend to speak louder than words, and (even if he does like to pat himself on the back for this) he does have a history of looking out for his players and fostering a sort of basketball family. Those who are actually close to the man seem to genuinely love him. Shouldn’t that count for something?
I don’t fault Calipari for leaving Memphis and taking the Kentucky gig. But, as always, there are holes in his story. Like his whole tale of wanting the players who committed to Memphis to honor their commitments. Kudos to Geoff Caulkins for calling Cal out on this:
“Now it turns out that while all those fans were lined up in front of Calipari’s house the other day, begging the coach to stay, he was inside trying to persuade the Memphis recruits to join him at his new gig.
He can’t talk to them once he’s the Kentucky coach, see. That’s against the rules. So why not be agonized until he’s got it figured out?
And then he comes back from Lexington on Wednesday and gets all weepy.”
So, was Cal all torn up over whether to leave Memphis for the Kentucky gig? Was his trip to Gibson’s Donuts a sincere meeting with longtime friends or a calculated PR stunt? I have my beliefs. But with Cal, do we ever really know?