Notebook

Calipari mending fences for UK

Some still upset about treatment of Tubby Smith

Herald-Leader Staff WriterAugust 16, 2009 

In welcoming John Calipari to a recent mixer, Lexington Urban League President and CEO P.G. Peeples gave the new Kentucky coach an autographed basketball.

Peeples noted that the last time the Urban League welcomed a new UK basketball coach, it was 1997 and the new top Cat was Tubby Smith.

"You may recall that Coach and his team cut down the nets the next spring in San Antonio," Peeples told Calipari. "No pressure, Coach. We just want to remind you of that."

As always, Calipari was quick with a quote or to light up your smoke.

"You had a better coach (in 1997)," he told Peeples.

Perfect.

"That was a quick comeback by him and an appropriate one," Peeples recalled last week, "because he gave some props to Tubby."

Besides welcoming Calipari, the Urban League mixer on Aug. 7 served other purposes. It gave Peeples the chance to help aspiring African-Americans to mingle with Central Kentucky leaders like Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry, Lexington Center Corp. CEO Bill Owen, mover/shaker Jim Host and assorted Lexington Fayette County councilmen.

It also provided what Peeples called "some healing" in the aftermath of Smith's abrupt departure in 2007.

"There is some strong feeling in the African-American community about the way Tubby was not only let go, but the way he was treated by some," Peeples said. "It's no secret some people never accepted him. Whenever things weren't going as well, those people crawled out of the woodwork and attacked Tubby.

"Some of us in the African-American community harbor ill feelings about when Tubby was let go. Some of us say let. Others say resign. Either way, it was a wedge issue."

Some of the ill feeling goes back to the slow integration of the Kentucky program.

"Oh, yeah," Peeples said. "It got better when Rick (Pitino) came, and probably reached its apex when Tubby was here."

When asked about Billy Gillispie's impact, Peeples laughed. "I don't even think we were on the radar screen," the Urban League leader said. "Billy didn't help that at all."

Now comes Calipari, who apparently wowed the crowd of about 400 who gathered at Keeneland. His outgoing personality and friendly, relaxed banter won many friends for UK.

"Very, very good impression," Peeples said. "All the people I talked to that night and since then basically said, 'We like him.'"

After the mixer, Calipari stayed for more than an hour to pose for pictures and speak to the people. Peeples plans to have Calipari autograph the photos and then have them mailed to those who posed with the UK coach.

"That will be the first time a University of Kentucky basketball coach's picture will be in an African-American home," Peeples said. "Except for Tubby.

"Now, we're not going to go so far as to say people will forget how Tubby was treated. But they will warmly receive Calipari."

Bucks laud Meeks

The question made the Milwaukee Bucks executive laugh. Of course, Jodie Meeks' 54-point game at Tennessee last season impressed assistant general manager Jeff Weltman.

"How can I have any impression except kind of knock your socks off?" Weltman said last week. "There's just not a whole lot of guys out there who can do that."

No Kentucky player had ever scored that many points in a game.

Yet that game came to symbolize the oddest oddity of Billy Gillispie's two just-plain weird seasons as UK coach. While initially stunned — like everyone else — by the performance, Gillispie came to almost disdain the game. Maybe because it did not fit the coach's idea of a Kentucky team that would overpower opponents with big man Patrick Patterson.

The coach worried aloud about UK being perceived as a one-man team or being too eager to shoot three-pointers. And he famously chided ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards two weeks after the Tennessee game for asking about Meeks not making a basket in the first half at Mississippi.

Puzzlement about the Gillispie-Meeks relationship peaked shortly after the season when new coach John Calipari opened a workout to the media. The players appeared on the court in T-shirts Nike made to commemorate Meeks' performance at Tennessee. But Gillispie refused for more than two months to distribute the shirts to Meeks and his teammates.

Meeks continues to take the high road.

"I just have closure on that," he said last week when asked about the bizarre T-shirt episode. Then Meeks added, "I didn't really have a problem with Coach Gillispie. I respect him as a coach. I thought he did the best job he could."

(By the way, Meeks said he only wears his T-shirt around the house. He does not wear it in public. "I'm not the type of guy to brag," he said. "I'm a humble guy.")

If Gillispie worried about Meeks being a team player, Weltman does not share the concern. The Bucks' official lauded Meeks' intangibles: basketball IQ, work ethic, poise, maturity.

"Team orientation is something we never had any question about," Weltman said. "We were expecting (the intangibles) to be top notch, and they were."

Meeks also displayed solid tangibles in the Las Vegas Summer League last month. He led the Bucks' entry in scoring, but maybe more impressive is what he didn't do.

"When he wasn't helping, he wasn't hurting," Weltman said. "Believe it or not, that's like a veteran skill. It takes guys a long time to figure that out."

The Bucks see Meeks as "very unique," Weltman said. A good shooter who also has a blue-collar approach.

Meeks again noted how difficult it was to leave UK a year early. He said he waited until the "last hour" before deciding to keep his name in the draft.

When asked if being a second-round pick put a metaphorical chip on his shoulder, Meeks said, "Well, I always play with a chip on my shoulder, no matter what."

Meeks, who signs autographs at John Millards Art Gallery in Fayette Mall on Sunday (2-4 p.m.), is used to being under-estimated. He did not make the McDonald's All-American Game and came to UK as a recruiting afterthought.

"I feel all my life that's the way it's been," Meeks said. "My confidence never wavered. I haven't felt sorry for myself."

Advice for Pitino

Don't talk about the scandal (if you must, emphasize that it happened six years ago and you've changed). Concentrate on the future by throwing yourself into coaching. Brace yourself for the most difficult year of your life.

That's the advice self-styled "life coach" Jim Fannin has for Louisville Coach Rick Pitino.

Fannin, an Ashland native now living in Chicago, said he's worked with such athletic figures as Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, Doc Rivers, Lou Piniella, David Leadbetter and Luke Donald.

The public learned last week that Pitino told police that he a sexual encounter with Karen Sypher at a Louisville restaurant in 2003 and subsequently gave her $3,000 for an abortion.

Sypher faces charges of trying to extort as much as $10 million from Pitino in exchange for her silence. She has accused Pitino of rape, a charge police did not find worthy of prosecution.

"The price of fame is very expensive," Fannin said of the flood of publicity surrounding the Pitino-Sypher incident. "You better have your sunglasses on because the flame of it is very high. Rick Pitino, the way he dresses, he likes it. One thing about fame, it will reveal your beauty marks and scars."

With the extortion trial to come, Pitino faces one of the toughest years of his life in terms of being scrutinized and vilified, Fannin said.

When he coached at UK, Pitino did not react well to criticism or to being mocked. He challenged someone in the stands at Florida to a fight because the person told him not to bang on computer equipment setting on the scorer's table. Fans at South Carolina said he lashed out when called a "yankee."

In UK's only game in Arkansas' Barnhill Arena, Pitino was not amused when the pep band greeted his pre-game arrival on the court by playing the theme to The Godfather.

Now Pitino figures to be an object of ridicule at Louisville's away games and, because abortion is such a controversial topic, perhaps home games.

"He's going to know who his friends are," Fannin said. "You can't do this on your own. No way. He needs a strong support system."

Fannin approved of Pitino's public statement last week. For one thing, the coach noted more than once that the encounter with Sypher happened six years ago.

"He really needs to let everybody know he's not the same guy," Fannin said. "He's a better guy.

"Hopefully, that's true."

Fannin also noted how Pitino needed to rekindle a shared vision with his wife, Joanne.

In his public statement, Pitino spoke of coaching U of L teams into the future.

"I'd get into coaching like I'd never been into coaching," Fannin said. "I'd do what I do best."

Calipari's Pitino plan

In the wake of the Rick Pitino scandal, UK Coach John Calipari told Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News last week that he hopes Kentucky fans will be on their best behavior when Louisville and Pitino arrive in Lexington for a non-conference game this season.

Calipari said he plans to instruct UK fans in the same manner as he did UMass fans when Rhode Island's campus experienced a gambling scandal in 1992. He said he warned Minutemen fans that if they did anything to embarrass the school, he would leave the floor and refuse to coach the game.

Church and state

Former UK walk-on Adam Delph's transfer to Asbury College will enable him to experience a different style of basketball. Or as Coach Will Shouse said, his program looks for "people who embrace what Asbury's all about."

That means mandatory chapel attendance three times a week, a mission trip once a year, required Old and New Testament classes and a team prayer at halfcourt at the end of each game.

"Everything is bigger than basketball," Delph said of the halfcourt prayer. " ... It brings basketball to a bigger meaning. You're at this school for a different reason."

That reason is?

"Just to find God," he said, "and get done with your major."

When asked if UK could regularly pray at halfcourt, say, after a last-second loss, Delph said. "It could be introduced. I'm not sure how good it would work because you've got super competitive (players and coaches) up there."

Asbury ponders that balance between competitiveness and a higher calling. Shouse noted that school officials had to learn not to be afraid of recruiting more competitive players. Turning the cheek can be learned.

"It's a lesson for guys," Shouse said of the prayer. "I don't expect them to be spiritually mature when they get here."

As for basketball, Delph will go from a walk-on practice player at UK to perhaps one of Asbury's better players. Shouse said he did not hesitate to go after a player who is "head and shoulders above athletically."

Delph chose to transfer to Asbury because the NAIA school would already have two other players from his alma mater, Pleasure Ridge Park.

Of accepting former UK Coach Billy Gillispie's invitation to walk on, Delph said, "I never wanted it to be what if I never went to UK. I never wanted it to be a what-if."

New UK Coach John Calipari offered Delph a chance to be a manager. Or perhaps in the future return as a graduate assistant. "They were real nice about it," he said.

Delph appreciated the UK experience and the people he met. But ultimately, it wasn't completely fulfilling.

"Actually playing again and being competitive and being a reason you win or lose will be more important than sitting on the bench," he said. "I'm glad I took (the chance to come to UK), but I'm ready to play again."

Happy birthday

To former Indiana point guard Quinn Buckner. Buckner, the floor leader for IU's 1976 national championship team, turns 55 on Thursday.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com.

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