UK basketball notebook: Calipari remains sensitive to slights, big or small

Herald-Leader staff writerAugust 30, 2014 

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Kentucky Coach John Calipari during first half action of the NCAA Final Four championship game Monday April 7, 2014 at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Just a joke. That's how John Calipari described his call to New York sports radio station WFAN after a recent appearance. After ushering Calipari off the air, host Mike Francesa then appraised the Kentucky coach as an excellent recruiter and motivator while not so good with X's and O's. Calipari called back, pretending to disguise his voice and defend the UK coach.

When asked last Sunday about the exchange, Calipari said it was all in jest. Indeed, he and Francesa engaged in playful banter on the callback.

"Do you really think I care what someone thinks of me as a coach?" Calipari asked reporters.

In a word: Yes.

"He cares deeply about what people think, probably as much as any person I've ever (dealt with)," said Geoff Calkins, a columnist with The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "Probably because he cares about everything."

For example, Calkins recalled how the University of Memphis gave away televisions in a promotion to attract season-ticket buyers for upper-level seats in Calipari's time as coach.

"He wanted to know the names of people who got the TVs," Calkins said. "So he pays attention to everything. ...

"The idea that he doesn't care is preposterous."

Gary Parrish, who covered Memphis basketball for The Commercial Appeal in four of Calipari's seasons as coach, echoed Calkins.

"You could argue that he shouldn't (care)," said Parrish, who now works for CBSSports.com. "That he should just be above a radio guy, even a radio guy he considers a friend questioning anything about him."

But Parrish believes Calipari cares about how he is perceived as a coach just as he cares about recruiting, coaching decisions, players, colleagues, referees, charities, business interests (frozen yogurt pitchman most visible), social media, book recommendations, etc, etc, etc.

"He's wired to care," Parrish said. "He cannot not care."

Parrish, who said he spoke with Calipari after Memphis practices any time he wanted, has been endorsing Calipari's coaching acumen for years. As he recalled, this began in earnest during Memphis' Final Four season of 2007-08. At the time, Mike Freeman, then working for CBSSports.com, wrote, "All John Calipari does is roll the basketball onto the floor and his players shoot threes and dunk and brick their free throws."

This most basic of jabs had legs. When ESPN's Fran Fraschilla came to UK a few seasons ago, he needled good friend Calipari on the way to practice by saying the UK coach would just roll the balls out onto the court.

When West Virginia beat Kentucky in the 2010 Elite Eight, Freeman wrote of Calipari, "He just gets the best players and let's them have at it, basically."

Parrish found the idea of Calipari not being a good coach ridiculous.

"I'd always fight that," Parrish said. "When people would say he can't coach. 'Dude, yes, he can. I watch practice every day. He knows what he's doing.'"

Calkins, safe to say not always a Calipari favorite, noted how Calipari revamped the Memphis offense during his time as the Tigers' coach. Calipari, ever the marketer, used alliteration to put a catchy label on the new offense: the Dribble-Drive.

"That's not a coach who just rolls the ball out," Calkins said of the sweeping change.

Freeman became a convert. When Kentucky beat Ohio State and North Carolina to reach the 2011 Final Four, he wrote, "There will still be the non-believers who will say Calipari couldn't coach his way out of a YMCA league. Calipari's previous critics, like this one, must admit their error. Those who can't see what Calipari is doing still believe the Earth is flat and Britney Spears can sing."

Freeman, who now writes about pro football for Bleacher Report, declined an interview request.

What Calipari did in making UMass basketball not only relevant but a national contender in the 1990s had to impress, if not astound, any fair-minded observer. And this came about without hardly any McDonald's All-Americans.

So, with a résumé that also includes UK's 2012 national championship and two other Final Four appearances in five years, why care if anyone thinks you're not a coaching maven?

Calkins said Calipari is hypersensitive about two criticisms: that's he's not as much a coach as he is a recruiter/motivator, and that he failed as an NBA coach. "Those are his two soft spots," the Commercial Appeal columnist said.

Playing pop psychologist, Parrish noted how Calipari has been an underdog much of his life. Not an especially gifted player. Novice head coach at the seeming coaching graveyard at UMass. Even upon his return from the NBA, Calipari took the Memphis job as something of a consolation. "In his mind, the best job available," Parrish said. "The UCLAs, the Kentuckys, the Indianas, they weren't on board with him."

When Tubby Smith left for Minnesota in 2007, Calipari waited for the phone call from Kentucky that never came. UK hired Billy Gillispie.

"He spent most of his career fighting the perception that he wasn't this or he wasn't that," Parrish said. "Or is this or is that. He got so used to fighting those things that he hasn't learned how not to fight them yet.

"His instincts are to keep fighting every time there's a little fight without recognizing it's not really a fight anymore. Nobody informed doesn't think that Calipari isn't awesome at what he does."

Yet, Calipari seems to care what people think more than he'll admit.

"The idea that he went out of his way to dial the number (of WFAN) represents, to me, proof that he cares," Parrish said. "I think Francesa was silly to say what he said. But, of course, John cares. That's how he ended up on the phone."

Basketball/volleyball

Marcus Lee has a standing invitation to attend UK women's volleyball practices. He's played with the UK team during its open gym sessions in the offseason.

"He could have been big-time," UK volleyball coach Craig Skinner said of Lee's potential as a player.

Naturally, Lee's volleyball prowess atrophied as he turned his attention to basketball.

"His skill is a little behind," Skinner said. "It would take him a couple years" to tap fully into his volleyball potential.

Lee is from Antioch, Calif., which is volleyball country. Skinner said that maybe two-thirds of the 23 Division I men's volleyball programs are at colleges in California. UC Irvine recruited Lee as a volleyball player. One of Lee's high school teammates, Jason Agopian, plays for UC Irvine.

"We knew pretty early on he was going to be a special basketball player," UC Irvine volleyball coach David Kniffin said of Lee. So Kniffin did not spend much time recruiting Lee.

"While both sports are enjoyable," Kniffin said of basketball and volleyball, "from a financial standpoint, the upside for a basketball player financially is so much higher."

The financial side is much better on the college level, too. NCAA rules limit men's volleyball to 41/2 scholarships, which must be spent on a roster of 20 or more players. Basketball is, well, basketball.

A 6-foot-9 player, particularly one who is athletic and a leaper like Lee, surely excites anyone's volleyball imagination. He'd be spiking a ball over an 8-foot tall net.

But Kniffin offered sobering perspective. UC Irvine has eight volleyball players 6-6 or taller. Two are listed at 6-9. Agopian is a 6-7 sophomore.

"From an athletic standpoint, he's special," Kniffin said of Lee. "But it's not abnormal. We get some great athletes that play volleyball."

Mention volleyball to Lee and you get an immediate and positive reaction. Kniffin noted the camaraderie in volleyball.

"As a smaller sport, by necessity, we've formed a tighter community," he said. "It's pretty fraternal."

'Way past that'

Last week, UK coaches in women's soccer, women's volleyball and men's track/cross country applauded the launching of the SEC Network. Now, people around the country (and, presumably, around the Google world) will be able to watch their games.

That has to be a boon to recruiting, not to mention an expansion of budgets, facilities and salaries because of the rights fees paid by ESPN.

But, at what cost? Will anything be lost amid the cha-ching? Must every sport seek the outsized dimensions of football and men's basketball? What about the purity of competition for competition's sake?

"I hear what you're saying," UK women's soccer coach Jon Lipsitz said before adding, "We're way past that."

That echoed a comment made many years ago by noted college sports critic Murray Sperber. "That horse is out of the barn," he said.

Lipsitz mentioned how Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has created a department-wide spirit. Each team wants every advantage so as to contribute to UK athletics' upward mobility in the Directors' Cup standings, which measure the combined win-loss success of all teams. Then there's what could be called exposure for exposure's sake.

"To be showcased, they feel special," Lipsitz said of the athletes in sports other than football and men's basketball. "In the past, they cared just as much and did as much work, and no one saw it."

The SEC Network creates the opportunity to be seen and, maybe more importantly, appreciated.

"To them," Lipsitz said of the less-celebrated athletes, "it's a really big deal."

Basketball vs. golf

How critics seized on President Barack Obama being photographed smiling in a golf cart during a round after earlier in the day expressing outrage over ISIS beheading an American reporter was the subject of Frank Deford's weekly commentary for National Public Radio.

Deford noted how Obama conveyed a more macho image when he played basketball rather than golf. The comparison recalled comedian George Carlin's hilarious comparison between pastoral baseball and militaristic football.

"What is the one basketball term that most delineates the game? No harm, no foul," Deford said. "Meaning: Challenge the limits, check, poke, use just enough strategic contact. That's how the man got to the White House.

"But golf? What do we hear? 'It's your honor.' 'I'm away.' 'We halved the hole.' There's no halving in politics! ...

"I'm telling the president, just stay completely away from golf courses and get back to your basketball court. Bring that ball up yourself, pass it, work that pick and roll, swing to the hoop, and never mind the guy in front of you. Just pretend it's that nerdy Mitch McConnell. Up for two. No harm, no foul."

Happy birthday

To Bob Guyette. He turned 61 on Friday. ... To Morakinyo "Mike" Williams. He turned 26 on Friday. To Lukasz Obrzut. He turned 32 on Saturday. ... To Jim Andrews. He turns 63 on Monday. ... To Steve Masiello. He turns 37 on Tuesday. ... To Earl Shaw. A high school and college referee from 1952 through 1984, he turns 87 Sunday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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