John Clay: Calipari-Huggins a battle of friendly foes

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — We'll let Bob Huggins tell the story, because it's his story, even though, as John Calipari said, "Bob embellishes things."

"You want the whole story?" asked Huggins before being assured that, yes, we wanted the whole story.

"It is a pretty good story," Huggins said.

It is Bob Huggins' heart attack story. It was Sept. 28, 2002. Huggins collapsed on the sidewalk outside the Pittsburgh airport. This was later described as a "massive" heart attack. Huggins was put into an ambulance to be taken to a Pittsburgh hospital.

"I asked the guy, 'What's the ETA,'" Huggins remembered on Friday. "He said, '22 minutes.' I said, 'I'm not going to make it 22 minutes.'"

They aborted the route and took Huggins to a hospital, as it turns out, close to where Calipari grew up. One of the attendants in the ambulance tapped Huggins on the leg and told him everything was going to be OK.

"I'm not going to let you die," Huggins said the attendant told him, "until Calipari beats you at least once."

The attendant was John Calipari's nephew.

Calipari got on a plane in Memphis and flew to Pittsburgh to see Huggins.

"He was the first one there from any direction," Charlie Huggins, Bob's dad, said Friday. "John came from Memphis to be with Bobby."

"There was only supposed to be family in there," said Bob Huggins. "But Cal being Cal, he talked his way back there. Cal came in, and Skip (Prosser) came in."

Skip is gone now, himself the victim of a heart attack.

"I remember the paddles still had burns on them," said Calipari of the Huggins visit. "It was pretty scary stuff."

All of which should make Saturday's East Regional finals between top seed Kentucky, coached by Calipari, and No. 2 seed West Virginia, coached by Huggins, pretty insignificant stuff. It should, but it doesn't. The guys are coaches, after all. They want to win. They're competitors.

"But Cal and I aren't that way; we're just not," Huggins told the media on Friday. "When he was coaching Memphis, they beat us and I went on his TV show. We beat them in Memphis and we're eating ribs at the Rendezvous and he comes and brings his priest from UMass with him. John and I have always been friends."

Some might say they are two of a kind, both controversial, both with a bit of a reputation, both with outsized, if different personalities. Others would prefer to just say that both are characters, the kind an increasingly corporate sport is losing all the time.

"We've both been fired," Calipari said. "There's nothing you can say about us or write about us that hasn't already been said or written."

They've known each other a long time. Calipari grew up outside of Pittsburgh. Huggins was born in Morgantown, W.Va., lived there until age 9, then went back to play college basketball there.

Calipari had a high school teammate who played with Huggins at WVU. He used to go visit. Then when he was working a Five-Star camp and Huggins was coaching at Walsh College, Calipari went up and introduced himself.

As head coaches, their teams have met eight times. Huggins has won seven.

"You know they're going to play great defense, bump and grind, and offensively he's going to adapt to his personnel," Calipari said. "But Bob raises the bar, and he drags those kids where they don't think they can go."

"Sometimes what people miss is that Cal is a really good basketball coach," Huggins said. "The way he meshed those freshmen together this year, few people could do that the way he did that."

So now, here they are, each a win away from the Final Four. Calipari has been to two previously, 1996 with UMass and 2008 with Memphis. Huggins has been to only one, way back in 1992 with Cincinnati.

"John, he'll win one," Huggins said. "You have to be lucky, and I just haven't been very lucky."

Or maybe Huggins was lucky that day in 2002 when he was lying in that hospital outside Pittsburgh and there was Calipari talking his way into the room.

"John's a guy who's there when you need him," said Huggins.

And if Huggins loses Saturday, maybe he'll go on Cal's TV show. And if Calipari loses, maybe he'll meet Huggins for ribs.

Said Huggins, "We're still going to be friends."

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