Normally any basketball game with Roy Williams and John Calipari would be prime-time television, featured viewing between two of college basketball’s elite coaches.
But Wednesday night, Williams and Calipari weren’t doing any coaching — they were cheering.
Like thousands of others in attendance for the Charlotte Hornets’ 110-93 win over the Denver Nuggets, Williams and Calipari were there to watch from the stands. So they sat, on opposite sides of the court at the Spectrum Center, watching their former pupils battle it out.
“Before the game I was actually looking for my wife and I saw her and waved to her, and (Williams) said, ‘Hey, how are you going to ignore me?’” Marcus Paige, who saw his first minutes in an NBA uniform, said jokingly. “He just said he’s happy to be here ... and he’s always going to support his guys.”
Then before the contest actually started, both Calipari and Williams got close-ups on the Jumbotron. Calipari, first, got boos. Williams, second, got thunderous applause. As he did, he pointed jokingly across the court to the Kentucky coach as if to say, “What do you expect?”
The coaches last went head-to-head when Williams’ Tar Heels defeated Calipari’s Cats in the Elite Eight of last season’s NCAA Tournament.
And while Williams may have had the last laugh before Wednesday’s game, it was Calipari who left the contest having seen more of his former players.
Of course, part of that is how many former players each had in the game. In total, there were four former Kentucky players in Wednesday’s game, two for each team — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Malik Monk for the Hornets, Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles for the Nuggets. Compare that to just two former Tar Heels in Paige and Marvin Williams, both on the Hornets.
That follows the larger league trend too, where 27 Kentucky alumni suit up across the NBA compared to just 17 former UNC players.
But Wednesday’s game was all about the Kentucky alums from the get-go.
Kidd-Gilchrist, playing in his first game this season after missing the past few weeks due to personal matters, scored just two points in limited minutes. Coach Steve Clifford said before the game he would keep MKG on a minutes limit, and he held that up. Kidd-Gilchrist played only 10 minutes.
Monk, though, one of Calipari’s latest stars to make it to the pros, had no such restrictions and made the most of his 25 minutes. Playing without Nic Batum, Michael Carter-Williams and Julyan Stone, all out with injuries, the Hornets turned to Monk to play some point guard, and he delivered with 17 points. He scored 12 in the first half alone as Charlotte built a 23-point lead.
“I’d seen him, and he texted me before,” Monk said of having Calipari there. “When I was shooting around he came over and said what’s up and all that, and it was just good to see him.”
Otherwise, Murray was aggressive for the Nuggets, especially early, but without much success. He attacked the basket and found room to shoot too, but he ended the first half with just eight points on 4-of-12 shooting. He finished the night with 16, but mostly after the game was out of reach. Lyles also only played in the last two and a half minutes after the game was out of hand.
As for the former Tar Heels, there was less to remark on. Paige missed both of his shots in three garbage-time minutes (although they were his first professional minutes, which he said afterward was a huge milestone), and Marvin Williams played 21 minutes, going an efficient 4-of-6 from the field. That included a sensational third-quarter bucket on a long bounce pass through everyone from Jeremy Lamb.
“Gave him a big hug ... I can’t express to you guys how much that means to me for him to make it down here,” Marvin Williams said of his former coach’s presence. “He comes to at least a home game every year since I’ve been in Charlotte.”
At the end of the game, Williams and Calipari said their goodbyes to their former stars and left to go back to their respective campuses.
And although Calipari got booed to start the game, he had a reason to smile leaving the arena after watching his former players.