Asked Friday to recall his fondest memory of Lawrence, Kansas — the place where he began his Hall of Fame coaching career — John Calipari was quick with a response.
“Meeting my wife,” he said with a smile. “You knew I was going to say that.”
Calipari then spent most of his 15-minute press conference meant to preview Saturday night’s matchup between Kentucky and Kansas reflecting on the place he left more than 30 years ago, a place that clearly still means a great deal to him.
The UK coach spoke of former Kansas coaches James Naismith and Phog Allen and former Kansas players Adolph Rupp and Wilt Chamberlain. He talked about driving his Plymouth Arrow around the same KU campus those basketball greats once inhabited. “Do they still make Plymouth Arrows?” he asked.
Calipari reminisced about living with another part-time assistant when he started.
“I had nothing,” he said. “I had no aspirations for anything other than to learn basketball. Felt so blessed that I had an opportunity to start on that campus.
“Made no money. ... I had nothing except basketball.”
Calipari was hired in 1982 as a volunteer assistant by then-coach Ted Owens.
“Can you imagine being 23 and your first opportunity to be around the game is in a program like Kansas?” he said. “I just felt every day I woke up, I was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’”
After that season, Calipari was hired by the University of Vermont as recruiting coordinator, but new Kansas coach Larry Brown lured him back to Lawrence as an assistant. He spent two more seasons with the Jayhawks before leaving to be an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, then the head coach at UMass and eventually Kentucky.
He’s coached against Kansas several times since — twice in the national championship game — but Saturday night will be his first game in Allen Fieldhouse as the opponent. Calipari said Friday that he’s set foot in the building only a couple of times since he left and hasn’t seen a game there since he was on the Jayhawks’ bench.
His wife Ellen grew up 2 1/2 hours from Lawrence. She usually doesn’t travel with the team unless it’s tournament time, but she’ll be making the trip this weekend.
Friday’s conversation with reporters eventually turned to the game itself — a matchup of two top-20 teams with serious NCAA Tournament seeding implications on the line — but then it would come back to Calipari’s past.
Several times, he paused and smiled while reflecting on his time there. He seemed genuinely moved by the experience and opportunity, recalling different aspects of the KU tradition and sometimes getting lost in the moment.
“Let me just tell you about the campus,” he said, changing the subject. “The campus, every stone — unless it’s changed — every stone on every building is from the same quarry. Think about that.
“I mean, it is a unique place. It’s special. That state takes great pride in their school. And they take pride in that basketball program and what’s gone on there.”
He drew parallels to Kentucky and the way fans around this state treat this program.
“I had the same feeling when I got this job,” he said. “And John Robic looked out and saw Kentucky across that wall out there and it was glitter and I’m like, ‘Can you imagine that we’re here at Kentucky?’ It’s the same thing. Kansas is exactly the same kind of program.”
The current Jayhawks — despite some recent struggles — are a talented basketball team, and Calipari knows Saturday will be tough. During Coach Bill Self’s 13 seasons at Kansas, he’s lost in Allen Fieldhouse only nine times. The last home defeat came more than two years ago.
When Allen Fieldhouse gets amped — as it surely will Saturday night — opponents come unglued. Calipari remembers that, too.
“Oh yeah. I saw when we were coaching there,” he said. “You have the game and all of a sudden they make a play, another play, you miss a play, and all of a sudden, literally, you’re like feeling this sound come at you.
“Going to Allen Fieldhouse, these guys will experience something they will never experience in their life in that building. There is no pro arena like that. There’s no other arena we’re going to walk into that’s going to be that bad. We walk into great arenas, but not (like that). I’m just telling you, I was in there. ... It’s like a shrine. It’s great.”
John Calipari’s coaching career
- Kansas* (1982-85)
- Pittsburgh* (1985-88)
- Massachusetts (1988-96)
- New Jersey Nets (1996-99)
- Philadelphia 76ers* (1999-2000)
- Memphis (2000-09)
- Kentucky (2009-present)
No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas
What: Big 12/SEC Challenge
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 16-4 (6-2 SEC), Kansas 16-4 (5-3 Big 12)
Series: Kentucky leads 22-6
Last meeting: Kentucky won 72-40 on Nov. 18, 2014, in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.