SI Vault
 
The NBA
Jackie MacMullan
February 02, 1998
Hard Lessons
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 02, 1998

The Nba

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Hard Lessons

Net gains under a Calipari
Heavy trade winds
Agents rate execs

He coaches every play as though his life were hanging in the balance. When the Nets' John Calipari watches a Kerry Kittles 16-footer roll off the rim, he screeches as if he's been impaled, then windmills for guard Lucious Harris to check into the game. "You're going down, babe!" he shouts as Kittles jogs past him. Four possessions later, Harris absorbs that same rage when a bounce pass eludes his grasp. "Sherm, get in for him!" Calipari barks. As Sherman Douglas rises from the bench, Cal yanks him by the jersey to speed him along. "Go!" he screams. "Gooooo!"

This is the new and improved John Calipari? Yup. "Much calmer than last year," says point games guard Sam Cassell. But still frenetic, abrasive and thirsting for victories.

Cal's volatility cost New Jersey a possible home win over the Bulls last Friday, when he pulled rookie Keith Van Horn and swingman Kendall Gill with less than one second left in overtime, the game tied at 98 and Chicago inbounding from mid-court. The strategy was sound: Both had five fouls, and Calipari wanted to save them for a second OT. But after frantically instructing the Nets that they had both a foul and a delay-of-game warning to give, he sent only four players back onto the floor. In-bounder Toni Kukoc, left unguarded, lofted a pass to forward Jason Caffey, who streaked to the hole alone. Caffey, amazingly, botched the open slam, and New Jersey center Jayson Williams, who had sprinted desperately back, swiped at the ball. He was whistled for goaltending as time expired. Ball game, Chicago.

A shattered Calipari apologized to the team, told the press he was to blame and retreated to his office, where friends and family found him inconsolable. His staff has urged him to stay calm on the sideline; it was the latest lesson he's learned the hard way.

Since coming to New Jersey, Calipari has been fined $25,000 by the NBA for calling Newark Star-Ledger reporter Dan Garcia "a f-----Mexican idiot," endured a 26-56 rookie campaign and found himself skewered as a yapping martinet in a GQ article written by Williams. Rumors were rampant last season that Cal would return to the college ranks, where he could expect reverence from his players. The truth is, he prefers pro coaching. "Here's why," Calipari says. "Back at UMass, I'm on the road recruiting, and there's an emergency call from a player. I know I can't get to him right away, so for three gut-wrenching hours, I'm torturing myself, wondering. Finally I get the kid. He says to me, 'Coach, do you mind if I miss my workout tomorrow? I gotta get a haircut.' "

So Calipari adjusted his coaching style and reinvented the Nets, who were 23-19 at week's end. He and general manager John Nash acquired Cassell, Van Horn and Chris Gatling for Shawn Bradley, Robert Pack and Tim Thomas in a pair of huge deals. When he took the job, Calipari called each of his players to deliver a pep talk; only two returned his call. Now he has abandoned the hokey motivational tactics. Calipari is not universally loved by his players—Who is?—but last year that ate at him. This season he has learned to accept it, which may explain why he and Williams are comfortably coexisting.

"I never hated the man," says Williams. "He came in and changed everything, and after being here five years, I thought I should have had an opinion. But my daddy said to me, 'I don't want to hear no problems with you and Cal. I run a construction company, and you don't see any of my bricklayers telling me what to do.' "

In fact, Williams, who was averaging 13.4 points and 14.2 rebounds at week's end, now dismisses his differences with Calipari as the normal friction between "two guys with big egos and big stubborn streaks," and says he'd like to re-sign with New Jersey next summer. True, Calipari's players wish he would loosen his verbal choke hold on them once in a while. But Cassell, who spars with Calipari during games, says all is forgotten after the buzzer. "Cal is the perfect player's coach," Cassell insists.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4