Beale Street Baskets: Coaches v. Cancer
By David Scott - November 13, 2007
If things go according to plan on Thursday evening, then you can expect the NCAA's new bench decorum rules to have their very first, true test on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Coaches vs. Cancer basketball classic hits New York City this week and with UConn facing Gardnerella-Webb in the early tilt (7 p.m.) on Thursday and Memphis getting Oklahoma in the nightcap (9 p.m.), it very much looks like a Cal on Cal final Friday at 8:30 on the hardwood of MSG. A John Calipari vs. Jim Calhoun match-up would have New York City's back page tabloid writers licking their chops and could save face for tournament organizers who lost the big draw of Kentucky with G-W's upset special (a slogan made into t-shirts being worn all over the GDub campus in Boiling Springs, NC).
Calipari faced Calhoun twice while at border rival UMass and both meetings were in Calipari's worst (and first) years as a head coach (January 30 in both 1989 and 1990). The first meeting, Calipari's 19th game at UMass out of 264 eventual contests, was a 104-75 loss at UConn followed by the Huskies' 94-75 win in Amherst. It was the last time the two schools met on the hardwood until the 100 year-rivalry was renewed the season after Calipari left UMass for the New Jersey Nets.
It's widely held that Calhoun wouldn't schedule the Minutemen while Calipari was there, especially when the Minutemen started to dominate New England College basketball and steal some of the thunder form its former Yankee Conference rival. Once Calipari left, the series re-started and UConn ruled with nine of 10 wins from 1996-2005. (Although the series was agreed upon when Calipari was still at UMass, the first game pitted Calhoun against Calipari's successor, Bruiser Flint.)
"If John and I get together it would be the first time in quite some time," said Calhoun. "I'm sure it would be interesting if we did match up."
To say the least. Calipari had a way of getting under the skin of his coaching peers of a certain age (older than the young gun Calipari who was 29 when he started at UMass). The famous John Chaney incident may be the most public example, but coaches like Gale Catlett at West Virginia also found the young Calipari a bit too brash (and probably too damn good) for their liking.
When the "U-Game" series ended in 2005, Calhoun told the the Daily Hampshire Gazette's Matt Vautour that the hiatus during the Calipari years was deliberate and, according to Vautour, because of "his distaste for former Minuteman coach John Calipari.
"I ended the series because of John Calipari. I said I wouldn't play them while John was there," Calhoun said at the time. "We agreed to play it and unfortunately he left. Actually, that wasn't so unfortunate. He left, Ray (Allen) left and Marcus (Camby) left and the series has been a rout ever since then. Back in the Calipari era you can make a case that we should have played them. I had my own personal reasons. I'm sure John had his reasons too. Then it was a game that had to be played. John and I stepped forward and he left. I can't be blamed for him leaving."
Both coaches were diplomatic and respectful of each other on a Tuesday teleconference to hype the Coaches vs. Cancer event.
"I don't mind matching up with either (Oklahoma's) Jeff (Capel) or John," said Calhoun. "I would love to have one of the opportunities to play either of them in the championship game."
"I'm not really worried about who we play," said Calipari on the same teleconference. "Jim Calhoun is a Hall of Famer and one of the best coaches in the country and has done a fabulous job in taking that program from where it was. I have respect for their program and they recruit nationally to Storrs, Connecticut - from all over the country."
So publicly at least, the two men - Calhoun, 65 and Calipari, 48 - may have matured a bit. But we tend to think if the match-up comes to fruition, MSG will once again get the type of match-up befitting the world's most famous arena.
And bench decorum could be damned.
. . . Calipari remembers the two Calhoun meetings pretty clearly. "My memory of UConn is in Storrs, Connecticut in 1989. It was one of first games I was coaching. We were down 11-0 and I call a timeout and tell the guys that our goal for us, is to try and get the ball over halfcourt. Then the next year in our building, they had Nadav Henefeld. I can still remember him making shots all over the place. "
. . . As has become a regular staple of the Tigers' visits to New York City, Calipari's team will practice at the New Jersey Nets practice facility on Wednesday. Calipari helped to get the modern facility built when he was with the Nets. Only seems fair that he'd still be able to use it! Wonder if he still has keys to the building.
. . . Calipari, who has now competed in four Coaches vs. Cancer events as well as several Jimmy V Classics, said he was touched by cancer through his grandmothers, both of whom died of blood-related cancers. "And the head of our booster group (was diagnosed) with colon cancer three days ago. He's 50 years old."
. . . Calipari said Monday night's exhibition game at home was encouraging on a few levels. "I am more comfortable, but I'm still worried we don't understand the desperation the other team is going to play with every night. I'm worried this team doesn't get it yet."