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The Not-So-Good Old Days of John Calipari

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John Calipari uses his March 1999 firing as the touchstone of his new book, "Bounce Back", writing about how he recovered and you can too! (Of course, Cal did have the cushion of a guaranteed $15 million contract to tide him over while he recovered.)

That said, it’s the first time he’s written at length about his two years as coach. He offers insights into how he succeeded and then failed. He doesn’t gloss over his failings but also suggests that Jayson Williams in particular had it in for him…and the team’s new owners, President Michael Rowe, GM John Nash and his assistant coach, Don Casey, all turned on him.

Of Williams, Calipari writes that he regretted not trading him and his disruptive character. At the top of the list of his regrets:

"I would have done everything in my power to trade Jayson Williams. I would have traded him for a mascot. Bill Parcells once told me during one of my visits to watch his Jets team practice that if the biggest personality on your team is not the guy you want, you better do everything in your power to get rid of him. ‘Because,’ Bill told me, ‘he’s sure as heck trying to get rid of you.’ And, as usual, ‘The Tuna’ was right."

He also admits that the trade that sent Sam Cassell to Minnesota and brought Stephon Marbury to the Nets was a big mistake, one he admits he reluctantly signed off on.

"I should have fought harder to keep Sammy Cassell. Ultimately I approved of the Stephon Marbury trade, but if I had listened to my gut, I would have opposed it more vehemently."

Cassell in fact comes across as a Cal role model, calling him one of the most fearless players he ever coached and notes how he brought the three time NBA champion to Memphis two years ago to talk to the team that got to the NCAA championship game. Calipari in particular cites Cassell’s ability to have what he calls on-court "amnesia" moving on after a mistake, a missed shot.

"The best example of this concept of ‘Next’ is my former point guard, Sammy Cassell. Sammy has had a fifteen-year career in the NBA, playing for eight different teams, and he has three NBA championship rings to show for it, including one with the Boston Celtics in 2007–08. Sammy is a winner, and we have always gotten along great, going back to his days as a college player at Florida State when I was at UMass. To watch us during our time together in New Jersey, many people might have thought we were constantly at war, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Did we battle and squabble? Sure. But we did that because we both had one goal in mind: winning. There would be times during games when I would tell Sammy to pass more, and he would come over to the sideline and say, ‘Coach, do you want me to pass or do you want us to win?’ That’s Sammy—he was never being cocky, but he was always confident—he has swagger.

"If you miss a shot, forget about it. If you turn the ball over, forget about it. Sammy was the absolute best at that. He could miss ten shots in a row, but he absolutely believed that next shot was going in. It’s what has made him one of the deadliest and most clutch shooters in the NBA, and it has helped him to extend his NBA career over parts of two decades…That’s what Sammy is all about."

In admitting his mistakes, Calipari cites a long litany of problems, many of them fans from the era can easily recall.

"I wasn’t perfect with the Nets. I made mistakes at every level of my job description," he writes. "I’m an emotional Italian—always have been and always will be. Some people made a point about my passion during games, and they were right. At times I was too loud, and I probably coached too much during games. My sideline demeanor was a bit too rambunctious. It was what I knew and what worked for me in college, but some NBA players would not respond to that type of coaching.

"When the Nets were sold to a new ownership group led by Ray Chambers, Finn Wentworth, and Lewis Katz in 1998, I didn’t do enough to foster the communal relationship I had with the previous owners."

He even admits he embarrassed the franchise, citing his poor relationship with beat writers.

"I antagonized the media—way too far in one instance—and wound up embarrassing myself and the organization in the process. In the New York media market you just can’t get on the press’s bad side or they will crucify you; I learned the hard way that no matter how frustrated I was feeling or however funny I was trying to be, I had to always be thinking about my reputation and my role as a representative for my organization."

(The one instance Calipari cites without detail no doubt refers to his use of a racially insensitive remark he made about the Star-Ledger’s Dan Garcia.)

Best of all is Calipari’s recounting of the March afternoon in 1999 when he was fired in Miami. With the team 2-12, Cassell out and the team likely to miss the playoffs in the strike-shortened season, Calipari knew he was likely to get whacked but notes the first word he got that he was being fired came from a member of the TV crew who told him he was being "dinged" after the game.

"Perfect, I thought. The camera guy knows I’m getting fired before I do! We lost the game 102–76, and I never got up off the bench. We scored just fifteen points in the second quarter and sixteen in the fourth quarter. My center, Jayson Williams, who had averaged thirteen points a game the previous two seasons, scored two points and fouled out in twenty-seven minutes of play.

"When the game ended, there was a knot of uncertainty in my stomach—a perfectly normal response to impending bad news. It wasn’t a good feeling, but I knew I had to take my medicine. As I walked into the tunnel and toward our locker room, my assistant, Johnny Davis, put his arm around me and said, "Fight for the job. You are the same coach who took us to the playoffs. Fight for the job!" I didn’t have a fight left in me, and I knew that the decision had been made. Two of the team’s owners, Stan Gale and Finn Wentworth, brought me into the visiting coaches’ locker room and explained their position. They wanted to go in a new direction, and they were going to hand the team over to another of my assistants, Don Casey. I told them I didn’t agree with what they were doing and that I thought they were making a mistake. But they had already made their decision, and our talk was a mere formality. I remember coming out of that meeting at the old Miami Arena, and there was barely a soul around except for the Nets’ principal owner and managing partner at the time, Lewis Katz. He told me to follow him to a car they had waiting."

Calipari, of course, recovered, got hired as an assistant by the Sixers' Larry Brown (while continuing to get his Nets salary), then returned to college coaching at Memphis. There is a long section in "Bounce Back" about the Tigers' Final Four appearance, including their free throw-marred collapse against Kansas. Cal mentions his best free throw shooter missed key shots at the stripe, but in keeping with his "Next" philosophy, doesn't name the player. It was Chris Douglas-Roberts.