When last we saw them together, as star player and coach of the University of Massachusetts basketball team, Marcus Camby and John Calipari were fighting back tears like a couple of overwhelmed figure skaters. The Minutemen had just fallen to Kentucky in the Final Four, and Camby strode out of the Meadowlands Arena with a towel draped over his head, hiding his red eyes and, presumably, his diamond necklace. An emotional Calipari spoke of returning someday, and we assumed he meant to the Final Four. It turns out he meant to New Jersey.
With its first Final Four appearance, UMass took its fans on an exhilarating trip to the top of college basketball, but two months later euphoria went to pieces quicker than Kathie Lee Gifford. Last week Camby, a junior who on April 29 had announced his intention to enter the NBA draft, claimed in The Hartford Courant that while still on the team and in violation of NCAA rules, he had received jewelry and $2,000 from two prospective agents. (The jewelry came indirectly, via friends.) Two days later Calipari accepted a reported five-year, $15 million offer to return to the Meadowlands as coach and vice president of basketball operations of the New Jersey Nets. Just like that, the consensus Division I Player of the Year and Coach of the Year were gone, and in their place a dark cloud rolled in.
Here in Massachusetts, where fans only recently have fallen hard for college basketball, we were left to wonder if our big chance had slipped out the door with our two heroes. For many schools a Final Four appearance is nothing more than the culmination of a once-in-a-lifetime season in which everything breaks just right. The team soars like a comet for one glorious weekend and disappears just as quickly, one loss and out—sometimes forever.
Two years ago Lon Kruger took Florida to the Final Four, riding the old theme of teamwork and togetherness. Last year the Gators were bounced from the tournament in the first round. This year they failed to make the field, and then Kruger left to become the coach at Illinois. His new team is, no doubt, just like family to him. In 1989 it all came together for Seton Hall, as the Pirates under P.J. Carlesimo reached the championship game. They lost to Michigan in overtime and since have gone as far as the Sweet 16 only twice. Carlesimo jumped to the Portland Trail Blazers in '94 for a five-year, $7.5 million deal. When I asked Calipari last year whether he would ever be tempted to coach in the NBA, he admitted it would be tough to turn down a "P.J. deal." Well, there is a new standard for ambitious young college coaches now. They can dream of landing a Coach Cal contract.
For coaches who choose to stay at their schools, it becomes more difficult each year to retain their tenuous grip on national prominence. These days some of the top recruits are looking only for a place to refine their skills and get on TV before jumping to the NBA. Georgia Tech reached the Sweet 16 this year, but there was an odd sense of disappointment to the Yellow Jackets' season. This was, after all, the year Tech had Stephon Marbury, the freshman point guard who promised to go pro if he thought he would be drafted in the top five, and he has kept that promise. Unlike him, Tech will have a tough time making the top five anytime soon.
No one accused Camby of using UMass as a pit stop on the way to the NBA. He stayed in Amherst for three seasons, a lifetime commitment by today's standards, but last week's news of his transgressions was sadly ironic. Here he was, the kid who lifted the Minutemen's program to the heights, knocking it right back down again. To some, Camby's tale was further proof that college athletes must receive a stipend so they can buy pizza and go to movies like other college students. This is a reasonable argument, but unless the proposed stipend would include diamond neckware, it doesn't fit in this case. As far as we know, Camby didn't break the rules so he could feed his family or pay the gas bill. He risked everything for some gaudy Mr. T starter kit. Now Camby will move on, essentially unscathed, to a lucrative life in the NBA while UMass braces for possible NCAA sanctions.
UMass had suffered through 10 straight losing seasons when Calipari arrived in 1988. The Minutemen didn't just lose before Calipari; they expected to lose. Kind of like a certain NBA team that makes its home off exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike. The Nets historically have been a hopeless organization, but they are no worse off than the 10-17 team that Calipari inherited. Eight years later UMass went 35-2 and reached the Final Four. Calipari can talk a great game, but he can coach an even better one. The Minutemen didn't just win; they expected to win, and almost won it all. They may get another chance someday, but I wouldn't bet on it. Not even if I had a Coach Cal contract.