Back to School
Can John Calipari rebuild Memphis's once proud reputation?
Before beginning his first practice as coach at Memphis at 9 a.m. last Saturday, John Calipari asked his players to stand in a circle, join hands and bow their heads while he said a brief prayer. That invocation was followed by 2� hours of pure heaven for Coach Cal as he ran his charges through two dozen drills designed to sharpen their fundamentals and improve their conditioning. "About halfway through I looked around and thought, I love this," says Calipari, who spent last season as an assistant with the 76ers after a three-year hitch as coach of the Nets. "In the NBA we ran scrimmages from Day One, but today I was developing habits. You can see these guys are thinking, Tell us what to do."
The workout was a welcome change for Calipari in another sense. In the seven months since he took the Memphis job, he has acted more like the CEO of an Internet start-up than a coach He has been pressing the flesh in Memphis's private sector to procure, among other things nearly $200,000 to upgrade the weight and locker rooms; access to paid summer internship.' for his players at Federal Express, whose national headquarters are in Memphis; and 800 parking spaces at a hospital near the Pyramid—where Memphis plays its home games—so students can park for free. By his count, Calipari has also borrowed eight private jets for recruiting and scouting trips. "A lot of people made the mistake of telling me, 'If there's any way I can help you, just call,' " he says.
Calipari, who transformed UMass from a nonentity into a national power in the 1990s, has been dogged—and successful—on the recruiting front. Last Friday night a top junior college player, 6'8" center Chris Massie of Oxnard ( Calif.) College, orally committed to Memphis, where he will be joined next fall by arguably the nation's top high school senior, guard Dajuan Wagner of Camden, N.J. Calipari went all out to get Wagner. Not only did he sign Wagner's best friend and high school teammate, 6'8" forward Arthur Barclay, who is academically ineligible this season, but he also hired Wagner's father, Milt, the former Louisville star, as coordinator of basketball operations, even though Milt doesn't have a college degree.
Calipari's players have been privately—and good-naturedly-referring to him as Adolf in response to the control he has assumed over their schedules. "He told us straight-up that playing for him would be the hardest thing we'd ever do," senior guard Marcus Moody says. "He also told us that we were going to win."
Whether that prediction comes true remains to be seen, but for the time being the people of Memphis, starved for a winner since the Tigers have missed the last four NCAA tournaments, appear to have embraced Calipari as their savior. The team attracted an average of 11,794 fans to the 21,000-seat Pyramid last season while going 15-16; this year more than 13,000 season tickets have already been sold. "Right now we're going on blind faith," Calipari says. Basketball is religion in Memphis, but Calipari knows that at some point faith must be rewarded, or the parishioners will go looking for another messiah.
A Victim of Its Own Success
John Thompson III, the newly appointed coach at Princeton, could more easily focus on the Tigers' future if he weren't haunted by a ghost from their past. At least that's how Thompson feels whenever he sees 6'11" junior Chris Young, who on Aug. 31 forfeited his Ivy League eligibility by signing a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I looked out my window the other day and saw Chris working out with the baseball coach," Thompson, 34, says of Princeton's leading scorer last season. "Then I saw him in the weight room, and I said to myself, 'There's the best basketball player in the Ivy League, and he's on our campus.' It drives you crazy."
Losing Young is only one of several setbacks that have jolted a program renowned for its plodding efficiency. In the last six weeks Princeton has also bidden farewell to second-leading scorer Spencer Gloger, a 6'8" sophomore who transferred to UCLA, and coach Bill Carmody, who bolted for Northwestern. Add to those defections the departures of assistant Joe Scott, who accepted the coaching job at Air Force last spring, and 6'7" junior forward Ray Robins, who is taking the year off for personal reasons, plus the graduation of Mason Rocca, and the Tigers have lost 56% of their offense and 67% of their brainpower since the end of last season.
In a way Princeton is a victim of its own success. When the Tigers took top-seeded Georgetown to the brink of defeat in the 1989 NCAA tournament, they raised Princeton's profile as a school where a player could not only get a great education but also compete at the highest level. That meant better players were attracted there, and the results could be seen in the No. 8 ranking the Tigers achieved during the 1997-98 season. Suddenly Princeton was winning recruiting battles with the likes of Texas to sign Young and with UCLA to sign Gloger.