What's more, Calipari has a large target on his back, one that he put there himself. He brought in not only Dajuan, who will hardly help Calipari attain his stated goal of improving Memphis's graduation rate, but also Dajuan's father, Milt, as coordinator of basketball operations, and Dajuan's high school teammate, Arthur Barclay, as a scholarship recruit. Milt had never coached at any level, and Barclay, a backup forward averaging 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds at week's end, isn't Division I material. The suspicion is that he was recruited simply to help close the Dajuan deal. "I knew I'd take hits for all that," says Calipari. "I was prepared for it. But what's going on now isn't right."
In columns last month, Geoff Calkins of Memphis's main newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, ripped Calipari, the impetuses being a 90-73 loss to Arkansas on Jan. 2 and an incident in which Tigers assistant Tony Barbee elbowed Razorbacks freshman J.J. Sullinger as Sullinger chased a ball near the Memphis bench. The Barbee shove reinforced Calkins's opinion that the Tigers are "hard to like" and that there's a "growing backlash" against both Calipari (argues with officials too much, trashes regional rivalries, says Calkins) and his team (aloof and difficult to deal with).
"Contrast it with the perception of the Grizzlies, and you wonder exactly how things got flipped around quite this way in this town," wrote Calkins. Calipari says his 14-year-old daughter, Erin, cried when she read one of the columns, which prompted his wife, Ellen, to cancel the family's subscription, which prompted the newspaper to write a story about the cancellation, which prompted John to get mad at The Commercial Appeal all over again.
Ironically, Calipari is one reason the Grizzlies have been so well received. "As influential as John is, he could've been a great hindrance," says Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies' CEO and majority owner. "But he was a stand-up guy and said that us coming was great for the city. We owe a great debt to John."
Calipari says he believes the pizzazz and publicity that come from having a pro team in Memphis will help the university attract the national spotlight, even though he says the spotlight came at a personal price to him. How's that, John? "I was the guy in town for advertising and marketing stuff," said Calipari. "Let's say a phone company wants me to do something. I say I need to be paid and I need airtime for me and my staff. But a Grizzlies player says, 'I'll do it just for the phone.' So they take the player."
To say that Calipari's image in Memphis has diminished on any grand scale would be a vast overstatement. He's in place precisely because the school needed someone to come up with W's without further besmirching its reputation. Memphis coaches have been fired amid recruiting irregularities and tax evasion (Dana Kirk) and have resigned under pressure after having an affair with a female student (Tic Price). Finch, Kirk's successor, had a 220-130 record with six NCAA tournament appearances in 11 seasons but was forced out because attendance, donations to the program and—with certain exceptions, local products Wright and Penny Hardaway being the most prominent—recruiting successes had decreased. Landing a coach like Calipari would've been a godsend in any case, but against this backdrop it was as if John Wooden had donned a designer suit and walked into The Pyramid with a clipboard. "Tigers fans didn't give up on their program, even with all that happened," says Jim Rothman, a season-ticket holder for 30 years, "but John Calipari is the single biggest reason we're excited again."
Although the Grizzlies have the unpredictability of Williams and two strong rookie-of-the-year candidates in Battier and Pau Gasol, a 7-foot forward from Spain, excitement might be too strong a word to describe what the new kids in town have generated. Still, the team has generated buzz, which started after a 114-108 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at The Pyramid on Dec. 21. Isaac Hayes has become a regular at games—he has performed the pregame national anthem—and Lowe and his assistants were among the revelers at Hayes's downtown restaurant on New Year's Eve. Justin Timberlake of *NSync has shown up (his stepfather is an executive at a local bank), and homegirl Cybill Shepherd delivered a not altogether harmonic rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner before one game.
While the university depends on a traditional base of loyal locals, the Grizzlies have drawn from a wider area; it has long been said that Memphis is the capital of Arkansas and Mississippi, and the pro team hopes to capitalize on that. As for the Grizzlies' dance team, don't even suggest that its hoofers are content with second billing. "We're much more diverse and professional," says Beth Vanderford, 21, who is one of five former University of Memphis dancers on the Grizzlies' squad. "We're more than straight-up pom girls." Whoa! Dance Team Smackdown 2002!
The Grizzlies are waiting for 2004, when they move into their own arena, for which Memphis-based FedEx has naming rights. "We're going to crescendo in our new building," Versace often tells his troops. Heisley says he might ask the Tigers to join him there, a proposition that causes Johnson to furrow his brow. "Things have been pretty nice for us at The Pyramid," he says, "but it's something we'd have to take a look at."
For now, there's a lot of hoops to look at. After a recent Grizzlies loss, there was Finch exchanging pleasantries with fans. "You going to be around for the Tigers?" someone asked him.