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Some called him Little Vinnie, after his father. John worked his first connection at age nine, landing a prized gig as a batboy with the Moon High baseball team. Vincent Calipari played softball with the baseball coach, Ray Bosetti, so John got to ride the team bus with the big kids, be part of the games in the towns upriver from Pittsburgh. A big thrill it was, until the day in 1968 when racial strife roiled the area near Forgings Field, where Moon High was due to play predominantly black Coraopolis High. The team arrived to find the field besieged by angry black people, and after huddling a bit in the dugout, the players were rushed back onto the bus. Then the bus began to rock. Little Vinnie hit the floor with everyone else—"scared," he says, "to death."
The tension lasted for weeks. Calipari recalls leaving his grandmother's house in Coraopolis around that time, his dad anxious about her sleeping there alone, until her next-door neighbor, a black man named Prince Harlee, called out from his porch, "Don't worry about your mom, Vince. I got her. No one's going near her." Again, the value of connections.
The Caliparis lived by Moon High on Beaver Grade Road, John's parents in one bedroom, his two sisters in the other. John got the hallway. His dad's father, also named John, had come over young from Calabria in Italy, worked in the coal mines of West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, died short of 60 from black lung. Vince Calipari spent a year at the steelworks in Aliquippa, sweating off five pounds a day rolling pipe in the heat and dust. When he got a chance to pump fuel at the Pittsburgh airport, it felt like a lifeline.
He never made more than $16,000 a year. John's mom, Donna, worked in the cafeteria at the junior high, on her feet all day prepping food and dishing out ice cream. Payday was Friday, and by Wednesday the Caliparis' pantry showed a lot of empty. Vince took any overtime he could get, yet made sure on every warm day to cut the grass: front, side or back. "The yard was magnificent," John says. "A grinder is what he was."
John grew up cushioned, the lone boy between two girls. He worked as a ball boy for the Moon High basketball team in a little jacket and tie. Everybody was talking then about Pitt coach Buzz Ridl, his "amoeba defense" and the crew of local talent he led to the 1974 Elite Eight. Calipari learned to wedge open gym windows and slip a comb through loose door locks, and come Monday someone would complain to the Moon coach, "Johnny was in there shooting again." He was a decent point guard, fated to lead only the want-to stats: free throws, assists, charges taken. After a stray elbow shattered his cheek during his senior season at Clarion State, Calipari tried to check back into the game. For the next month he played in wrestling headgear.
Summers he hit Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh, first as a camper, then as a counselor so good that he was allowed to coach kids his own age: shirt always tucked in, socks just so. Calipari met every name in the business there, established or rising: Knight, Pitino, Chuck Daly. Kansas assistant Bob Hill recommended Calipari to Jayhawks coach Ted Owens in 1982, and Calipari's ticket was punched to Lawrence—for a no-pay job running KU's summer basketball camp. A year later Larry Brown took over and took notice. "John just had an unbelievable desire to learn, get better," Brown says. "He was a basketball junkie, like me, and he would do whatever I asked."
By then the fueling company had gone out of business; Vince lost his job. At 50 he took a part-time gig slinging suitcases for Piedmont Airlines, backbreaking work in the cold and wet. Each time John flew into Pittsburgh—and, later, Charlotte, where his parents moved in 1984 so Vince could take a full-time job as a baggage handler—his dad would get the flight number and meet him at the gate in his gear. They'd have a bite. It was a respite from days marked by near-manic intensity; not even John's marriage to Ellen Higgins, a secretary in the Kansas athletic office, could settle him down.
"Ego, brashness, an arrogance," Calipari says, describing himself then. "Why? What was I masking? I have to make it here. Where was I going to go? To the basement of my parents' home? There were rats down there. The attic had bats. I had nowhere to go. So to mask the fear of, Man, I don't know if I can do this, you become... ."
You become the kind of coach desperate programs want to hire. UMass was a basketball backwater then, with a tradition that began and ended with Julius Erving, but Pitino was an alum and the search committee's headhunter. He suggested four men: New Mexico assistant Larry Shyatt; Stu Jackson, Pitino's assistant with the Knicks; George Mason head coach Rick Barnes; and Calipari. After that, the story gets foggy, and it helps explain why Calipari and Pitino barely tolerate each other.
For decades Pitino has said that he pushed hard for Calipari and wrote a $5,000 check to UMass athletic director Frank McInerney to help cover Calipari's $63,000 salary. "The guy wouldn't let me out of the meeting until I wrote the check!" Pitino told SI in 2009. Early in his career Calipari described Pitino as one of his "three or four really good friends in coaching." Now, however, when first approached to talk about Calipari, Pitino says, "I really don't know him, so I'd prefer not to."