New Orleans — Kentucky coach John Calipari has done a lot of things and been a lot of places during the four decades he has been a basketball coach.
From Final Fours and national championship games to NBA benches and back again, Calipari has become one of the best in the business. But a quick look at his career path shows it all began back in 1982 in Lawrence, when he was a graduate assistant with the Jayhawks.
Sunday, as Calipari took a break from preparing for tonight’s national championship tilt against Kansas, he shared his humble beginnings with members of the media.
“When Ted Owens asked me to join his staff, I said, ‘What position?’” Calipari recalled. “He said, ‘Volunteer.’ I said, ‘How much does that guy make?’ He said, ‘You’re going to live with the assistant, Randolph Carroll, and you can work at the training table to eat. And then you’re going to help me run my camp, and I’ll pay you some camp money.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to work at the training table?’ ‘Yes, for the Sinclairs.’ So Paul Sinclair ran the training table. I would be in the line (asking) ‘Would you like peas or corn? Peas? Great.’ I served the baseball team, basketball team, football team. It was a great experience. I mean, I had no worries. I have great memories of Lawrence, Kansas.”
2008 title talk
One memory that isn’t so pleasant for Calipari is his loss to Kansas in the 2008 national title game as the head coach at Memphis. The veteran coach fielded plenty of questions about that game on Sunday, chief among them inquiries about what he learned from it.
“Make free throws, that’s what I learned,” Calipari said.
Missed free throws late in that one allowed Kansas to crawl back and ultimately win in overtime after Mario Chalmers’ miracle three-pointer. Calipari said he was not worried about a repeat of that heartbreaker because this year’s team (73 percent) has been good at the free-throw line.
“We’re a terrific free-throw shooting team,” he said. “I think we were No. 1 in our league in free-throw shooting. I have no issues with that whatsoever.”
Asked if he has changed his approach to how he coaches free-throw shooting, Calipari deadpanned: “Yeah. I’ve recruited better free-throw shooters.”
Wildcats on T-Rob
Like the 27 opponents who faced Kansas before them, the Wildcats spoke from a position of great respect when discussing KU All-American Thomas Robinson on Sunday.
“We know he’s a great player,” freshman center Anthony Davis said. “Rebounds the ball, finishes with authority. Probably one of the best players that we’re gonna face this year. It’s gonna be a great challenge for me, so I just can’t wait to play.”
Added Calipari: “We know how good Thomas Robinson is. We all know. We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He’s a vicious competitor, great around the rim, expanded his game. He can make the top-of-the-key three, loves driving that thing hard left and getting to the rim. He has become a better handler and passer. So we know how good he is.”
With most national pundits picking Kentucky to win, there’s a belief that the Wildcats could be feeling extra pressure. Calipari said that was not the case.
“I was dancing in the breakfast room this morning,” he said. “I’m fine.”
His players echoed those sentiments.
“We never really put pressure on ourselves,” Miller said. “We took every day, day by day, trying to get better that day. We were just worried about what we control, that’s playing as good as we can. We’re not thinking about any pressure or anything like that. Of course, people outside of us try to put pressure on us. But we don’t listen to people outside of what we call ‘the family’ anyway. It’s been basketball for us the whole tournament. I think that’s probably the reason why we’re so successful.”
What would this mean?
One of the big-picture questions that was asked most often to both teams was, ‘What would it mean to you to win a national title?’ That question also provided one of the day’s funniest moments when the Wildcats were on the podium.
Even though the question was directed to the players, Calipari spoke first.
“I’m going to tell you, we’re not thinking about that,” he said. “We’re playing a basketball game. When the game’s over, we’re going to all look at each other and say, ‘What just happened? What does this mean?’ Right now, we’re not. If you guys want to answer, go ahead.”
Senior guard Darius Miller was the only one brave enough to chime in.
“Like coach said, we’re just trying to play basketball right now,” Miller said with a huge grin.
Saturday, during Kentucky’s 69-61 victory over Louisville, UK forward Terrence Jones went flying into one of the Louisville cheerleaders in an attempt to save a ball bouncing out of bounds.
The 6-9, 252-pound Jones collided with the woman and felt horrible about it afterwards. After the game, he said he’d like to send her flowers.
“I didn’t even see that I was in the cheerleaders until I was on the ground,” Jones said. “Her being littler than me, that’s real tough, and I just wanted to let her know I’m sorry.”
Asked if he had placed the order, Jones said: “I don’t know her name or anything yet. Hopefully I’ll get that.”