AST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In an instant, he was back, stomping his feet on the sideline, screaming out plays and turning Continental Arena into his own personal stage. The scenario was so delicious that it appeared to be scripted.
John Calipari, who was vilified upon being fired by the Nets last March, returned to the Meadowlands tonight as a coach. A head coach.
With 1 minute 29 seconds left in the first quarter, Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown, Calipari's friend for nearly 20 years, began ranting at the official Marc Davis about a meaningless foul call on the 76ers' Bruce Bowen. Refusing to let the issue die, Brown was called for consecutive technical fouls and automatically ejected.
Moments later, Calipari, who joined the 76ers as an assistant coach in September, stood up. From that point on, the contest was all about him. And on this night, victory was his.
Philadelphia, behind Allen Iverson's electrifying 37-point performance, defeated the Nets, 100-96, before a season-best home crowd of 15,118 fans. And Calipari, whom the Nets will pay $6 million to over the next two seasons because of stipulations in his contract, had the pleasure of dropping his former club to 1-9, its worst start in franchise history.
Some Nets officials privately admitted thinking that Brown and Calipari had staged the entire thing. Calipari refused to speak after the game, but Brown said there was no setup.
"I would not have left him in a situation like that," said Brown, who in September claimed that Calipari was fired as a result of a conspiracy by Don Casey, Calipari's former assistant and now the Nets' head coach, Nets General Manager John Nash and the Nets' president, Michael Rowe. "I don't feel good about putting him in that position," Brown added. "The way it worked out, I'm happy for him. It's not special for him, though. He likes a lot of people on that team."
As exciting as Iverson was -- he scored on graceful finger rolls and improbable jump shots -- the scene stealer was Calipari. Appearing as comfortable and collected as ever, he moved smoothly along the court, clearly enjoying his redemption.
The Nets, meanwhile, seemed shaken by his unforeseen ascension. Casey, the only assistant who was not fired with Calipari last season, looked sick. His face was red, his hair was disheveled and his thoughts apparently were on Calipari, as he kept glancing down at the 76ers' bench.
Some of Calipari's former players seemed just as distraught. The injured center Jayson Williams, whose nettlesome relationship with Calipari was well documented, was more fired up than anyone. On the bench in street clothes, he stood and pumped his fist during Nets rallies and delivered short impromptu speeches to his teammates during timeouts. And like Casey, he could not stop looking down the line at his former coach.
"It seemed peculiar," said Nets guard Sherman Douglas, who played for Calipari two seasons ago and shared words and laughter with him during the second quarter. "I just asked him how he was doing. Cal got into it. I'm quite sure he was anxious to get back into running things."
The Nets led by 21-20 when Calipari took over, and after six minutes of nip-and-tuck play, Philadelphia took control late in the second quarter behind Iverson's 14-point barrage. Iverson scored 26 first-half points to give the 76ers a 55-49 lead.
Philadelphia raised the advantage to 15 points heading into the fourth before the Nets charged back to within 92-87 with five minutes to play and to within 97-95 after a steal and lay-in by Marbury (22 points) with 1:37 left.
On Philadelphia's next possession, Marbury was called for his sixth foul, and Aaron McKie sank the ensuing free throws. Jim McIlvaine sank one of two free throws with 26 seconds left to pull the Nets to within 99-96, and the game's final moments came down to a coaching decision.
Hoping to stop Philadelphia and hit a game-tying 3-pointer, Casey instructed his players not to foul the 76ers. As a result, the clock ticked down to 4.4 seconds before Iverson, who was driving to the basket, was fouled. He hit one of two free throws to seal the victory and give Calipari a small bit of vindication.