he last time they met in a college basketball game, Rick Pitino and John Calipari rolled into the Final Four driving the shiniest rebuilt machines in the nation.
Letterwinner at UMass in 1973 & 1974, Louisville Cardinals coach Rick Pitino.
Tonight in Memphis they will reconnect in a college setting with their latest rebuilding rigs. But there is a major difference. Whereas Calipari is polishing the chrome on his 17-4 Tigers in his second year at Memphis, Pitino is still scraping together parts for his Cardinals (12-6) in his first season at the University of Louisville.
The 9:30 game will be on ESPN2 as part of the network's ''Rivalry Week.'' And though the U of L-Memphis rivalry is more than a decade removed from its heyday, the presence of the highprofile coaches promises to generate plenty of interest -- and plenty of barbs.
This week the two have been asked repeatedly about their ''relationship,'' but there's not much to tell. Both say they aren't particularly close.
''The only thing we have in common is we're Italian,'' Pitino said.
But they share another thing: a sharp wit.
Calipari's team is 7-0 in Conference USA and features four players most draft analysts figure will make it to the National Basketball Association. But yesterday he hearkened back to U of L's victory over the Tigers last season in Freedom Hall in coach Denny Crum's final regular-season game.
''We know what we're up against,'' Calipari said. ''That's the same team that beat us by 20 (actually 65-56) last year, and now they're playing harder and they're stronger and quicker. People keep getting away from that.''
Pitino pointed out that the Cardinals had Marques Maybin, Rashad Brooks and Muhammed Lasege in that game, but he allowed that Calipari has an excuse for poor memory.
''As you all know, some coaches do the work themselves, and some have 100 valets,'' Pitino said. ''John's one of those valet guys. He's not a hot-dog-and-beer guy. He's a Chateaubriand and Dom Perignon man. He didn't realize that Muhammed Lasege and Brooks and Maybin are not playing. The valets have not told him yet that they aren't playing.
''It's very difficult. By the time it gets to John it has to go through 99 people, because that's what kings do on their thrones -- they wait for people to report back to them. But he'll find out before game time. He, right now, is preparing for that 28 that Marques could have against them and trying to figure out a way to stop Muhammed inside. It's a major advantage we have.''
As for the fact that the Cards won last season's game by nine points, not 20, Pitino quipped: ''He don't know the score. He's too busy making reservations.''
For his part, Calipari acknowledges that he owes much to Pitino for his start in the profession. In 1988, when Pitino was coach of the New York Knicks, he not only recommended that his alma mater, UMass, hire Calipari, but he also wrote a $5,000 check to help pay his $65,000 salary.
''He never has, even in passing, brought it up that he would pay me back at any point,'' Pitino said.
But Calipari is appreciative.
''It wasn't just that he had so much to do with me getting the job,'' he said, ''but once I had it, I was able to call him and get help in so many ways. For example, I know I called him and said, 'Coach, we've got only one secretary for men's and women's basketball and volleyball, and you've got to help me explain we can't work this way.' Or, 'Coach, we've got rotary phones, and it's 1990. Can you help me explain that we can't have this?'
''We have talked a lot in the past, but his circle of friends is very tight. He doesn't have 50 guys out there that he talks to all the time. Billy Minardi was one. And there's Ralph Willard and three or four others. I have a lot of respect for him, and I know if I needed help and called him, he would be there for me. And I hope he knows if he were to call me, I'd be there for him.''
But tonight they will be anything but friendly. The two have faced each other five times -- all games between UMass and UK -- and Pitino has won four.
''And I had better talent in every one of those games,'' Pitino said.
Not so tonight. Calipari whipped the Tigers into shape quickly with a top-10 recruiting class in his first summer and the nation's No. 1 class last year. Memphis is led by guard Dajuan Wagner, a candidate for national Freshman of the Year and the NBA draft. He is averaging 21.2 points and has begun to reign in his game to get teammates involved.
Kelly Wise, a 6-foot-10 senior, leads the team in rebounding at 11.6 per game and is averaging 13 points while shooting 58.7 percent. Joining him up front is 6-9 junior-college transfer Chris Massie, with 7-0 Earl Barron coming off the bench. Those two are averaging nine points apiece.
While U of L has adopted Pitino's frantic pressing style, Calipari employs a slower approach. The team that dictates the style tonight could have an advantage, though Pitino says even that might not be enough for his team, which has nobody taller than 6-8.
''They're a great basketball team because they have the answers to every question,'' he said of the Tigers. ''They can fast break and play fast because they have a lightning-quick point guard, a scoring 'two' guard and an athletic 'three' man. And they're the best rebounding team around. . . . They can beat you so many different ways. If you want to play slow, they'll pound it inside and make you bleed to death.''
Still, Calipari worries that his team might get caught up in U of L's fastpaced game. He said that happened in a 98-93 victory over Texas Christian, when Memphis squandered several chances to put the game away by taking quick shots.
''The team I have right now is a high-scoring team, but we don't play fast,'' Calipari said. ''Will we? Yes. We'll run up and down the court. Because we have six first-year players, we sometimes get lulled into how the other team wants to play. . . . But this is going to be an exciting game. We won't hold the ball 30 seconds on each possession, I can say that.''
Nor will the Tigers venture out to guard U of L forwards Ellis Myles and Luke Whitehead outside of the paint, leaving a logjam inside and daring the Cards to shoot better than their 31.1 percent norm from the three-point line.
''If we win this, it's going to be because we played a great, unbelievable game,'' U of L junior guard Reece Gaines said.
o this day, University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari can recall the moment in its most minute detail.
Yes, he does believe Rick Pitino, now the coach at Louisville, goaded the official into calling that technical foul in a game most folks here might not remember but one he will never forget.
Coach at UMass from 1988-96, Memphis Tigers coach John Calipari.
Tiger fans who were then consumed with the Penny Hardaway-led run to the Elite Eight in 1991-92 probably did not even see the Sweet 16 contest in the East Regional in Philadelphia between Calipari's University of Massachusetts squad and Pitino's "Unforgettables'' bunch at Kentucky.
The short and sweet of it is this: Kentucky led and U Mass was rallying when an official charged Calipari with a technical foul for stepping outside the coaching box. After Kentucky won the game, the 'Cats would lose their next one, in that legendary overtime thriller with Duke decided by Christian Laettner's jumper.
''We were at The Spectrum and The Spectrum has a spectrum of lines so there were like 15 lines, and, I'm telling you, I was in the box,'' Calipari says. ''But the other side of it is, if we had beaten them, you'd have never had the Duke-Kentucky game, which was maybe the greatest game in college basketball history.''
The story of John Calipari and Rick Pitino is not an epic saga. At every turn, it stands more as a prelude to greater things to come and greater stories to be told.
That is also, in essence, the promise of tonight's game between their current teams. It's the first scene in the newest act between schools with a rivalry that dates to the 1950s and coaches whose relationship dates to the '70s.
''Him and John, they have a friendly rivalry,'' says Ray 'Rock' Oliver, Memphis strength and conditioning coach who worked for Pitino at Kentucky. ''If you don't think both of them really want this game, then I'd like to sell you some swamp land in New Jersey.''
Calipari, 42, and Pitino, 49, met in the late 70s when Calipari was a high school player at the Five-Star camp in his hometown of Moon Township, Pa., right outside of Pittsburgh. Pitino, a native New Yorker, was a camp counselor.
''I remember he was slow, couldn't defend anyone and was one of the shortest Italian players I've ever come across,'' Pitino says.
Kidding aside, Pitino thought enough of Calipari to use his influence in swaying U Mass to give its head coaching job in 1988 to Calipari, then an unproven 28-year-old assistant at Pittsburgh.
''Not only did I get the job at U Mass with his help, but he was important in convincing those guys of what we had to do to be successful,'' Calipari says.
|Pitino vs. Calipari|
The following lists the head-to-head games between coaches John Calipari (Massachusetts and the New Jersey Nets) and Rick Pitino (Kentucky and the Boston Celtics).
1991, Pitino wins: Kentucky 90, UMass 69
1992, Pitino wins: Kentucky 87, UMass 77 (NCAA East Regional semifinal)
1994, Pitino wins: Kentucky 67, UMass 64
1995, Calipari wins: UMass 92, Kentucky 82
1996, Pitino wins: Kentucky 81, UMass 74 (NCAA Final Four)
1997, Calipari wins: Nets 108, Celtics 100
1997, Pitino wins: Celtics 101, Nets 93
1998, Pitino wins: Celtics 82, Nets 76
1998, Calipari wins: Nets 117, Celtics 104
1999, Pitino wins: Celtics 101, Nets 92
1999, Calipari wins: Nets 99, Celtics 97
Pitino 7 wins (4 in college)
Calipari 4 wins (1 in college)
Even in the NBA, their destinies intertwined. Calipari got his job with the New Jersey Nets after the franchise had inquired as to Pitino's interest. And, fair or not, it's not hard to find a columnist somewhere using Calipari's experience with the Nets and Pitino's stint with the Boston Celtics as examples of college coaches who couldn't get it done in the NBA.
Because their paths have so often crossed, because both are intense and driven, and, yes, because both are of Italian heritage and wear expensive suits, Calipari and Pitino are often thought of as kindred spirits.
Not so, say the coaches and those who know them.
Calipari comes from the rust-belt, football-obsessed communities of Western Pennsylvania, where he became an adequate point guard for Division 2 Clarion State. Pitino was a flashy, high-scoring guard from New York who was a star at U Mass.
Calipari prefers to run a halfcourt offensive system that emphasizes ball movement, wide-open shots and post play and strict, position-oriented defense designed to gradually wear down opponents. Pitino believes in taking three-point shots as often as possible, forcing fast breaks and using a full-court press to maximize opportunities and put teams away quickly.
''We are probably as opposite as two people might be in terms of styles and personalities and so on,'' Pitino says. ''The only similarity is that we are Italian, and people make like we are close friends. It's not that I'm not friendly with John, because I certainly am. We have a good relationship, but it's not like we are buddies and go out all the time.''
They do have many mutual friends.
Calipari knew Pitino's best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, and so he thought of Pitino on that awful morning in September when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, where Minardi worked on the uppermost floors.
Calipari had just finished an early morning workout with his team when his wife, Ellen, called and told him what had happened.
''I thought of Rick and I left a message,'' Calipari says. ''I called a mutual friend of ours and said, 'Tell me Billy wasn't in that building.' And the guy said: 'They haven't heard from him.' It was like, 'Oh, my God.'
''They talked every day for 30 years. Can you imagine that? He was like his rock, the guy he could confide in.''
The stress on Pitino and his wife, Joanne (Billy's brother), has been such that Pitino admitted the tests his doctor ran last week for an undisclosed condition were related to the trauma that followed Sept. 11. On Saturday, at Freedom Hall, Minardi's wife and kids were introduced before the Cardinals' 30-point victory over DePaul.
''I haven't been the same since Sept. 11,'' Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal on Friday. ''But there are so many of us who haven't been the same. It's lack of sleep, it's lack of an awful lot of things, and your health just doesn't stay up because of it.''
Oliver said he is sure Minardi would have made it to Memphis for tonight's game.
''There were times where Rick had us (assistants) so worn down . . . and it was like God would send Billy Minardi to Lexington because he always made us feel better,'' Oliver says. ''He would've been here, sitting right behind that (Louisville) bench and he would've came over and hugged me and John and we probably would've went out and had dinner.
''I've lost both my parents, but I do not know what he is going through. You pray for him and you pray for his wife.''
That said, Oliver does not hide his desire to beat his old boss, nor his distaste for Louisville.
''To see him in a red tie, I'll probably break out in hives,'' Oliver says. ''But I'll tell you this: You always want to beat your old boss, show him you learned some things from him.''
Even a coach as promiscuous with words as Calipari has been good at staying to coach-speak this week, and he stuck to it Tuesday.
''I'm telling you, I'm building toward March,'' Calipari said. ''It's another game.''
Remembering that game in 1992, however, Calipari leaked a few of his true feelings.
''When we're playing the game, I'm trying to rip his throat out,'' Calipari said. ''He'll play mind games with me and I'll play mind games with him.''
If past is prelude, this could just be the beginning for a beautiful old rivalry.