INDIANAPOLIS – The man sitting at the table Monday morning in the pinstriped suit has had a wonderful weekend. And a terrible one.
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Who was he at this moment, surrounded by media? John Calipari, just announced this very day as new member of the Basketball Hall of Fame? Or John Calipari, coach of the Kentucky team whose unbeaten season went bust Saturday night?
“What I’m trying to do is laugh and smile and enjoy myself, so I don’t cry,” he said. “Because it was devastating. I thought we were going 40-0. Never entered my mind that we would lose.”
And yet, he understood something, too. “Bo had to walk off that floor last year like I did,’’ he said of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, and the one-point Kentucky win in the 2014 Final Four. “I’ve got to respect that. How did he feel last year? Just like I felt this year.”
It had been a long and turbulent 40 hours. Not until he was back at the hotel late Saturday night did he get word about the slur Andrew Harrison had dropped about Frank Kaminsky on the press conference dais. Sunday morning, he had preliminary meetings with all the Wildcats considering the NBA draft. Just five minutes each, to get the process started. Then he sent them back to Kentucky and stayed here for the Hall of Fame announcement.
The newest Hall of Famers will be honored during the championship game Monday night, so Calipari will be there, with the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Spencer Haywood and Jo Jo White. It’ll be one of the shining moments of his career. But also a very hard game to watch.
“I probably won’t watch that game tonight. I know I’ll be there to be introduced. I would expect I’ll get the ultimate show of respect, which is absolute boos from everywhere. I would say that if I ever walk in an arena on the road in front of opposing fans and they don’t give me a rousing boo, I will retire. That means I’m having no impact whatsoever.
“I would imagine that would happen, and then I’m turning around and waking down those steps and getting on a plane and getting back to Lexington.”
“It’s so raw right now. But I won’t ever watch the tape.”
Just like he said he has never watched the 2008 national championship game, when his Memphis team lost in overtime to Kansas. If it is history, he wants to relive, he might put on the 2012 Final Four games when Kentucky won the championship. Watching those again always brings him something.
“A smile. Makes me feel good. Gives me a vision that we can do this again. I hit [freshman guard] Tyler Ulis yesterday and said, ‘I’m going to build a team, get you guys, and let’s do this again. Let’s rerun this.’”
Some other Cal-isms on a day he still had one foot in the darkness, and one foot in the light.
His reaction to Harrison’s comments and subsequent apology to Kaminksy, and also the fact several of his players left the court without shaking Wisconsin hands:
“Great kids do dumb things. My own children do things that I look at them and say, ‘Where did you come from? You didn’t come from me.’
“They know I’m disappointed, and we talked about it. The only thing I can tell you is they apologized. I want them to know it’s OK to be wrong, it’s OK to be stupid and do stupid things, but step up the plate. And I think they did.’’
His thoughts during the last moments of the game:
“We were down eight. No one talks about how we got back in the game. This team fought their way back and we’re up four with the ball, we’ve won. Because they always win. I will tell you I wish I had a few more answers how to post the ball.”
His response to fan criticism that Kentucky tried to sit on the ball too much with the lead.
“They can say whatever they want. Did they say that when we were winning all these close games, whatever I was doing? All I can say is we were trying to basically do what we did against Notre Dame. If they blame me for the loss, I agree. Don’t blame this kids. Cal kicked the game. I can live with that.”
His reaction now to the officials apparently missing that the shot clock had expired on Wisconsin an instant before Nigel Hayes scored to tie the game. That play is only reviewable in the last two minutes, and it happened at 2:38.
“The thing is, let’s change the rule, where if you’re not sure, you can go (check it). Why two minutes? So if it was 2:12, it makes a big difference? They missed it, they kicked it. But they weren’t able to correct it, and that’s not their fault. That is the rule, so you change the rules. Don’t ever let it happen again.”
His discussions with his players about leaving for the NBA:
“If they want my opinion, I’ll give it. If they don’t, I won’t. There’s not going to be any brainwashing, forcing, pushing, either in or out. I want each kid to make the decision for themselves. I did tell a couple of the kids that it’s a man’s league. It’s not a child’s league. If you’re not ready for a man’s league, you need to come back, but that’s your choice. We could lose seven guys. I would guess five would be the minimum, but I would say seven is a distinct possibility. I hope I’m wrong and I have four guys coming back again.”
The legacy of his platoon system this season:
“We’ve shown the rest of the world that you can play that way and win. So I would imagine it won’t be the last time it’s used. It might not be used by us, but I don’t believe it will be the last time used.”
His feelings on being voted into the Hall of Fame:
“I had to pull the car over [when he got the call from Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the Hall of Fame board] … I just said I’ve got to call you back. My emotions got the better of me.
“I feel phony. I don’t see myself this way. I’m someone that came from Moon Township [Pennsylvania], I didn’t go to a private school, I didn’t play for one of the great coaches in the history of the game. I was a Division II player and was lucky to get the Massachusetts job [his first as a head coach]. No one wanted it, which is the only reason I got it. And now I’m sitting at this table. How did this happen?”
The Kentucky future with so many players possibly departing:
“If you do this and you’re about letting the kids make their own decisions, you’re in this boat every year. Last year we weren’t because four guys decided to come back. I never expected them to come back. But then our problem was how do we play all these guys? Now it’s like, how do we field a team? You have to have a layup line. You can’t have two guys on a side.”