As I’ve discussed previously, the John Calipari era in New Jersey has always been a curious one for me. There was one great, entertaining season in 97-98, when the team won 43 games and made it to the first round of the playoffs and fighting hard against the Bulls before getting swept away by the eventual champions. That season was sandwiched between two agonizing ones, including the lockout-shortened 1999 season where the team lost starting point guard Sam Cassell, started the season 3-17, and Calipari was fired.
When Calipari came to the Nets from the University of Massachusetts, he was known for being a little high-strung and abrasive. People said he was an Xs and Os wonk who demanded a lot from his players – maybe too much. In the closing days of Calipari’s tenure in New Jersey, all of these bad traits came to a head. His players, most notably Jayson Williams, publicly criticized him. The Nets new ownership group at the time, didn’t back him. He got into major trouble, when he referred to a reporter as an “Mexican Idiot.”
A lot of this history is rehashed in Calipari’s new book “Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and Life.” Part self-help book, part-biography, Calipari uses his New Jersey firing as the primary impetus for his motivational spiel, citing it as the “rock bottom” of his professional career. The book is Calipari's opportunity to set the record straight, while showing how he's grown from the fiasco.
Which is what makes “Bounce Back” so curious. Throughout the book, Calipari litters the text with classic self-help clichés, telling readers to believe in themselves, and to get out from under the covers. He uses his life as an example of coming back from the depths of despair – the problem is, there is not a whole lot about Calipari’s life that I think the common man could identify with and be inspired by.
For starters, Calipari signed a mega-bucks $20 million deal when he came to the Nets and was set to be paid in full even after he was fired. “That didn’t mean I wasn’t shaken and uncertain of my future, much the way you may be right now,” he writes. It just comes across a bit insensitive, especially given the current state of the economy and the nation’s unemployment numbers. Most people who have lost their jobs and may be turning to self-help section right now aren’t going to identify with a guy who’s sitting on $20 million to coach a bunch of overpriced athletes. It’s also worth considering, within a short amount of time, Calipari was doing television analysis for ESPN and he had a major ally in Larry Brown, who gave Coach Cal a spot on his bench as an assistant coach with the Sixers. It just never seemed like Calipari was ever truly down and out the way he wants readers to believe.
He repetitively refers to his firing as “public” and “humiliatin." Personally, he said it felt like “the worst and most public and most humiliating that anyone had ever experienced,” despite the fact that firings at the professional level happen every season, especially for teams that start the season 3-17. Calipari clearly is accepting of other commonplace aspects of coaching. Earlier in his career, Calipari was took a recruiting job at the University of Vermont “long enough to have a head shot taken for the media guide” until Coach Brown at Kansas came calling, making Calipari bail on the Vermont opportunity. “It was something I had to do … things like that happen all the time, especially in the coaching profession.”
As for his relationship with his players while coaching the Nets, Calipari doesn’t seem to kiss and tell, but drops little pinches of innuendo throughout. For one, he loved Sam Cassell, “one of the most fearless players I’ve ever coached.” He also happens to be one of the few players on that team that has publicly defended Calipari and he even came into speak with his Memphis team. Obviously Cassell can defend any coach or player he wants to, but he’s really the only player from that Nets team Calipari praised – not Kendall Gill, Keith Van Horn or Kerry Kittles.
Then there’s Jayson Williams. The Williams-Calipari feud stretched across all three of their seasons together. Calipari doesn’t discuss Williams much in the book, but makes a very curious observation about his Center/Power Forward in his “Practice Plan #2” – sections in the book where Calipari assigns his readers homework. In that section he says:
“I would have done everything in my power to trade Jayson Williams. Heck, I would have traded him for a mascot. Bill Parcells once told me during one of my visits to watch his Jets team practice that if the biggest personality on your team is not the guy you want, you better do everything in your power to get rid of him, ‘Because,’ Bill told me ‘he’s sure as heck trying to get rid of you.’"
Despite their personality differences, I don’t think you could ever accuse Williams of ever dogging it for Calipari. There was a reason why Williams was a fan-favorite throughout his career in New Jersey. It wasn’t just that he was a local boy, but he always appeared to me, at least, to be the typical lunch pail type player, who didn’t have a ton of physical gifts or ability, but was able to make the most of what he had.
And unlike most of the sporting world’s “gritty players” as they’re sometimes known, Williams actually put together an outrageously good season in 97-98, the Nets playoff season. Here’s a guy who only averaged 12.9 points per game on 49 percent shooting, but he still found ways to help his team offensively. That season, he was second, only to John Stockton, in the entire league with an offensive rating – points produced per 100 possessions – of 120.9. He was 20th in the league with 6.1 offensive win shares.
Then there was his rebounding – throughout most of the mid-to-late nineties, Williams was one of the most prolific rebounders in the NBA, second only to Dennis Rodman. In 97-98, Williams led the league with a 20.5 offensive rebounding percentage – estimated percentage of all missed shots rebounded by a player – and second to Rodman in overall rebounding percentage with 21.8.
To suggest you would trade a guy who brings this much value to a team for “a team mascot” because Jayson Williams went public with his aggravation of having you yelling in his ear all season, is beyond stupid for an NBA coach.
Calipari only comes across as a bigger hypocrite later in the book where he praises Allen “we’re talking about practice” Iverson from his time assisting coaching the Sixers. Throughout their respective careers, Iverson has certainly been portrayed, fairly or not, as a locker room cancer more than Williams, but apparently, according to Coach Cal, you’re worth to the team is determined by his relationship with you.
Calipari takes one of his last shots at the time through the mouth of Larry Brown. He quotes Brown defending Calipari:
“New Jersey doesn’t have all great character guys … The players who really matter cared about him, not the Jayson Williamses of the world. Williams and Kendall Gill are the only two guys he had a problem with, and everybody who has coached those guys has had a problem with them.”
What’s funny is, Gill, who suffered from clinical depression, was previously praised by Calipari. In December 1996 New York Times article by Selena Roberts, Calipari said of Gill: “If I asked Kendall to play power forward, he would do it,'' Calipari said as he turned toward Gill one day, the last player in the gym after practice. ''Look at him. He is still at it.”
Reading this book reminded me of all of Calipari’s traits that drove me crazy as a Nets fan. In his attempt to show how far he’s moved on in his life and how much he’s learned, he’s still making the same mistakes. He comes across as too excitable and vindictive. He was given the opportunity to build the Nets from scratch. The fact is, only Williams and Gill were players Calipari was coaching in his final year that were on the team when he started. At the end of the day, the Calipari-Nets were just not good enough to justify him keeping his job. Everyone seems to understand that but Calipari, who, despite claiming he’s not after sympathy, tries to “inspire” people by blaming everyone but himself for his problems in New Jersey.