As someone who was first introduced to the Nets in the 1990s, I’ve retained some real fondness for the 1997-98 team. While only winning 43 games and getting swept away by the eventual NBA Champion Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, the 97-98 group was just an entertaining group of players: Sam Cassell hitting big shot after big shot, Keith Van Horn when he was “the next Larry Bird,” Jayson Williams owning the boards, Kerry Kittles streaking down the court and lining up for a three. And that team was led by a young, intelligent coach coming off a great little run in the NCAA – you might have heard of him the past 24 hours – John Calipari.
When it comes to Nets lore, the 97-98 team probably gets lost in the shuffle. The Jason Kidd era showed how the Nets could be both fun and talented. Plus the following season was a disaster for the Nets. The 1999-2000 season was already shortened by the lockout, and when play resumed, a Nets team that had shown so much promise, nosedived. You got the sense that Calipari, who was about as energetic and wiry as they come, was starting to rub his players the wrong way. Jayson Williams, who would later tarnish his own legacy with other issues, was very candid about his dislike for Calipari. They started the season 3-17 and Cailpari was fired. It wasn’t until they exchanged Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd that the Nets were a relevant part of the NBA again.
I guess that’s what Calipari does. While it may not be intentional, he now has a solid steak of coming to a team and giving the fans some hope before leaving behind a path of destruction. Yesterday, it was revealed that the NCAA was stripping the 2008 University of Memphis Tigers of its tournament victories for using an ineligible player, which is believed to be Derek Rose, now of the Chicago Bulls. That Memphis team (with current Net Chris Douglas-Roberts) made it to the championship game and was coached by Calipari. Calipari was also coach of the 1996 University of Massachusetts Final Four team, which had to vacate its record because then-player Marcus Camby accepted gifts and money from an agent. Calipari was cleared of any wrong-doing, but all of this has to make you think why controversy always seems to be following a Calipari.
I will always have my memories of the 97-98 Nets team. I’ll always remember how they almost caught the Bulls napping in game one of their series, making, what was by all accounts, an invincible team, have to scratch and claw their way to a victory. I remember Slam Magazine putting Cassell, Van Horn, Williams, Kittles and Kendall Gill on the cover – marking the first time I ever purchased Slam. But when I go back and recall the Calipari era in New Jersey, I always get a bitter taste in my mouth. And it seems like now Memphis Tigers fans will now get the taste, when they look back at their own Calipari years.
Posted by Mark Ginocchio