When LeBron James(notes) was still a teenager, John Calipari had a job as an NBA coach. It didn't go too well. Near the end of his New Jersey Nets run, Calipari believed he heard a clicking sound on his telephone line. For a mind so cluttered with conspiratorial plots to bring him down, Cal suddenly armed himself with the evidence needed to make an alarming proclamation in the Nets' practice-facility offices.
"I think my phone is bugged!" Calipari blurted.
Everything had to stop until members of Calipari's basketball-operations staff conducted a full Keystone Kops investigation in March of 1999. Calipari believed Nets upper management may have inserted listening devices into his phones, and, so, organizational witnesses remember him having staffers take apart telephone receivers. They were searching for bugs they wouldn't have recognized had they even found them.
Because the University of Kentucky's current coach was so relentlessly paranoid – picking fights with owners and front office-executives, with players, media and even spectators – those in his employ couldn't help themselves. After all, it was too easy to tap into his manic side. One Nets staffer remembers a Calipari minion reporting back to Cal that he, too, heard a clicking sound on his phone.
"Just to watch Cal go ape," the source said.
"We didn't care what he said on the phone," one former Nets owner told Yahoo! Sports. "All we cared about was what he did on the floor. The only bugs in our building got in through broken window screens."
For all of Calipari's success in college, the lingering residue of his dysfunctional stay with the Nets leaves most NBA people asking a question: How could the people around LeBron James – never mind the man himself – want to entrust Calipari with the prime of the King's career? Despite the empty denials, the fact remains agent William Wesley still wants to package Calipari and James to an NBA franchise, and Kentucky's coach remains eager for basketball's most famous middleman to make it happen.
What's so pitiful is that Calipari will never be a candidate for an NBA job on his own merit. His undermining nature, his lust for star power and control, make him unappealing to general managers. The only way Wesley can make this happen is on the ownership level, where the Cleveland Cavaliers' Dan Gilbert, the Chicago Bulls' Jerry Reinsdorf and the Los Angeles Clippers' Donald Sterling would have to override the front office to make it happen.
For all the discussion on Chicago, one former Bulls official said, "Reinsdorf wouldn't cater to Michael [Jordan] this way, so why would he do it for LeBron?"
As much as ever, James needs a coach. He needs someone unafraid of him, someone willing to tell him the truth. This will never happen with Calipari. What Calipari represents is a power play by James and his inner circle to take over an organization, to entrust themselves – Wesley, agent Leon Rose and business manager Maverick Carter – to collectively control James' fate. James is smart and strong-minded on his future, so it's downright perplexing that he's allowing Wesley to so openly push these scenarios.
Calipari has always wanted a return to the NBA, and maybe it should tell James something that Cal's only way back is through him. When the Nets couldn't lure Rick Pitino out of Kentucky in the spring of 1995, the owner said, "We went to Rick-light."
Calipari was fresh off a Final Four at UMass, and scored a huge five-year, $15 million package to be coach and the top basketball decision maker. Before he ever coached a game, Calipari had to consider drafting a high school guard named Kobe Bryant(notes) with the eighth pick. Yet, Calipari let agent Arn Tellem frighten him into believing Bryant would never play for the Nets, and that as a rookie coach Calipari would be risking his credibility. It was a deftly orchestrated bluff designed for Bryant to drop to the 13th spot, where the Charlotte Hornets would select Bryant and deliver him in a prearranged deal to the Los Angeles Lakers.
All around Calipari, Nets officials urged him to ignore the intimidation and pick Bryant. Tellem suggested Bryant would sit out a season, re-enter the draft the next year and the Nets would lose his rights. It never would've happened, but Calipari was too naïve to know the difference.
"Cal tried to blame that on the owners, but he had full authority to take who he wanted," the former Nets owner said. "He backed down from them, and took [Kerry] Kittles."
Bryant, of course, later confessed he would've shown up at the introductory news conference and played for New Jersey.
Yes, Calipari missed his chance on the generation's best player, but he's managed to cultivate a relationship with James through Wesley that's benefited his recruiting at Kentucky. James uses Calipari's deep roster to recruit for his fledging marketing company, and Calipari uses James for cachet with recruits. For Calipari to coach James, he would have to cede the spotlight and that would seem almost impossible for him to do.
As coach of the Nets, Calipari made himself the story over and over. Even so, he had an impossible locker room, and yet did an excellent job on the floor in his second season. He went 43-39, earned the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and played Michael Jordan's Bulls gallantly in three straight playoff losses. That offseason, Calipari made a terrible mistake. He chose washed up point guard Eric Murdock over re-signing veteran Sherman Douglas.
Once starter Sam Cassell(notes) went down with an injury on opening night, the Nets never recovered. They lost 17 of 20 games under Calipari in '99, and the decision to fire him had been made even as the Nets completed a blockbuster trade for Stephon Marbury(notes). Cal had alienated everyone in the organization, and no one had his back. He had forbidden his coaches and staffers from using a particular staircase in the Nets' practice facility because it was frequented by upper-management executives.
When Calipari tried to convince ownership in his final week on the job that, in his words, "We need to stick together," one team executive told him, "There hasn't been a 'we' since you took over the job. You're on your own, Cal."
Calipari has long wanted back into the NBA, but his move from Memphis to Kentucky allows him to be more selective on the franchise. After refusing to deny his interest in the Bulls' job after a Yahoo! Sports report earlier this month, Calipari has issued stronger-worded statements that he will return to coach Kentucky next season. People close to Cal warned against doing it, because those words can promise to turn him into a basketball Nick Saban should he get an offer and leave.
Rest assured, if Calipari finds a way to get one of these teams to believe his hiring will bring James – or keep him, in Cleveland's case – he'll be on his way back to the pros.
When the former Nets owner was asked his advice for any organization considering hiring Calipari, he paused a moment and finally said: "My advice? …Well, I guess my advice would be this: Don't."
- John Calipari