When John Calipari ruled as general manager and coach, one of the interns within the New Jersey Nets' basketball operations had come to expect his frantic, flustered boss to deliver a most vain order. Calipari became obsessed with the callers to the midday New York radio show ripping into him, and orchestrated a counter propaganda program.
And so was born "Anthony from Hoboken," several team sources said. Anthony was a staunch, defiant and fictional advocate for the eventually exiled Emperor of East Rutherford. He made calls to WFAN out of the Nets' offices, telling metropolitan New York that he was one fan who couldn't understand all the criticism heaped on Calipari.
Come on man, Cal's doing a great job.
Calipari had complete control of the franchise but little control of himself. He is securer in his insecurity now, but a desire to return to the NBA has never left. He has his NCAA championship now, and the New York Knicks have three necessities that Calipari desperately needs: a vacancy, a big stage and a blank check.
As much as Calipari disdains Rick Pitino, he has to hear his words echoing in the reaches of his mind. Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics and forever regretted it. Nevertheless, the regret wasn't so much leaving college, but failing in the NBA. As long as Calipari doesn't get jammed up, he can win forever at Kentucky.
Money matters to Calipari – matters a lot – and rest assured that Calipari will get Kentucky to push past his $5 million a season salary. How far does UK go, though? Six million? Seven? Kentucky doesn't lose bidding wars, but it would lose this one.
And for the monolith of a program that he's constructed in Lexington – an assembly line of recruiting and player development – Calipari understands that the nature of big-time recruiting leaves him vulnerable to investigation and scandal. No one has ever popped Calipari on the big one, but you never know. For $40 million over five years with New York, Calipari will sleep better in the NBA, and he knows it.
The circumstances are aligned for Calipari to make a move: the validation of an NCAA title, a suspect relationship with his athletic director and his ability to leverage a monumental contract out of the Knicks. Calipari is a great salesman, and he'll sell owner James Dolan on his ability to get the most out of Carmelo Anthony, to keep the Garden sold out and get the Knicks winning in the postseason again. Dolan can't sell results as an owner, so he's always selling a new savior. Now, Calipari is no longer the failed ex-Nets coach, but the national champion Kentucky Wildcats coach.
Calipari wants the next big, shiny thing – wants the biggest paycheck – and that's the Knicks now. Out of UMass, the Nets gave him complete organizational control. It was a mistake. He abused the power, the way that he abused people. Calipari was forever trying to prove he belonged, and would need this time in the NBA to understand that less is more.
As one official privy to the Garden's decision-making processes in the past few years said Tuesday, "Any big name has to have Dolan away from the day-to-day, or it's a disaster."
Donnie Walsh, who quit as general manager, believed he had control, too. Eventually, he lost it back to the owner. Every coach, every executive, should understand: Whatever's promised, the owner will do what he wants. He'll get a new voice in his ear, a new whim and he'll change direction. History's shown it.
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For all the access that William Wesley, the famous World Wide Wes, has provided Calipari to star recruits, basketball's most mysterious dealmaker is well positioned to bridge a Calipari deal with the Knicks too. Creative Artists Agency has its tentacles deep into the Knicks. Dolan still has to make a run first for Phil Jackson, and he could command a three-year, $35 million deal with those 11 titles and his own Knicks championship pedigree. Once the Knicks are done with interim coach Mike Woodson, Jackson still remains a possibility.
Whatever happens, Calipari isn't leaving Kentucky to simply return to the NBA. He has it too good there, and only the Knicks would pay Calipari like a Doc Rivers, a Gregg Popovich. No general manager in the NBA would hire Calipari, only an owner. No front-office executive wants the power struggle with him – never mind believes he's a difference maker. That's what makes the Knicks and Calipari so intriguing: This is the job that will give him pause – Madison Square Garden, New York, the resources, all of it.
Calipari could've had a far different run with the Nets had he drafted Kobe Bryant over Kerry Kittles, but he let agent Arn Tellem scare him off. Still, he did a remarkable job in his second Nets season, reaching the playoffs in 1998, and could've survived a sluggish start in his third year had he not made so many enemies inside and outside of the organization. Calipari had underlings searching his phones for ownership-installed listening devices, realizing little that those basketball ops guys assigned to the sweep wouldn't have known if they had even found one. Of course, they never did.
Calipari expended his energy in all the wrong places, didn't understand the NBA was a player's league and it cost him. Even if he's grown, he hasn't changed – and 82 games is still a long season with his manic, abrasive style. His X's and O's were never an issue in the NBA – he can hold his own – but he wears everyone out. Still, Calipari has always thrived in the chaos, and the Knicks give him that.
He has the relationship with LeBron James that Mike D'Antoni never did, has World Wide Wes on his side, and there's always that contract opt-out in 2014 for James. With Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler on the payroll for years to come, recruiting James is a tough scenario. No cap issues at Kentucky, and nothing stands between Calipari and a run of Final Fours and NCAA titles.
Yes, the prospects of winning as Knicks coach are murkier, but John Calipari has never been about the sure thing. He loves that NBA lifestyle, loves the money, loves the biggest stage of all. When Kentucky finally won him his title on Monday night, he insisted that it would mean that he could coach without all the drama now. He didn't mean it. John Calipari has the Wildcats wired for victory for years and years, but there's bigger money and brighter lights calling in the distance.
Yes, Anthony from Hoboken, first-time, long-time, is calling again.
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- John Calipari