NEW ORLEANS – It was Friday night and John Calipari was tucked in the corner of a back room of Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse here in the French Quarter, trying to eat some crawfish but laughing too hard to make it happen.
His Kentucky Wildcats were set to face the Louisville Cardinals Saturday in the Final Four, a game of enormous expectations, pressure and intensity.
That could wait. This was the last supper, perhaps his favorite meal of year. This was Calipari surrounded by 40-plus friends and associates, former players, former assistants, current assistants, longtime friends, administrators and anyone else who could fit into what he boldly calls his personal "La Familia."
Old jokes and older stories were flying about. Roars of laughter would follow. Soon Calipari would stand, raise a soda and offer a toast to the success of everyone in the room. Most of all though, he wanted to take note of his proudest creation – the unlikely family built on loyalty that few outside of it can understand.
This isn't new or even unique. Coaches have always tried to move past coaching a "team" and instead run a "program" which over the years becomes a "family." As their assistants or former players become coaches, it morphs into a "family tree."
The most prominent come from John Wooden, Henry Iba, Bob Knight, Dean Smith and so on. Bill Self, Rick Pitino and Thad Matta are all working for the same thing.
That said, the system is ideally built when players stick around four or even five years, usually during the transformative stage of life. And it generally occurs when a coach stays at a single institution for decades on end.
Cal is doing it with a bus-stop approach.
He's doing it with an external reputation as just a recruiter shuffling guys through for the benefit of immediate success, the king of the one-and-doners trying to circumvent the traditional college experience to win and win big.
Calipari is about winning. There isn't any question about that, and he will never apologize for any of it. Those who know him, though, know about the endless time and effort he puts into his former players, lottery picks or benchwarmers, even assistant coaches, now big successes or still grinding away.
He runs the most transient program in America, yet he won't give up on creating lifelong connections, following an old school ideal in the modern era.
"I've never seen a guy stay on the phone worrying about other people more than him," said UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart. "He created an atmosphere of appreciation and love of one another."
When Calipari first gathers his team over the summer to explain the goals of the season to come, one of his points of emphasis is that Italian phrase, La Familia.
While the language is new to the players – "I didn't know any Italian before that," Doron Lamb, a sophomore guard, said with a laugh – the message is simple, clear and inspiring. They just joined something bigger than they realized.
"We're all one big family," freshman Anthony Davis, another likely one-and-doner, said earlier in the day. "We're all brothers. We all look after each other."
You can't break a family tie, so once it's formed, it's there. Forever. Calipari's connection is built on intensity, not longevity. Many of his best players – Derrick Rose, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans – were actually with him just five, six or maybe eight months tops – 35-40 games.
And still they swear by him. They thank him. They preach their love for him. They return for offseason workouts or even, when possible, Kentucky games, whether they went there or not. He spends the spring crisscrossing the country returning the favor by hitting up their NBA playoff games.
"If you make it a player's program, if you're about them, then you make that connection," Calipari said over dinner. "If you're about yourself, you'll never hear from them again."
On Thursday, Davis was awarded another national player of the year honor despite being just a freshman. Cal was asked to introduce him at the ceremony.
"He made it one sentence before he started breaking down," Barnhart said. "This is a relationship that, even with the recruiting process, is a year and a half, maybe two years tops. Yet he treats him like an old friend.
"That's why players believe him when he tells them he has their best interests at heart," Barnhart continued. "He is not going to lie to a player about going pro even if it is against his own self-interests."
Davis shrugs it off.
"He would've done it for any player," he said.
He may have. Calipari returns the calls of lowly reserves or student managers or volunteer assistants in sports information offices from many schools ago. His greatest NBA pride this year may be courtesy of Josh Harrelson, a once nearly hopeless project now getting decent minutes with the New York Knicks.
"The perception of him is so far from the truth it's a joke," said Auburn coach Tony Barbee, who played for Calipari at Massachusetts and worked as an assistant under him at Memphis. "He loves basketball and that's what he does, but this is the human element that is most important to him. Everyone who has played or worked for him knows it's more than business."
Calipari's unapologetic willingness to recruiting likely one-and-done players has caused all sorts of hand wringing in college sports. This is a business that has long marketed itself as "about the name on the front of the jersey, not the back."
Yet when five of his Kentucky players were picked in the first round of the 2010 draft, he declared it "the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history." UK has won seven NCAA titles, mind you. When the criticism came, Calipari refused to back down.
This year he said that if UK won the title but had no one drafted the season would be a failure, noting, quite honestly, that any coach that doesn't get an Anthony Davis to the top of the draft has failed on some level. At least to the Davis family.
"When the game is on, it's about the team," he said. "But overall, this is about the players."
Twice Calipari's programs have run afoul with the NCAA. One was when Marcus Camby accepted benefits from an agent at UMass. The other was a dispute over Derrick Rose's standardized test score at Memphis. In both cases, consistently and passionately, Calipari stood by his guys, even if it placed him at odds with the schools or the NCAA itself.
His repeated fights against the engrained conservative establishment for the dreams of his players go neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.
"He's a player's coach," Davis said. "A players-first coach."
"He just understands us," Lamb added. "He understands where we come from."
Calipari drives many people crazy. There will be a considerable anti-Cal rooting interest on Saturday. No one is wrong for feeling how they feel.
Here on the eve of perhaps his most pressure-packed game though, Calipari was doing the non-basketball thing he does best: working his room, asking everyone what he can do for them, big or small, preaching about continued loyalty and mostly making it about everyone but himself, the guy two games from the national title.
"I'm laughing too hard and I need to get serious," Calipari said as his toast wound down. "Got a game tomorrow. But this is what it's about, what it's really about. La Familia."
This was La Familia in full force. Maybe not everyone can understand why John Calipari's unconventional, unapologetic program has always managed to generate loyalty in people, but, then again, isn't that kind of part of his appeal?
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