When last we saw them together, as star player and coach of the
University of Massachusetts basketball team, Marcus Camby and
John Calipari were fighting back tears like a couple of
overwhelmed figure skaters. The Minutemen had just fallen to
Kentucky in the Final Four, and Camby strode out of the
Meadowlands Arena with a towel draped over his head, hiding his
red eyes and, presumably, his diamond necklace. An emotional
Calipari spoke of returning someday, and we assumed he meant to
the Final Four. It turns out he meant to New Jersey.
With its first Final Four appearance, UMass took its fans on an
exhilarating trip to the top of college basketball, but two
months later euphoria went to pieces quicker than Kathie Lee
Gifford. Last week Camby, a junior who on April 29 had announced
his intention to enter the NBA draft, claimed in The Hartford
Courant that while still on the team and in violation of NCAA
rules, he had received jewelry and $2,000 from two prospective
agents. (The jewelry came indirectly, via friends.) Two days
later Calipari accepted a reported five-year, $15 million offer
to return to the Meadowlands as coach and vice president of
basketball operations of the New Jersey Nets. Just like that,
the consensus Division I Player of the Year and Coach of the
Year were gone, and in their place a dark cloud rolled in.
Here in Massachusetts, where fans only recently have fallen hard
for college basketball, we were left to wonder if our big chance
had slipped out the door with our two heroes. For many schools a
Final Four appearance is nothing more than the culmination of a
once-in-a-lifetime season in which everything breaks just right.
The team soars like a comet for one glorious weekend and
disappears just as quickly, one loss and out--sometimes forever.
Two years ago Lon Kruger took Florida to the Final Four, riding
the old theme of teamwork and togetherness. Last year the Gators
were bounced from the tournament in the first round. This year
they failed to make the field, and then Kruger left to become
the coach at Illinois. His new team is, no doubt, just like
family to him. In 1989 it all came together for Seton Hall, as
the Pirates under P.J. Carlesimo reached the championship game.
They lost to Michigan in overtime and since have gone as far as
the Sweet 16 only twice. Carlesimo jumped to the Portland Trail
Blazers in '94 for a five-year, $7.5 million deal. When I asked
Calipari last year whether he would ever be tempted to coach in
the NBA, he admitted it would be tough to turn down a "P.J.
deal." Well, there is a new standard for ambitious young college
coaches now. They can dream of landing a Coach Cal contract.
For coaches who choose to stay at their schools, it becomes more
difficult each year to retain their tenuous grip on national
prominence. These days some of the top recruits are looking only
for a place to refine their skills and get on TV before jumping
to the NBA. Georgia Tech reached the Sweet 16 this year, but
there was an odd sense of disappointment to the Yellow Jackets'
season. This was, after all, the year Tech had Stephon Marbury,
the freshman point guard who promised to go pro if he thought he
would be drafted in the top five, and he has kept that promise.
Unlike him, Tech will have a tough time making the top five
No one accused Camby of using UMass as a pit stop on the way to
the NBA. He stayed in Amherst for three seasons, a lifetime
commitment by today's standards, but last week's news of his
transgressions was sadly ironic. Here he was, the kid who lifted
the Minutemen's program to the heights, knocking it right back
down again. To some, Camby's tale was further proof that college
athletes must receive a stipend so they can buy pizza and go to
movies like other college students. This is a reasonable
argument, but unless the proposed stipend would include diamond
neckware, it doesn't fit in this case. As far as we know, Camby
didn't break the rules so he could feed his family or pay the
gas bill. He risked everything for some gaudy Mr. T starter kit.
Now Camby will move on, essentially unscathed, to a lucrative
life in the NBA while UMass braces for possible NCAA sanctions.
UMass had suffered through 10 straight losing seasons when
Calipari arrived in 1988. The Minutemen didn't just lose before
Calipari; they expected to lose. Kind of like a certain NBA team
that makes its home off exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike. The
Nets historically have been a hopeless organization, but they
are no worse off than the 10-17 team that Calipari inherited.
Eight years later UMass went 35-2 and reached the Final Four.
Calipari can talk a great game, but he can coach an even better
one. The Minutemen didn't just win; they expected to win, and
almost won it all. They may get another chance someday, but I
wouldn't bet on it. Not even if I had a Coach Cal contract.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Camby and Calipari took the money and ran. [Marcus Camby and John Calipari]