Most of all, I remember the empty orange chair.
Fifteen years have come and gone. Fifteen Roads to fifteen Final Fours. Fifteen shining moments. But that day at the Basketball Hall of Fame there was only the vacant chair.
I was writing then for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the closest newspaper to the University of Massachusetts campus, so I had been given an up-close look at the basketball program under John Calipari. The press conference at the Hall in early June 1996 had been set up weeks earlier. Finally Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun had agreed to resume the ancient rivalry with UMass. The peace between Calipari and Calhoun had been brokered by Dave Gavitt, the former Providence coach and Big East founder, who stood at the dais in Springfield and declared this “a great day for New England college basketball.”
On one side of the dais sat Calhoun. Next to him was former UConn athletic director Lew Perkins.
On the other side, sat former UMass AD Bob Marcum. Next to him was the empty orange chair.
In one sense, the room was probably not big enough for the two coaching JCs -- each of whom had led his own hoops resurrection. Their relationship was then (and I suspect still is, despite all the bouquets they are tossing this week before their Final Four matchup) filled with ice.
The two schools had played almost every year since the rivalry began in 1904, but after Calipari’s second season at UMass, 1989-90, Calhoun canceled the series.
After 11 straight losing seasons (at one point losing 29 straight games), UMass was a program on the rise. The Minutemen had yet to earn a national ranking or make it to the NCAA tournament, but they were on their way. Their brash young coach adopted (and patented and profited handsomely from) the phrase “Refuse to Lose.” He declared his scheduling philosophy as “Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime.” He felt Calhoun was ducking him.
Calipari didn’t design the T-shirts then in vogue on the UMass campus, but he loved the message. The shirt coupled “UMass” with “Refuse to Lose” and UConn with “UScared” and “Refuse to Play.”
Hailing from some place called Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Calipari often talked about how UMass “embodied the spirit of New England.” You can only imagine how that played in the basketball office in Storrs, whose main tenant grew up just outside of Boston, went to college in Springfield, and had spent all of his coaching life, in high school and college, in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Calhoun’s Huskies were becoming a national program. They had yet to earn a No. 1 national ranking or a coveted trip to the Final Four, but they were on their way. The Big East provided plenty of challenges in the league, and Calhoun liked to schedule teams like Yale and Fairfield, ostensibly because it was good for the state of Connecticut. His distaste for Calipari and his program was thinly veiled.
He told the school’s sports newsletter, the Husky Blue and White, that for good non-league opponents he preferred to play schools like Kansas and Virginia: “... schools we have more in common with ... we recruit the same kids and we have respect for them. I’m not sure if that’s the case with UMass.”
Right from Calhoun’s backyard in Hartford, UMass plucked Marcus Camby, a gangly, doe-faced kid who would go on to become the National Player of the Year. Calhoun would tell Gerry Callahan, then of Sports Illustrated, that Camby would not have gotten into UConn because of academics.
Perhaps the acidic ice was wrapped around a grenade.
In 1994-95, UMass became the first New England team ever to become No. 1 in the 45-year history of the AP poll. At one point later that year, UMass was ranked first with an 11-1 record while UConn was second at 12-0. Calhoun told a nationally syndicated radio show that he felt that the Huskies -- not the Minutemen -- should be the top-ranked team in the land.
Asked who should be No. 2, he said, “UCLA.”
At that point, many people felt that if both teams won their next games, UConn probably would vault past UMass in the polls. The Minutemen were going down to West Virginia to take on a mediocre Mountaineer team on a Friday night. On Saturday, UConn would play at Kansas -- the one team that had defeated UMass.
That theory seemed moot on Friday night when UMass was getting walloped, 80-62, with just 4:48 to go. But in what had to be one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history, the Minutemen stormed back, forced overtime, and prevailed. The next day, to the horror of UConn fans, the halftime guest on the CBS broadcast was none other than John Calipari. And Kansas wiped out the Huskies, 88-59.
That set the stage for 1995-96. UConn, led by Ray Allen, had a marvelous season. They won their third straight Big East regular season title. At one point they won 23 straight games. They earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
But in New England that was only good enough for second fiddle. UMass bolted out of the gates with 26 straight wins. Calipari and the Minutemen were America’s darlings. They were featured in Newsweek and USA Today, and on "Good Morning America." They made it to the Final Four.
Then it all came crashing down. With a gold "21" chain hanging from his neck, Camby began a late April press conference with the words, “Today I decided that I’m going to transfer to UConn." When the laughter subsided, he announced effectively that he was taking his talents to the NBA draft.
In early June, a Hartford Courant reporter confronted Camby in a Chicago hotel with evidence he had taken cash and gifts from an agent. That ultimately led to UMass’s Final Four appearance being vacated by the NCAA.
Just days after Camby’s tearful confession, there was the press conference and the empty orange chair.
Calhoun left the press conference that day and went on to win two national titles in 1999 and 2004. When he hosted UMass in 2005, he admitted, "I ended the series because of John Calipari. I said I wouldn’t play them while John was there. We agreed to play it and unfortunately he left. Actually, that wasn’t so unfortunate."
So much for bygones and buried hatchets.
I left the press conference that day in 1996 and sped up to UMass, aware that Calipari had agreed to become the coach of the New Jersey Nets. I was not aware just how much UMass would fall off the national map (two first-round exits in the NCAA tournament the next two years, and no trips back ever since).
In the parking lot at the Mullins Center, I found a huge pack of journalists waiting for Calipari. They had been told that he was coming out of his office soon and that he had agreed to meet with them as a group. I stood out there for awhile, but then noticed that Joe Burris and Mark Murphy, the beat writers for the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, were not there. Suspicious, I ducked into the Mullins Center and took an elevator up to the third floor, where I was met by a beefy security guard telling me I was not allowed in the basketball office.
I called the basketball secretary and found out Burris and Murphy were sitting outside of Calipari’s door. I called the sports information director to plead my case. Ultimately, I was deemed worthy and got to sit next to Burris and Murphy. After quite a while, the second highest paid coach in the NBA emerged, giving the three of us a characteristically entertaining interview. Then he took off. His Saab was parked inside the Mullins Center, and he went out the back way, waving goodbye to the long line of media members on the way out.
It was classic Coach Cal. He was headed out of New England, off to the next challenge. There would be plenty of time to meet up with Jim Calhoun at a later date.
-- Marty Dobrow is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream.