October 14, 2009

A tale of two tip-offs

When the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville held basketball tip-off luncheons on back-to-back days in downtown Louisville last week, it was like enemy armies nearly crossing paths.

Both events drew more than 1,000 fans, but the two affairs could not have been more different, from the words of the rival coaches to the makeup of the crowds.

Since departing Memphis to replace pink-slipped Billy Gillispie, new Kentucky coach John Calipari has received a wildly enthusiastic welcome in Lexington, where he’s already affectionately referred to as Coach Cal.

In Louisville, however, serious boosters seem merely receptive. They are cautiously enthusiastic, but not wildly anything yet.

Calipari is the kind of big winner Kentucky needed: His last two Memphis teams remained undefeated through long stretches and played far into the tournament. On the flipside, he has left two schools with major NCAA sanctions.

And while the coach’s personal stories — like an anecdote about his grandfather mining coal in West Virginia — didn’t go over too well, when the talk turned to basketball, the crowd listened.

“I’ve got six newcomers who think we can win all 40 games,” said Calipari. “And six guys coming back who’ve been beat up a little bit — that aren’t thinking big enough yet. They’re not dreaming those big dreams I want them to dream.”

Calipari cautioned fans not to expect too much as the players learn his signature “dribble-drive” offense.

“I see we have reporters here,” Calipari said. “If you would like for me to write the stories for the first few weeks and months, I can write them: ‘Bad shots, turnovers, I don’t know. Dribble drive? What is this stuff?’ ... But as each week goes by, you’re going to see less bad shots, less turnovers. You’re going to see a team that feels unleashed, and you’re going to see players doing things they’ve never done before. Things they didn’t know they could do.”

Calipari characterized his new team as tall and fast. He noted that star forward Patrick Patterson will graduate in three years, and passed up the NBA draft for a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Calipari also talked about sophomores De Andre Liggins and Darius Miller, and freshman sensation John Wall.

All that seemed to please the crowd.

Interesting was a comment Calipari made in a pre-luncheon press conference. The coach mentioned a controversy in which he was rebuked by some fans for sending a UK jersey to President Obama, as though he had somehow besmirched the uniform. Calipari didn’t like it, and obviously still doesn’t.

What a difference a day makes.

On Thursday, as festive Louisville fans filed into the Marriott Hotel ballroom for their tip-off luncheon, one could not help but notice how vastly different the gender make-up of the Louisville crowd was from the Kentucky crowd. The UK attendees were almost entirely men, with only a handful of women at the 100-plus tables. At least 30 percent of the U of L crowd was women.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino was in high spirits, holding court for 53 minutes, effortlessly waving away an embarrassing off-court peccadillo by not mentioning it.

One by one, Pitino hauled his players on stage and regaled the crowd with deftly timed wisecracks, offering personal anecdotes about the team. (It turns out the timing of that humorous introduction was fortuitous, given just two days later senior Jerry Smith and sophomore Terrence Jennings were arrested for resisting arrest following an altercation at a party.)

Pitino noted his team had achieved a cumulative 3.0 grade point average, and pointed out that Samardo Samuels spent the summer leading the Jamaica national team to the Caribbean championship.

“With our guys, it’s pretty much the same,” said Pitino. “I think an exception was maybe Will Scott (from a well-to-do family), but with our guys, whether they’re from Seattle, New York, Chicago, Jamaica, they’re pretty much from the same backgrounds: don’t have a lot of money, grow up in a difficult economic environment. But they’re extremely hungry to make it better for themselves and their families. They give everything in the classroom, and will do whatever it takes for their team to win. And they really enjoy the experience.”

At the end, Pitino said he had a special friend to introduce. “We’ve been best friends since we were juniors in high school.” It was his wife, Joanne. A nice touch.

Then, just as he was winding up, Pitino noticed he hadn’t introduced Director of Athletics Tom Jurich, and he soon learned Jurich wasn’t in attendance.

Upon hearing Jurich was in Birmingham, Pitino joked, “Oh, he’s interviewing for the UAB job.”

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