MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The tall man sweeping up cigarette butts on Beale Street around lunchtime Thursday said he is a Georgetown Hoyas fan and thus didn’t have an opinion on John Calipari’s return to Memphis beyond the practical: “It’s a good thing, because people are going to come down here just to boo him.”
And a decent number did when Calipari led his Kentucky team onto the court at FedEx Forum for an open practice on the eve of a Sweet 16 showdown with UCLA. Liz Hidey showed up in her Memphis Tigers windbreaker and sat in the front row with a singular purpose: to heckle the man she once loved.
“I called him a dog,” Hidey announced proudly. “He’s a great coach, but he’s a frickin’ crook. He’s a crook!”
She paused a beat and spoke for so many jilted Memphis fans, whose hearts were broken when Calipari bolted for Kentucky in 2009.
“I still love him,” she admitted.
I believe this woman is all jilted Memphis fans. It's perfect. pic.twitter.com/mvcBWUkVA2
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) March 23, 2017
For all the narrative about a city that now despises him, the truth is many people here simply hate the fact he left. They swelled with pride when Calipari led the Tigers to three Elite Eights in his final four seasons, including the 2008 NCAA title game.
He made Memphis matter on a national scale, and then he packed up and left for the winningest program in college basketball history.
“I like the guy,” said Ed Pullen, door man at Pig, a barbecue joint on Beale. “He done better for us than anybody else. We haven’t had a team since he left. Most people are still mad because if he stayed, we’d probably be where Kentucky is now. But you get an offer like that, you have to take it. That’s history, man. Kentucky is college basketball.”
Calipari couldn’t have said it better himself. He was grilled Thursday about his departure from and return to Memphis, whether he’d have handled any of it differently in retrospect and if it bugs him that a subsequent NCAA investigation into former star Derrick Rose’s test scores led to the removal of that 2008 Final Four banner from FedEx Forum.
“There’s nothing that can take away what that run was about for all of us, including the city. It was a special time,” said Calipari, who was not personally charged by the NCAA in Rose’s case. “I had been talked to probably by six other universities during my time here, and three had offered jobs and a couple I considered. But Kentucky is one that you leave for. It just is.
“There was no intent to offend anybody. It was just — it’s Kentucky. It’s Kentucky.”
Many of the good friends Calipari made and maintains in Memphis realize that and harbor no ill will. In fact, about 200 of them gathered at The Peabody hotel here on Wednesday night to celebrate the homecoming of a man who made the Tigers great.
Sure, Liz Hidey had company Thursday at UK’s practice, which was free and open to the public and featured a modest smattering of boos. One man stood and screamed at Calipari for nearly half an hour. But there is no angry horde marching down Beale Street wielding pitch forks and torches.
Quite a few boos for Calipari in Memphis. pic.twitter.com/B4euMFttoY
— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) March 23, 2017
“There are some people who look at it in the most logical way: This is the best coach the University of Memphis has ever employed and he should be applauded,” said CBS Sports columnist Gary Parrish, who covered Calipari at Memphis for the local paper and still lives in the area. “And then there are other people who just hate him. And those are people who don’t know him — die-hard Memphis fans who don’t have a relationship with John at all.”
For those people, Parrish suspects, the situation is a lot like the way Oklahoma City Thunder fans feel about Kevin Durant since the NBA superstar left town to join the powerhouse Golden State Warriors.
“It lines up really, really closely,” Parris said. “The best years of Memphis basketball were under John Calipari. The best years of Oklahoma City basketball happened with Kevin Durant. And then he was presented with an opportunity, John was, to go do something that he thought would put himself in a better position to win a championship. Obviously he could do it at Memphis — he was within a second of doing it at Memphis — but if the question is does Kentucky give you a better chance to win a championship, the answer is undeniably yes. Same thing with Kevin Durant.
“So the way Oklahoma City fans look at Kevin Durant and say, ‘Why did you leave us? You didn’t have to,’ the common Memphis fan looks at John Calipari the same. But logically speaking, it was a no-brainer for him. He had to go.”
That won’t stop a Memphis man who declined to identify himself from rooting hard against Kentucky and its coach this weekend. There’s just something about Calipari that rubs him the wrong way, he said, but stopped short of saying he hates the man.
Look, he wants to, because it felt a little too slick the way Calipari took the money and ran to Lexington just ahead of the NCAA’s sanctions on Memphis, but then: “I do some stuff with my church and he’s given Street Ministries (a Memphis charity for underprivileged youth) something like a million dollars, and it’s hard to fault a man who’ll do that.”
There are a lot of stories like that here: random acts of kindness in the form of letters sent, gifts delivered, hospital visits made out of the blue by Calipari to Memphis fans in their hour of need.
“Some people will hold a little fake grudge,” said an anonymous University of Memphis employee who this week is part of an army of school staffers helping host the NCAA Tournament. “But I’d say 75 percent are genuinely grateful for what he did here. Those were some good times.”
Not everyone wants to focus on the happy days. Parrish has an otherwise well-adjusted friend who so loves the Tigers that he has the logo tattooed on his leg. As Calipari’s return drew near, Parrish posed to that friend a hypothetical:
Either Memphis makes the Final Four next season or the NCAA discovers major violations at Kentucky and Calipari is fired. You can only choose one — a great thing for your school or a terrible thing for your former coach.
Parrish’s friend did not hesitate: I would take the dismissal of John Calipari, because he ruined my life.
“I understand some people were upset that I left,” the coach said Thursday. “And I accept that. It doesn’t bother me. I know last night we had a couple hundred people in that room and close to tears, all of us, because we enjoyed the ride together.”
The next time Calipari leaves Memphis, he could be headed for his fifth Final Four in eight seasons at Kentucky.