Amherst, UMass still special for John Calipari

AMHERST — John Calipari has been back to Amherst many times since he left the University of Massachusetts to become the head coach of the New Jersey Nets almost 20 years ago. His two daughters both went to UMass. His son goes to high school at the MacDuffie School in Granby and his former player and assistant coach Derek Kellogg is coaching the Minutemen.

Calipari was here in September to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He was back again last week. He spent a night in Boston for a banquet in his honor 20 years after he led UMass to the Final Four, and on Dec. 16 visited the Mullins Center, where a banner was raised honoring him at halftime of the Minutemen’s 103-95 win over New Orleans.

But despite the frequency, being back always makes him nostalgic. “When I’m in Amherst I drive up to the house in Shutesbury and drive around,” he said.

Calipari marveled at how the UMass campus continues to evolve.

“We had, like, one building built when I was there — the Mullins Center. Now it’s a transformed campus. The Commonwealth College has changed the whole dynamic of what the school is and direction it’s going,” he said, and raved about UMass’ new basketball practice facility. “It’s better than ours (at Kentucky). We were in the Cage.”

The Mullins Center still looked similar as he came in for the game. Marcus Camby and Dana Dingle highlighted a collection of several former players who were at the game to honor their former coach. But it was more than just players. Former assistant coaches, athletic trainers, doctors and managers were in the building. Dave Bischoff, who was the athletic director when Calipari was hired, was in the building. As he walked around the edge of the court to do a radio interview, he stopped for hugs and handshakes with lots of old friends.

At halftime, after a short video with messages of congratulations from former UMass stars Kellogg, Camby, Lou Roe and Edgar Padilla, a maroon banner with white lettering that read “John Calipari, 193 wins, 1988-1996” was unveiled in the Mullins Center’s north end zone.

The 4,273 fans gave him an ovation throughout. Many of the older fans dusted off old T-shirts from the Calipari era. In most cases they were a little yellower and didn’t fit quite as well as they did when they were purchased, but still served as a reminder of a memorable time.

Calipari has some of those T-shirts stashed away among a collection of memorabilia from that time. A team picture from each of his UMass teams adorns the wall of his office at Kentucky. In his Lexington, Kentucky, home hangs a picture of Camby tipping off at the Meadowlands in the 1996 national semifinals, Calipari’s first Final Four.

He’s been to five more since then, one with Memphis and four with Kentucky. But even with the success he’s had since leaving UMass, his professional roots in Amherst still hold a special place. Calipari said he expected to be more nervous watching Kellogg coach than he is in any game he’s coaching himself.

“I’m so happy Derek is here. Whether his team plays well or not doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’m so proud watching him coach. I’ll be more nervous watching him coach than when I’m coaching. I want him to do well. I want his team to do well.”

This won’t be his last trip to the Mullins Center, either. There could be another ceremony honoring the Final Four team for its 30th anniversary. He’ll be glad for another opportunity to look back.

“It was a great time, a fabulous time,” he said. “For all of us.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage