It was March of 1992 in East Rutherford, N.J. John Calipari walked into the pregame press conference, sat down and told reporters, "I look like Rick Pitino, so I'm going to help you." He pulled out a Rick Pitino mask, put it on, and asked the room, "Anybody have any questions for Rick?"
Calipari was at UMass then. "I know his suit's worth $1,000," Calipari said of Pitino. "Mine's worth $150. He's got Gucci shoes on, I got itchy shoes on." He was facing Pitino's second-seeded Kentucky team in the Sweet 16, and having a little fun with the moment. Kentucky won that Sweet 16 game, but even getting to the Sweet 16, eye to eye with Pitino and Kentucky, was a statement for Calipari. UMass had become a destination in college hoops.
The next October a big man from Hartford named Marcus Camby turned down an offer to play with Donyell Marshall and Jim Calhoun at UConn, and went to UMass instead. Three years later, Camby had 32 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks as UMass began the '95-'96 season by stunning a No. 1-ranked Kentucky team that eventually sent nine players to the NBA.
They ended that season back in East Rutherford against Kentucky. But this time it was the Final Four, and Kentucky came out on top. Two days later, John Calipari watched as Pitino won his first National Championship and cut down the nets, presumably in a $1,000 suit.
It was February of 1913 in Lexington, Ky., when Louisville and Kentucky played their first basketball game. And after decades of safe and healthy distance from each other, it was 1983 when they met in an Elite Eight game that attracted so much passion on both sides, the state's governor pressured Kentucky to schedule Louisville every year. Today, the rivalry is soaked in the sort of bile that eventually leaves everyone with an ulcer. It is not healthy, and anyone on either side will be the first to admit it. There's no mutual respect. Just irrational pride, mutual disdain, and the universal dread of losing to the one team you never, ever want to lose to.
The raw, unhinged hate behind rivalries like Louisville-Kentucky is part of what makes sports unique, and a big part of why people who don't understand sports think this stuff is so ridiculous. "You're cheering for laundry," they'll say. "And two senior citizens men just got into a fistfight at a dialysis clinic."
But then you have John Calipari and Rick Pitino, and it gets more serious. Both men have downplayed the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry coming into this weekend's Final Four, but just the same, no two men in New Orleans have a better reason for pride, disdain and dread to carry them into Saturday night's game. And that has nothing to do with jerseys.
It was 1977 in Pittsburgh. They first met at Five Star Basketball Camp -- when Calipari was a camper already networking with guys like Bobby Knight and Chuck Daly, and Pitino was a counselor and an assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. They had similar stories even then.
Both grew up in poor, Italian households. With siblings a decade older and parents who worked day-and-night, Pitino spent much of his Queens childhood by himself. With two sisters taking priority, Calipari grew up sleeping in the hallway of his family's two bedroom house in Piitsburgh. They both used basketball as an escape to college, and ever since, both their lives have been defined by the gypsy lifestyle inherent to any basketball coach with the kind of ambition it takes to be an elite basketball coach. They have always had everything in common, and that's the problem.
For his part, Calipari eventually wound up parlaying connections made at Five Star into an unpaid job with Kansas, and that turned into an assistant's job back at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitino turned his Syracuse job into a head coaching stint at Boston University, and after turning that program around, he graduated to coaching the New York Knicks.
This is where it gets complicated. Pitino played his college basketball at UMass, and in 1988, he headed the search committee that eventually settled on Calipari as the school's new head coach. And as Pitino told Sports Illustrated in 2009, he didn't just help pick Calipari, he paid for $5,000 of Calipari's salary with his own money.
Finally, Pitino recalls, [the UMass A.D.] came around. "O.K., I'll go with Calipari," he said, "but we have one problem, Rick. I offered him a $63,000 salary. We only have [$58,000]. If you'll write a check for $5,000, we'll stick with our original decision."
"Fine, I'll send it to you," said Pitino.
"No," said McInerney, whose department was strapped for cash. "I have to have it now." These days Pitino can't help but laugh as he tells the story. "The guy wouldn't let me out of the meeting until I wrote the check!"
In 2011, Sports Illustrated offered a different rendition how Calipari got hired.
...Nathan, the Minutemen's booster, and others have told Calipari for years that Pitino's story of helping him get the UMass job and contributing to his salary is a myth. Instead, Nathan says, the search committee narrowed the pool to Shyatt and Calipari, voted and then threw the final decision to David Bischoff, dean of the school of physical education. "The vote was, I believe, three to two in favor of Larry Shyatt," Nathan says. "And I can tell you that Rick Pitino was not one of the two people who voted for John Calipari."
[Glenn Wong, a fellow search committee member] says of Pitino's version, "That's not my recollection."
However it happened, Calipari got the job, and the boy who grew up being called "Little Vinnie" after his father Vince Calipari was now the man being called "Little Ricky" at UMass.
It's been a strange road from there. Pitino had always been looked at as a coaching mastermind, but was most famous for the baffling makeovers he pulled off at Boston University and Providence. When he landed at Kentucky, recruiting and coaching became easier than ever, and the career overachiever was suddenly handling a juggernaut. After bringing Kentucky back from probation hell almost overnight, he won his first title in 1996, lost in the title game in 1997, and in less than a decade on the job, he'd turned Kentucky into the most dominant program in college basketball. That's when he shocked everyone and signed on to coach the Boston Celtics.
He was a disaster in Boston. This was Pitino's greatest NBA legacy.
Not that Calipari fared any better when he left UMass for the NBA. Other than a 72-112 record in less than three years, his greatest NBA legacy is calling a reporter a "f***ing Mexican idiot." Meanwhile, the program he built at UMass was convicted of NCAA violations, tarnishing his greatest (and only) career success back then.
It was a low point for Little Ricky and Rick just the same. So they went back to college, where of course they wound up coaching in the same conference. It couldn't happen any other way.
They've been orbiting each other for 20 years. First in New England, when Pitino was at Providence, Calipari at UMass. Then in the NCAA Tournament with Kentucky and Calipari's UMass teams. Then in the NBA with the Celtics and Nets. Then Conference USA, with Louisville and Memphis. And now, they're smack in the middle of the civil war that never ends.
"There's no other state, none, that's as connected to their basketball program as this one," Calipari said this year. "Because those other states have other programs. Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It's Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that's what makes us unique."
"Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people," Pitino responded. "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid." It never ends. This what real hate looks like -- where you won't even give your rival that satisfaction of being hated. And I don't know whether we're talking about the coaches or the teams anymore."
Saturday, someone will win, someone lose, but this won't end here. Pitino's already injected new life into Louisville with the Final Four run, and John Calipari's presiding over the most dominant program in the country. A year ago, they were battling over Marquis Teague. Next year it will be someone else. There will be more cryptic quotes, more games, and more hate, and all this will go on forever.
It was May 1997, and after confirming that Marcus Camby accepted $28,000 in benefits from two agents while he was playing for Calipari, the NCAA vacated every win from the 1996 Final Four team. This isn't important now, except to say that if Calipari's team had beaten Kentucky that year, millions of Kentucky fans would have gone to their grave complaining about the cheater who cost them a National Championship. UK fans don't forget hard losses. Ask them about Christian Laettner in '92, and they'll tell you he stomped on Aminu Timberlake's chest and should have been ejected before he ever could have hit the game-winner.
But Kentucky won in '96, so fans didn't think twice about Calipari, clearing the way for a decade later, when Calipari's the first icon in Lexington since Pitino.
You can see where this is going. Rooting for laundry again, except "rooting" is really more like worshiping, and "laundry" is a $1,000 suit with a deep blue tie that used to belong to Rick Pitino.
If you think about it that way, nobody exposes the absurdity behind this rivalry better than Pitino and Calipari. College basketball fans love their coach's principles until their coach is on the other sideline. Then he's a snakeoil salesman and John Calipari is a God. This makes sports fans look every bit like the hypocritical children we all are.
The two coaches are less heads and tails than two of the exact same coin, where the only difference that matters in this rivalry is who the coin belongs to. All of Lexington's hate for Pitino and all Louisville's hate for Calipari -- the depth of the disdain is incredible and authentic, but it'd all be reversed if Pitino never left Kentucky and Cal landed at Louisville instead. Can you imagine what Kentucky fans would be saying about Calipari this week?
But then you look closer at Pitino and Calipari, two coaches who can't escape each other no matter where they go. Their roles have changed. Success has come and gone and then come again. There have been scandals. There have been titles. There has been heartbreak. But every step of the way, there's been a doppleganger not too far off, competing for the same recruits, the same wins, and the same ultimate success that doubles as validation for a life lived through basketball. It's enough to drive any normal person insane. Pitino and Calipari don't just personify the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry, they make it look rational.
It's March 2012 in New Orleans. John Calipari will probably not be wearing a Rick Pitino mask at the pregame press conference Friday. It's Calipari coaching Kentucky now, Pitino's at Louisville. Two of the biggest rivals in sports coaching two of the biggest rivals in sports, on the biggest possible stage. Twenty years later, there's no need for a mask, because no practical joke could ever be more ridiculous than reality. It's not laundry that makes sports irresistible.