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by Greg Russell

John Calipari

When Lamar Chance’s phone rings at midnight, it really doesn’t make him mad — it could be 2, 3 or 4 a.m. for that matter. And when his day lasts from 6 a.m. to somewhere past the witching hour, he doesn’t really mind.

“Yeah, it is crazy right now,” says Chance. “I get phone calls and e-mails at all hours of the day and the night. I am on 24/7. It comes with the job.”

But Chance will tell you he wouldn’t have it any other way: the cause of the circus-like atmosphere? John Calipari and his high-flying Tiger basketball team, of which Chance is the media relations director.

Now in his eighth season as head coach, Calipari has reignited the Tiger program. Ranked as high as No. 1 in some national polls, the team commands the same respect as the North Carolinas and Kentuckys of the world. Along the way Calipari has made good on two predictions he made to this magazine when he first arrived at the U of M in 2000.

“People thought I was crazy when I made this statement at UMass, and I am going to make it here. ’If you don’t get your season tickets, you’re not going to be coming to our games.’”
Calipari (third from right), U of M Provost Ralph Faudree (far right) and Kevin Kane (second from left), president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, meet with Chinese coaches during the trip to Asia last fall.

Consider that a done deal: Less than 20 season ticket packages remained at press time. The only way to see a remaining home game would be if the allotment for students isn’t exhausted. (Call 901/678-2331 to check on ticket availability.)

Also stated by Calipari in 2000: “This is not like we are going to waltz into the Final Four. But we have the opportunity to take the program to the next level.”

Another done deal: The Tigers have taken it to the next level, enjoying back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, compiling a 66-8 record the past two seasons and being picked by most analysts as a favorite to reach the Final Four in San Antonio this March.

And earlier this year, Calipari might have inserted the last piece of the Final Four puzzle when he signed Chicago product Derrick Rose, perhaps the most highly touted Tiger since Penny Hardaway. The freshman Rose already has NBA scouts drooling.

But what more can the charismatic Calipari do? Much, depending on whom you ask.

Two years ago at the University of Memphis/University of Tennessee basketball tilt at FedExForum, a scout for the Chicago Bulls marveled at the talents of Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams and Darius Washington. He also made another astute observation.

“That man could probably run for mayor of Memphis and win,” said the scout, after watching fan reaction to Calipari.

Probably so — Calipari has a way of galvanizing the city with his energy. But don’t look for “city office” to appear on his resume anytime soon.

What is on Calipari’s radar is something that will not only help his team, but the entire University and the city as well.

University president Dr. Shirley Raines has put an aggressive plan in place to lead the U of M to a higher tier in the world of academia. Part of the plan came in August when the University announced it had been awarded a Confucius Institute by the Chinese government. Chosen over Vanderbilt and other top southeastern universities, the Institute is, among other things, a very intensive exchange and educational program that will promote better trade and cultural relations with China.

Almost on cue in October, Calipari announced a five-year U of M partnership with the Chinese Basketball Association that promotes basketball in China. The CBA sent 15 Chinese basketball coaches to Memphis in late fall to observe Calipari’s program. One of the Chinese coaches remains in Memphis with the program through this season. In turn, the Tiger basketball team is scheduled to play exhibitions in China later this year, including a possible game with the Chinese national team. Calipari and his staff will also conduct coaching clinics.
Faudree, Kane and Calipari took time out from meeting with Chinese coaches to visit the Great Wall of China. The added exposure of the U of M in Asia comes at a good time: The 2008 Olympic Summer Games will be hosted by China.

The exposure in China of not only Cal’s program, but the U of M as a university will be expansive.

“At the very least, for our city, campus and athletic department, we will have great visibility (in China),” Calipari says. “For us to be a top five team, our University has got to keep growing.

“All these coaches (that come over) will be an army for us,” adds Calipari. “They will spread the news about us. They become our eyes and ears in China.”

With no NCAA presence in China, which embraced the NBA after Yao Ming signed with Houston, the U of M’s name may become common among the Chinese people.

“It is fascinating to watch Calipari as he grows the relationship with China and Chinese basketball,” says NCAA president Myles Brand. “It speaks to the global appeal of intercollegiate basketball.”

Calipari says that the number of people in China watching a basketball game is astounding.

“On ESPN, there could be 800,000 to 5 million people watching a game,” he says. “In China, there could be 400 million people who would watch a game on TV.”

U of M administrators welcome the exposure and believe it could help double the number of Chinese students on campus.

“This is a great opportunity for the University to have a high visibility in China,” says U of M Provost Ralph Faudree. “We see this as helping the city economically, with education and with basketball. John sees the economic and educational side as well as the basketball side.”

Adds the coach, “I hope this plays a part in taking our University to another level.”

With Calipari involved, it may well be a slam dunk.
John Calipari

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