We, The Blue Mist, the devoted fans of Kentucky basketball, have been watching The Door for twenty-four hours. A Memphis TV station has trained a web-cam on The Door, which leads to the University of Memphis athletic department. The video stream currently registers 12,611 views. There’s also sound, and so The Mist can hear cars passing, the camera operators tittering. They must find it funny that we want to watch The Door.
Our hope is that John Calipari, Memphis’s basketball coach, will walk through The Door and tell the camera he’s leaving Memphis to coach at the University of Kentucky. Really, even to catch a glimpse of Coach Cal, as we’ve already come to call him, would be enough. In seventeen seasons at Memphis and U Mass, Coach Cal has amassed the second-best winning percentage of any active college coach. He’s been named the Naismith Coach of the Year twice, one of only two repeat winners of the award.
Our previous coach, a Texan named Billy Gillespie, was fired after just two seasons. In the beginning, The Mist loved Billy G. At his introductory press conference, he told us that coaching basketball (at UTEP and Texas A&M) had caused the demise of his eight-year marriage—this kind of devotion was music to The Mist’s ears. There were two blemishes on his record: arrests in 1999 and 2003 for drunk driving. This was somewhat troubling to The Mist—and yet we were amused by Billy Clyde’s roguishness around Lexington. Had he really been seen leaving a suburban piano bar with a passel of drunken babes? Had he really been spotted later that same night in an apartment complex swimming pool? Alarmed by his drinking, had the university hired him a driver?
It took only two games for the mediocrity and strangeness of the Billy G Era to begin: an 18-point loss to Gardner-Webb, a school The Mist didn’t know existed until its basketball team showed up in Rupp Arena. The team finished 18-13, just good enough to eke out a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Billy G’s second season began with another humiliating loss, this time to the Virginia Military Institute. He followed that with a 19-point loss to archrival North Carolina. A septuagenarian member of The Mist named Josephine telephoned Billy G’s radio call-in show, The Big Blue Line, to ask why he didn’t set more picks for our best player. Other callers wondered why the team couldn’t dribble or pass. Our best point guard had transferred to UNLV after Billy’s first year, and it was said that Billy forced him to play on a knee that hadn’t fully healed from surgery. There were other rumors of player abuse: according to sources, Billy forced an exceedingly skinny player to eat a whole box of Pop-Tarts, then run a mile. Purported Pop-Tart flavor: cherry.
Never friendly to the media, Billy became snippier as the losses mounted. During a halftime interview on ESPN, reporter Jeannine Edwards asked if he was concerned that our best shooter had scored only six points (The Mist sure was). Billy retorted that Kentucky wasn’t a one-man team and her question was a “bad question.” The interview made waves nationally. The next time UK was on ESPN, Billy was rude to Edwards again. The Mist heard that players’ parents were complaining to the athletic director about Pop-Tarts and related issues. Former players felt unwelcome around the program.
The Wildcats lost fourteen games and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in almost two decades. Asked how he felt about the judgment he was facing after this debacle, Billy Clyde replied: “There’s only one judgment I’ll ever be concerned about, and I hope I pass that judgment. That’s the only one I’ll ever be concerned about, and I’m really proud that that’s the only judgment that will ever have a real effect on me, and I hope I pass that one with flying colors.”
The ESPN.com article in which this quote appeared concluded that Gillespie was “apparently referring to Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart.”
On April Fools’ Day, The Mist got its wish: John Calipari became Kentucky’s seventh head coach. The presser was televised live on ESPN2. With a twinkle in his eye, Coach Cal declared that he couldn’t “wave a magic wand or walk on water,” knowing damned well he could do both those things. He spoke of rebranding Kentucky basketball, making it cool again to 18-year-old recruits who may not remember UK’s dominance in the ’90s. He’s a “gatherer,” he said, meaning he gathers players, coaches, administrators, boosters, and fans to the common cause of winning national championships. He doesn’t want to hang another championship banner in Rupp Arena—he wants to hang six or seven!
Coach Cal has a history of transforming programs with his incredible recruiting prowess. His deal, worth $31.65 million over eight years, plus incentives, makes him the highest-paid college basketball coach in the country. Every cent will come from the athletic department’s budget, but we can afford it. Revenue in 2007-08 was $67 million, a number that should only increase with the hiring of Cal.
There are, however, concerns about Cal’s past. His 1996 Final Four team at UMass was forced by the NCAA to “vacate” its tournament results because center Marcus Camby received cash from an agent. (Cal was never directly implicated.) The Blue Mist is skittish about rules breaches of this magnitude. Our history is peppered with them: point-shaving in the 1950s, recruiting violations in the ’80s.
Another concern: Cal has long been linked to William “Worldwide” Wesley, a behind-the-scenes slickster who has a way of “guiding” high-profile recruits to particular schools, including Memphis. No one knows much about Wesley, except that he seems to have some connection to Nike, and that it would be hard to accomplish everything he accomplishes through strictly legal channels. Recently, GQ ran a profile of Wesley entitled “Is This The Most Powerful Man in Sports?” In it, Cal said Wesley was a “goodwill ambassador to the University of Memphis program.”
And then there’s this: some of Cal’s Memphis players had serious run-ins with the law. In 2005, one was charged with soliciting a prostitute. In 2007, two were charged with inciting a riot on Beale Street. In 2008, one was accused of hitting his ex-girlfriend.
A week after Cal’s hiring, the second-rated senior in all of high school basketball, DeMarcus Cousins, decided to follow Cal to Kentucky. In a special springtime edition of The Big Blue Line, the first caller was none other than septuagenarian Josephine, who wanted to welcome Cal to “our world.” Cal, already wise to the ways The Mist frets about its program, replied: “Josephine, I want you to take great joy in watching this team grow and win. No anxiety. Just great joy. Because you deserve it.”
In 1997, when Rick Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics and $50 million, The Mist felt abandoned. Four years later, when he returned to college hoops to coach our most hated rival, the University of Louisville, we felt betrayed. When he took the Cardinals to a Final Four in 2005, we felt jealous. Now, he’s the victim of a bizarre extortion scheme that may involve sexual indiscretion, and The Mist is experiencing some schadenfreude.
“My family and I were recently threatened as part of a criminal scheme to extort money,” Pitino said in a news release in late April. “Upon receiving these threats, we reported this extortion attempt to the FBI. While I did not want to make this matter public, I recently learned that the individual behind this extortion attempt has already gone to the media with false, defamatory and outrageous allegations.”
A woman named Karen Sypher was soon arrested and charged with attempted extortion and lying to the FBI. She and a male co-conspirator allegedly threatened Pitino last February, then again in March, by leaving messages on his phone: unless their demands were met, they would go public with criminal allegations. Those demands included college tuition for Sypher’s kids, two cars, house payments, and $10 million. The FBI revealed that Pitino believed the extortion attempt was related to a 2003 “encounter.” Making the story even stranger, Sypher is married to Pitino’s long-time equipment manager, Tim Sypher.
Soon after her arrest, Sypher publicly accused Pitino of rape. The police, citing several flagrant discrepancies in her description of events, did not press charges.
The Mist is a little pissed. In a letter to the University of Memphis, the NCAA says it determined through an investigation that an unknown person took the SAT for a men’s basketball player, and this player used that test to gain admission to Memphis. The player’s name hasn’t been released, but we know that he played for just the 2007-08 season. The only freshman who played just that one season was Derrick Rose, who led Memphis to the national championship game and became the #1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
Mitch Barnhart and Dr. Todd say Cal informed them of the NCAA’s investigation prior to his hiring. Moreover, the NCAA assured UK that Cal wasn’t “at risk,” meaning he wasn’t being investigated. But basketball pundits and opposing fans are laughing at us. Of course Cal isn’t implicated, they say—he’s insulated himself from trouble his whole career. Sports Illustrated ran a sidebar called “Escape Artist.” Will Memphis be forced to vacate its Final Four appearance, just like UMass? Will Cal take Kentucky to a Final Four, only to have it vacated too? We’re worried. And we don’t appreciate having to defend Coach Cal before he’s coached a single game.
Cal is everywhere, doing interviews from coast to coast to say how happy and honored he is to be the Kentucky coach. He’s spreading goodwill across the Commonwealth, from drugstore counters to the governor’s mansion to the Kentucky Derby, where he did a very cordial interview with ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards. He set up a Twitter account and within two months had 172,000 subscribers, the most of any college coach, basketball or football. Coach Cal likes to tweet sunny tidbits about what’s important in life:
“Reading allows me 2 relax & rejuvenate. I always have a book on my nitestand or on a plane. We can all become more well rounded by reading.”
Cal’s embrace of The Mist, coupled with his recruiting success—he’s corralled the top-rated class in the nation, including the two best players—make it easy to forget the Memphis debacle. Scandal-wise, we’re focused on Pitino. The most popular rumor is that Pitino got Sypher pregnant and she was threatening to go public that she had had an abortion. (Pitino is married with five children.) It’s also rumored that Tim Sypher drove her to Cincinnati for the procedure (to keep a low profile); that during the trip they fell in love; that their marriage took place a few months later; and that Pitino attended the wedding.
Meanwhile, LeBron James dropped by the Kentucky campus to visit his pal Cal. Imagine: the best player in the world shooting baskets in our $30 million practice facility! Since James didn’t attend college, The Mist would like to adopt him into our Wildcat family. We would like to give him an honorary degree. We can already imagine The King sitting on a throne in Rupp Arena, and what a boon it will be to recruiting.
Pitino told police that he had consensual sex with Sypher at a Louisville restaurant, Porcini, after it closed on the night of August 1, 2003. The owner of Porcini gave Pitino the keys and told him to lock up. The deed occurred on a leather bench. Pitino had been drinking, and his designated driver, Vinnie Tatum, was lying under a table—presumably to give the couple privacy. He told police that he could hear “the sounds of two people that seemed to be enjoying themselves during a sexual encounter.” Pitino admitted to giving Sypher $3,000 to pay for an abortion—or rather, to pay for health insurance so she could afford an abortion. It was an uncomfortable admission for a married, practicing Catholic whose friend Father Ed Bradley often sits on the bench during games.
As Pitino issued a public apology to his family and the university, ESPN ran slow-pan footage of Porcini’s exterior. Members of The Mist residing in Louisville know the neighborhood well: leafy, suburban, with cafes and boutiques and Carmichael’s Bookstore—Publisher Weekly‘s 2008-09 Independent Bookseller of the Year. The New York Post ran an “exclusive” interview with Sypher, along with pictures of her in a bikini, which the Post claims she “gleefully” provided. The university president and its athletics director released statements saying they support Pitino. The Mist recommends that he read his 2008 self-help book Rebound Rules, about rebounding from life’s setbacks.
Holy smoke, Billy G got arrested! Officer Michael Corley’s report said that when he pulled Billy over, he had “a strong fruity smell coming from his person [possibly wine] and had red, glassy eyes and slow, slurred speech.” He’d been driving on a rural Kentucky highway in a white Mercedes with Texas plates. When Corley asked for his license, Billy said that it was in his golf bag, which was in the trunk. When Corley asked if he’d been drinking, Billy said No, he’d been golfing all day at a course called Wild Turkey Trace.
Following his firing, Billy remained in Lexington, keeping a pretty high profile for a man the Commonwealth would prefer to forget. He watched thoroughbred racing at Keeneland and drank at campus bars. He sued the university in federal court, alleging the athletics department owed him $6 million for firing him two years into a seven-year agreement. The university contends that he’s not entitled to the full $6 million because he was working under a memorandum of understanding, having refused, for reasons not quite clear, to sign his actual contract.
Coach Cal’s just-released self-help book, Bounce Back—about bouncing back from life’s setbacks—has shown up on the New York Times bestseller list, thanks in large part to The Mist. He’s been doing a statewide book tour and frequently tweets pictures of large crowds in bookstores and high school gymnasiums. He’s been named a Kentucky Colonel and a Duke of Hazard and he’s received the key to Lexington. Some 650,000 of us are following Cal on Twitter. His website, coachcal.com, gets hits from eighty countries. Cal says Kentucky fans are crazy, in a good way.
The NCAA announced that it will strip Memphis of its trip to the Final Four. The university plans to appeal. Cal isn’t commenting, except to say he “sleeps with a clear conscience.” The Mist prefers to focus on the rankings for the upcoming season. With star forward Patrick Patterson returning for his junior year, plus six of the best recruits in the country, most polls have Kentucky ranked in the top five.
Soaring expectations have led J.C. to remind his flock that our freshmen will have to adjust to the college game, and our returning players will have to adjust to a new coach. But The Mist firmly believes that anything less than a Final Four would be a disappointment.
On September 21, the University of Kentucky campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosted a panel discussion called “Covering the Pitino Scandal.” The panel included reporters from the Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. The email announcement read, “… how they broke the story of a woman who allegedly attempted to extort University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino after the two had a sexual encounter, which she claimed was rape.” The event was free and open to The Mist.
As we do every autumn, hundreds of us descended on the Kentucky campus to bivouac for Big Blue Madness tickets. It’s the first practice of the season on the evening of October 16, the first day the NCAA allows it. A grand affair in Rupp Arena that includes a dunk contest and a scrimmage, this year is the most anticipated Madness ever. Many of us used vacation days to hold our place in line during the three-day campout, and players dropped by our biggest tent-city ever to sign autographs, play corn-hole, and distribute rations in from Papa John’s and McDonald’s. The night before tickets went on sale, Cal tweeted to his 800,000 followers that he and his 11-year-old son were going to camp out with the fans. On Rupp Rafters, the Blue Mist’s favorite internet message board, Ky_Catfan_1 wrote, “Cal’s pitching a tent!” Bowfreak responded, “I’ve been pitching one since the day he was hired!”
Around 3:00 a.m., Cal tweeted that it had gotten cold and he was going home.