MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Neither Ken Bennett nor Don DeWeese knew John Calipari when he first arrived in Memphis. There was no reason to expect it from either of them. One is a doughnut shop owner. The other founded an outreach program for at-risk youth out of his van.
Neither had reason to be with Calipari on his first day in Memphis, but both were with him on his last.
When Calipari’s name first surfaced as a potential candidate for the Memphis job in 2000, Bennett had connections in the program that enabled him to hear about the possibility before it was official. He thought that would be the extent he would know Calipari.
“My expectation was that I would never really know him,” said Bennett, the founder of Street Ministries in Memphis. “I knew I wanted to meet him, just like anyone would want to meet a coach.”
Bennett left a few messages with Calipari for a year expressing his interest in meeting the new coach, unsuccessfully.
After a year, Bennett’s job with the ministry and Calipari’s job with the basketball team intersected. Memphis was thinking about bringing in Antonio Burks, who was in Bennett’s program and on a path to go to junior college. The two sides discussed the move. After the first meeting, Bennett turned to Calipari to finally introduce himself.
“I’m excited you’re here,” Bennett said. “At the same time, this is like my kid, and I don’t want him to come and just sit the bench. “Cal said, ‘he’s better than anything we have.’”
Calipari didn’t have much to work with in the early years, but he kept building the Memphis program.
He helped get a state-of-the-art practice facility. He helped get the Tigers playing in the Grizzlies arena instead of The Pyramid (now scheduled to become a Bass Pro fishing store). He helped get Memphis a Nike apparel contract worth $660,000 per year, unless Calipari left, in which case it would be worth $400,000 per year. He did this at a small-conference school with a campus that has a railroad track dissecting it.
Calipari kept building his friendships.
DeWeese first met the coach when Calipari stopped into his store one day to buy doughnuts for his children. Soon after, Calipari was an established visitor. DeWeese said Calipari would spend about 30 minutes per day in Gibson’s, his bakery.
He brought in Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, at first, before switching to Gibson’s coffee, before switching to apple juice when he went on a health kick his last two years. He talked with the “regulars” — the frequent Gibson’s customers and people who didn’t care all that much about basketball. They weren’t season ticket holders; they were friends. Calipari would sometimes serve them coffee from a brew he made.
“This was his cave,” DeWeese said from a booth in Gibson’s, four Memphis Tigers paintings hanging on the wall behind him. “He could come in here and people weren’t trying to get something from him. They treated him like John Calipari, not Coach Calipari.”
With that trust, the regulars — DeWeese included — found themselves the beneficiary of Memphis basketball information. He can’t count the number of times he heard Calipari say something to the Gibson’s crowd in the morning and then hear the same thing at night on TV. He also can’t count the number of times he heard Calipari say something to the Gibson’s crowd that wouldn’t leave the room.
“He didn’t take a lot of Memphis players, because they’re harder to coach, because at every game, they got their whole posse there.”
Or: “If Cal knew he was getting a player, we might know a week ahead of time.”
They knew these things because Cal knew they wouldn’t go elsewhere with it.
“It’s always nice knowing inside information, or secretive stuff,” DeWeese said, but he never felt the urge to tell anyone he shouldn’t. “If you’re around sports, you know when to not open your mouth.”
Calipari’s friendship with Bennett also deepened.
“They were tight,” DeWeese said. “Tighter than brothers. Tighter than assistant coaches. He was far closer to Ken Bennett than any of his assistant coaches.”
Calipari wound up naming him the team chaplain. Any time Calipari needed to discuss something important — when a player got in trouble or when he considered the N.C. State job — he would call Bennett and the pair would stroll around a local golf club late at night, Calipari talking and Bennett listening.
“He knew it was in confidence,” Bennett said. “And he knew I would never tell him what to do.”
Bennett was frequently invited to the Calipari household. They hung out by the pool, talking about family life. On the road, Bennett saw Calipari shed his public persona. If a stranger said he recognized him, the Memphis coach would say he was a local weatherman. When Memphis traveled to Oakland, Calif., Bennett found a place to worship that had one English-speaking Mass and homeless people attending.
“That was the way Calipari wanted it,” Bennett said. “Sometimes I wish people knew him away from the court and the TV camera.”
When Calipari first began contemplating the UK job, he called on Bennett to walk the golf course. Bennett could tell his friend was wrestling with something, but wasn’t sure what. A couple of nights later, around 10:30 p.m., Calipari called again, telling Bennett he was weighing something he never thought he would.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Bennett said. “At that point, I didn’t care about losing a coach. I cared about losing a friend of nine years. Not being able to see him everyday.”
Soon after that conversation, Calipari reached his decision to leave Memphis. And on his last day there, he went to Gibson’s.
At 9:35 that morning, he was in the familiar shop, making one last visit. Everyone knew Calipari was considering the UK job. The media were searching for him. The public was looking for him. Calipari found refuge in the sanctuary of doughnuts.
He stayed for an hour.
Even that morning to the regulars, Calipari never directly said he was gone.
“But I could tell from his voice and his facial expressions he was leaving,” DeWeese said. “I can read people pretty good.”
Eventually, Calipari ended up at his own house. He held a press conference outside. From behind the walls, disconnected from the crush of the media and the public, John Robic, Rod Strickland and Bennett watched their friend and coach announce his departure on TV.
“We saw him beginning to break down,” Bennett said. “And he walked off and came in the house, and he was crying. He said, ‘I didn’t know it would be this hard. I love this place.’ But he got himself together and got back out there.”
Once Calipari returned inside again, Bennett and Calipari hugged and shed tears.
Calipari was destined for UK in a whirlwind. Bennett drove back to his Memphis home in silence.
Soon after Calipari left, scandal hit. Derrick Rose was ruled retroactively ineligible for a reportedly invalid SAT score, and the NCAA made Memphis vacate its 38-win season as national runner-up.
“I think it’s a travesty and everybody else does, too. Because we know we won all those games,” DeWeese said. “Did Derrick Rose take that test? I don’t know. I doubt it. I don’t think John Calipari had anything to do with the arranging of the test. Did he have knowledge of it? Maybe. But they’ve never proved he had anything to do with it.”
The Memphis community still lashed out — and hard — at Calipari. The coach who had taken them back to the top of the college game had, in a very short time span, seemingly taken everything back. When he left, he took his recruits, his secretary, his athletic trainer and, most importantly, himself.
Bennett says time has allowed for some healing. The wins may not have happened in the media guides, but they happened in real life. Those wins brought the community together — “the glory years,” Bennett calls them — and he says people have stopped dwelling on it.
He does admit, however, the season could feel a little “tainted” and has a little “smudge” lingering with it. Other people feel more strongly about how the season went down.
“I had a guy come up to me,” Bennett recalls, “and say, ‘I know if I talk to you for five minutes I can’t hate John Calipari anymore. And I love hating John Calipari.’”
“Everybody in Memphis hates John Calipari right now,” DeWeese said. “But they don’t have a clue who the real John Calipari is.”
DeWeese no longer sees his old friend every day. Neither does Bennett. But the old circle stays in touch. Within five seconds of sitting down, DeWeese had pulled out his phone and showed a contact and number under the name “John Calipari.”
“You want to talk to Cal right now?” DeWeese asks. “If I text him right now, he’ll text me right back.”
Last season, Calipari had the group attend the Ole Miss game.
“I didn’t cheer,” Bennett said. “I just watched the game and prayed for my good friend John Calipari.”
In early April, legendary Memphis player and coach Larry Finch died. Calipari returned to the city for the memorial service. He returned to Gibson’s in the morning, revisiting his old cave. And in came Gene Bartow, another legendary Memphis coach who led the team to the Final Four in 1973.
“They held court for 55 minutes,” DeWeese said. “It was like a swarm all the way around them. Nobody ever talked except them. It was magical.”
It was just like the glory days.