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Thursday, March 22, 2007

From the San Antonio Express-News "Memphis Players' Off-Court Problems Have Raised Eyebrows"

Memphis players' off-court problems have raised eyebrows

Web Posted: 03/21/2007 11:18 PM CDT

Richard Oliver
San Antonio Express-News

Jeremy Hunt was finished.

Fresh from his second legal entanglement for a violent altercation, Memphis announced in October 2005 that the guard had been permanently dismissed from the team, a casualty even in a program numbed to off-court malfeasance.

Except, as Texas A&M knows full well today, he wasn't.

Hunt, in a debated move, was reinstated last fall, becoming a key cog in the Tigers' NCAA tournament run even as he became the prominent example of coach John Calipari's seemingly boundless forgiveness.

"By giving him another chance, I think these players know we're about them," Calipari said recently. "We're going to be firm with them, fair with them. We're going to have some compassion."

When it comes to Memphis basketball, it's a requirement every bit as necessary as towels and shoelaces. Six current Tigers players have made headlines for various incidents off the court, with four arrested at least once.

The rap sheets include busts for drugs, solicitation and domestic violence.

While detractors view Calipari's remarkable absolution as furthering the perception of the untouchable star athlete, with winning as the hidden motivation, those impacted see a grander purpose.

"Everybody makes mistakes; that's just part of being young," said Hunt, who likely will play bigger role against the Aggies in today's Sweet 16 matchup as standout guard Chris Douglas-Roberts battles back from an ankle injury.

Calipari, he added, "is never going to leave his players in the dirt."

Eli Morris, minister of Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis and a close friend of the coach, sees Hunt's case as the model for Calipari's stated mission.

"John is a caring guy with a tender heart, basically," Morris said this week. "He looks like he's going to have a stroke, all up in their faces, but he's only demanding excellence and will go to the wall for his kids."

As Hunt struggled with his personal problems, Morris added, "John was the constant with him."

The 6-foot-5 guard, who hails from Memphis, had first encountered trouble in early 2005 when he was charged with misdemeanor assault for cuffing around his girlfriend. Though Calipari raised eyebrows then by suspending the player only two games, the coach's patience snapped when Hunt broke his hand nine months later in a fistfight on Memphis' legendary Beale Street.

Hunt declined to transfer, staying in school and receiving his degree in sports management. He stuck close to the team as well, attending practice in street clothes and rooting from the bleachers during games.

After conferring with the squad and school officials, Calipari erased the suspension. The player has rewarded the coach by averaging 13.6 points as a sixth man, second only to Douglas-Roberts, and reigning as the team's top 3-point threat.

"In college," Calipari said, "you're teaching life skills. You have cynical people who don't understand that, but these life skills will carry over into whatever (players) do."

Come Thursday, thanks to Calipari's amazing grace, those skills will carry over to the Alamodome court.

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