Lost your job? John Calipari can help you
By Sam Alipour
Special to ESPN The Magazine, Page 2
Updated: January 2, 2008, 5:07 PM ET
John Calipari straight-up laughed at me. Or was it with me? I'm not really sure.
I am, however, certain that the Memphis Tigers men's basketball coach called me "a walking billboard" for his upcoming book "Bouncing Back," a how-to for losers like him and me … er, men and women who've been fired.
In the book, Calipari recounts his comeback after getting canned as the New Jersey Nets' head coach and executive VP of basketball operations in 1999, just one year after leading the team to its highest-ever divisional finish (second) since joining the NBA in 1976 and three years removed from a Final Four appearance with UMass. Calipari, who humbly returned to the coaching ranks later that season as an assistant with Larry Brown's Philadelphia 76ers before signing with Memphis in 2000, also dishes out advice on spin-control, discerning true friends from business suck-ups and comforting your family -- tips that speak to anyone who has suffered through a loss of employment.
And if Calipari's recent history is any indication, pink slips can spur you on to greater success. In his first seven seasons at Memphis, the Tigers have posted seven 20-win seasons, including a school-record 33 victories each of the past two campaigns. Now the reigning Conference USA Coach of the Year is the skipper of the No. 2 team in the nation, one that ESPN The Magazine has picked to win it all.
Calipari recently took some time to talk about the keys to a post-canning comeback. If you've been fired, or happen to coach the Knicks, read on.
Alipour: Why write a book about an embarrassing chapter in your life?
Calipari: A lot of people have asked how I climbed out of that hole. I write about an absolute embarrassing public flameout, but it's also a chance to help people. You learn more about yourself through that bad experience than you do through all your success. You also learn about the people around you and how things really are because you're down to the bare bones of it. These are some of the 15 topics that I cover. I wish I had a book when I was fired to tell me how to get myself right again.
Alipour: After you've been canned, how ugly can it get?
Calipari: First, there's this immediate feeling, like you fell down a flight of stairs and you can't stop. When you get fired in a public, vicious way like I did, it rocks you to your core. You're in a total daze, in shock, numb for two weeks, hiding under the covers. It's humbling. But it's only permanent if you make it permanent. You need to get out from under the covers and say, "I'm going to rebuild, get my mind right."
Alipour: What's the first step toward recovery?
Calipari: Understanding you're not alone. Some will read this and say, "Yeah, you got fired, but you have all of that money!" Do you think the money matters at that point? Whether you're a CEO or laborer, what you're going through is similar, even for those whose circumstances are out of their control. I know a guy who had a tick bite and almost died. He was in the house for four months and had to rebuild his life. And what about someone from [Hurricane] Katrina? Someone who had nothing to do with that, but had his businesses wiped out?
I'm also going to have 10 people from all walks of life who've failed miserably to share their stories [in the book]. I'd love to get Al Gore. His life was over, but he made himself significant again. When I was on "Best Damn Sports Show," Rodney Peete talked about the worst time in his life when, in a contract year with the [Detroit] Lions, he blows his Achilles for a second time. He was on a stretcher, saying "This is over." Rob Dibble had to go to Puerto Rico to pitch his way back into the [major] league[s]. Chris Rose, who was fired from that show for three months, said he went home and cried.
Alipour: When I got fired, I had to answer a lot of questions from the parental units. How should one deal with concerned family members?
Calipari: That's the immediate thing. I have three children who are all young. I know it was important to me to not uproot my kids again. You need to ask, "How are they taking this? Where are they with this?" A lot of times, there's bitterness in your spouse. With my wife, lets just say, if I didn't get a job, it would've hurt us. She was getting tired of seeing me. She said I was giving too many suggestions around the house and I needed to get a job. That's when I knew it was time to get back to it.
Alipour: What's the most important step in the comeback process?
Calipari: You need to stay positive. You want to hold a grudge, to be vicious to those who did this to you. If you're obsessed with that, you lose. Be obsessed with positive thoughts. Conduct the phone call test -- Sam, pay attention to your phone calls with friends. There are those who you talk to who make you feel good. But there's one person who, every time you talk to them, they're negative. We all know people like that. Do you really want to talk to them? No. Don't be that person.
You need to let go and move on. Look in the mirror and say, "Everything I'm going to do today will be positive. I'll be upbeat when people talk to me." You'll notice it'll change how people look at you and talk about you. You want to be able to draw people to you because, at some level, someone is going to have to reach out and help.
Alipour: At this point, it seems you're suggesting "spin control." How does that factor into the recovery process?
Calipari: You need to start thinking, "How do I position everything and where am I going to go with this?" Hopefully you have enough people to call on to give you a hand. That's when you find out who's with you. After I got out from under the covers, I called maybe a hundred people -- administrators, coaches, commissioners -- for their thoughts and how [my firing] looked on the outside. Sitting next to your phone, you'll find out there's a difference between friendships and business relationships.
Alipour: How so?
Calipari: Twenty percent of those people never called me back. I'm already at the bottom of the steps and some people tried to kick me down further. It's funny, when I was hired, I got 100 calls. When I got fired, I got two calls. You need to be aware that people love to see you fail. But I'll tell you this, this country loves a comeback story. They love Seabiscuit, Martha Stewart and Al Gore.
Alipour: Sometimes, all you need is one person to believe in you. Who was there for you?
Calipari: Larry Brown. We talked five days a week, and at the end of the year he asked me to join his staff. At the time, he was trying to tell me that he needs my help. In reality, I needed his help. I had to decide, "What am I trying to accomplish? Did I want to go back to coaching? If so, college or NBA?" It was a great six months of rehabbing. I was around a giant, a Hall of Famer, a guy who cared about me. And as I helped him, I reconfirmed what I felt about the game and rebuilt my confidence. I was fortunate. My position with him made me more of an appealing coaching candidate for Memphis.
Alipour: Have you mended fences with the Nets?
Calipari: Oh yeah, you have to. You need to accept responsibility. You can't blame others. I got fired because we were 3-17. And if any of the players quit on me or worked against me [as was reported], that's my fault. I drafted or traded for them. Now, I could say Sam Cassell got hurt; that the year before, we were in the playoffs; that they sold the team and made $50 million over a two year period and increased the team's value; that we changed the direction of the Nets and we were picked to win the division that year. Bottom line? We were 3-17 and the new ownership wanted to get another coach. That's their right. What, like I'm going to get a raise? I'm not mad at them. I might not think they were right, but take responsibility and say, "If I'm in this situation again, what can I do better?"
Alipour: This whole thing seems like a blessing in disguise. Your Tigers are ranked second [in the nation]. No chance you'll get fired anytime soon, right?
Calipari: Well, that's not true. What if three guys get injured and this thing goes south? All of a sudden, I'm bouncing back again. Most people have more than one bounce-back. How about those guys who were bankrupted four different times? To say that I went through my one bounce-back is crazy. Something could happen at work -- maybe an illness, maybe marriage. All kinds of things can knock you for a loop.
Alipour: Any final thoughts you'd like to add?
Calipari: Yeah, you said you were fired?
Alipour: Depending on who you ask, I've been fired one or three times in my previous careers.
Calipari: (Whistles) Man, that's great. (Laughs) That's just great. (Laughs) Can you do me a favor and put that in your story?
Alipour: Sure thing.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at email@example.com.