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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Geoff Calkins: New Memphis coach Pastner's the perfect pick-me-up

Geoff Calkins: New Memphis coach Pastner's the perfect pick-me-up
By Geoff Calkins, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Josh Pastner was standing at the lectern and talking to the masses and explaining that he’d really like the current players to stay at Memphis and continue to be a part of the program.

Wesley Witherspoon — a freshman who has been rumored to be heading to Kentucky with the previous coach — spoke up from the back of the room.

“We ain’t going nowhere,” he said.

There was wild cheering at that. And maybe even some tears.

On a remarkable day in Memphis basketball, it was the singular moment and the singular sentiment, too.

We ain’t going nowhere.

Not Wesley Witherspon, evidently. Not any of the hundreds of thousands of people who love this city and its basketball team.

The old coach is gone. The passion and the people who have forged this thing called Memphis basketball remain.

So at high noon today — one year to the day since Memphis played Kansas for the national championship — they tuned in their TV sets and radios to watch and listen to their new coach.

“Wow,” said Pastner.

Yes, that was his first official word.

So maybe, after everything, this was a “wow” hire.

Pastner, 31, certainly had a good first hour on the job. He was funny and grateful and at ease in the spotlight.

One day earlier, Pastner had driven to the Memphis Athletic Office Building to pack up his stuff for the trip to Kentucky. That’s when Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson called.

Pastner was as stunned as anyone.

“I was in my sweats, I hadn’t showered, my hair was all over the place,” he said.

Also, he had no car. Really. He had already turned in the car that Memphis had given him for the past year.

So he borrowed a buddy’s Toyota Corolla. Drove over to Johnson’s house at Southwind.

Twenty minutes later, they reached a deal.

“I’m humbled,” said Pastner and — here’s the best part — it wasn’t just talk.

At one point during the press conference, someone asked Pastner how he’s different than the previous coach.

“He’s John Calipari and I’m Josh Pastner,” he said, to more wild applause.

It was a great line. The press conference was filled with great lines. But the differences between Calipari and Pastner run straight to their cores.

Calipari is ultimately cynical. He believes everyone has an agenda. He thinks you aren’t paranoid if there’s really someone chasing you.

Pastner is ultimately optimistic. He believes everyone has good inside them. He assumes the guy chasing him is probably a friend, wanting to catch up and say hello.

Calipari: “It is what it is.”

Pastner: “The foundation of all excellence is positive belief.”

That quote is on Pastner’s cell phone right now. That’s what he tells people who just want to leave their numbers and their names.

“Yeah, people give me grief for it,” he said. “But more people like it. They say, ‘That’s just what I needed today.’”

Pastner is a bouncing ball of sunshine. It’s all natural, too.

He’s never tasted alcohol. Never had a carbonated drink.

“I try not to cuss,” he said. “I won’t say I don’t slip, but when I do I get upset at myself.”

Mind you, all of this well-scrubbed exuberance will lose its charm pretty fast if Pastner doesn’t win conference championships.

But for this moment in Memphis basketball — this moment of ultimate rejection and despair — Pastner looks like the perfect pick-me-up.

He’s all energy and enthusiasm. It’s impossible not to pull for the guy. He even liked being called Coach McDreamy in this morning’s column.

“This is supposed to be fun,” he said.

It’s been easy to forget that the past 10 days, hasn’t it? With the tumult and the panic and the choppers overhead?

Coaching searches can be a struggle. Tempers tend to fray.

If Johnson’s hair doesn’t turn gray after this one, the NCAA had better investigate.

But if the week reaffirmed anything, it is how deep the passions run in this town. People love Memphis basketball. For more than 50 years, they’ve held it close.

Now they put their faith in a 31-year kid with dimples as big as his dreams.

Will it work?

Well, maybe that whole upbeat phone message is rubbing off on me, but, yeah. I believe it will.

To reach Geoff Calkins, call 529-2364 or e-mail

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