‘You can’t say it’s because of my dad anymore’: Brad Calipari finds himself — and the court — in Detroit

‘You can’t say it’s because of my dad anymore’: Brad Calipari finds himself — and the court — in Detroit

DETROIT — The black ink, with varying fonts, stretches across the top of his chest, just above his pecs and below his neck. He doesn’t flaunt it. To him, it’s not a big deal. His friends have tattoos. His teammates have tattoos. For Brad Calipari to get one, which he did just before the start of his freshman year at Kentucky in 2016, it needed to go beyond looking cool and send a clear message.

Earned Not Given.

For years, he has heard the criticism, on social media and in public, about the tattoo and whatever else. People attacked him on Twitter because of something his father, Kentucky coach John Calipari, did or because of how Brad played or didn’t play.

Brad Calipari can’t remember a time living in anonymity. Definitely not since he started playing basketball, first as a high school student in Lexington, Kentucky, then as a prep school student in Massachusetts, then in college at the University of Kentucky and now at the University of Detroit, where he’s in the first of an expected two-season stint as a graduate transfer.

That is where the tattoo comes in. It’s something personal that he is projecting to the world.

“People think that I don’t do the work, that it is handed to me and that my dad lets me kind of ride his coattails basically,” Calipari said. “That’s just kind of something that can stick with you.

“I earn what I get.”

His parents understood the message, even though they didn’t find out about the tattoo until Calipari came home one day and told his mom, Ellen. She looked at him and asked, “Why?” John was more concerned with how Brad would have to cover the tattoo in professional settings. They weren’t happy. They still aren’t thrilled three years later, yet it has become something of a family joke. Ellen dressed up as her son one Halloween, with the “NOT” part of the tattoo drawn on her chest in the same place where it poked through his Wildcats jersey.

“That becomes part of our joke,” Ellen Calipari said. “The shade John gets is earned, not given. He earns every bit of it. But that [family catchphrase] stemmed from this tattoo.”

It’s the Calipari family way — biting sarcasm and dry wit — molding Ellen and John Calipari’s youngest child in a house full of trash talk and pranks, some of which have played out on social media.

Brad was always the thoughtful one, the one who asked his older sisters where they were going and when they were coming home in high school — and then called while they were out to follow up. He was the well-intentioned child who knew to buy Ellen the “Home Sweet Home” scent from Yankee Candle because it is one of her favorites.

Brad is 10 years younger than his oldest sister, Erin, and seven years younger than Megan. Of the family ribbing, Brad said he took “the brunt of it, basically.” He understood that it was out of love — it’s how their family communicates. The environment helped create a person who could handle anything publicly. It made him independent and able to laugh at criticism.

To be a Calipari also meant that basketball was a part of life, though for Brad Calipari, it was his own decision after he quit baseball and golf heading into high school to focus on hoops. In his first two seasons as a walk-on at Kentucky, even though his game minutes were sparse (73 over two seasons), he says he discovered during practice that playing basketball could be his future.

During his sophomore year, Kentucky ran a five-on-zero shooting drill in practice in which if you made a 3-pointer running full-speed, you turned and sprinted back down the court to do it again. In a gym full of future NBA players, Calipari was the one who couldn’t miss.

“He runs off 12 in a row, 13 in a row, and he’s sprinting,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said. “That’s pretty hard to do.”

Brad laughed and insisted that Payne was “lowballing me. It was not 11, 12, 13. It was 15, at least.”

Calipari worked to prove that whatever his last name was, he could hold his own with the blue-chippers around him. He guarded Tyler Herro — the No. 13 pick of the 2019 draft — in practice and had days when he scored on Herro, despite giving up 5 inches and a lot of athleticism.

“My first couple of years, I was trying to make sure that I could keep up with those guys,” Calipari said. “That was the only way I was going to be able to do anything. … If I would have slowed down practice, [my dad] wasn’t going to put me in practice.”

“People think that I don’t do the work, that it is handed to me and that my dad lets me kind of ride his coattails basically. That’s just kind of something that can stick with you.” Brad Calipari

Still, even as he improved as a player, Calipari wasn’t moving up the depth chart on talent-rich Kentucky. He was a 6-foot scoring guard lacking the level of athleticism of his teammates.

Brad Calipari decided to redshirt the 2018-19 season, contemplating his future while continuing to practice with eventual lottery picks. On the bench, meanwhile, his sartorial choices became a national topic. Fans could bet on what he might wear during the NCAA tournament, a phenomenon he alternately describes as ridiculous, crazy and funny.

By then, Calipari had a clear idea of his basketball future. He’d put in the time, driving from the Jersey Shore to Colts Neck, New Jersey, to play pickup and train on vacations. He’d altered his diet to vegan after watching the 2018 documentary “The Game Changers.” He’d worked to graduate from Kentucky in three years, and he wanted to play. Somewhere. His time holding his own at Kentucky made him believe that playing professionally was an option. He was working on Italian citizenship (independent of his basketball decisions, he says, because his father has it) and knew that status could provide more pro opportunities because of European league rules.

So he asked Payne — a longtime sounding board — what he thought.

“My first thing is, dude, do you know your dad is John Calipari?” Payne said. “One of the most respected coaches in the college game? In the history of this college game? Personally, you got to talk to him. Get his thoughts. Talk to your dad about what you want to do, and let him know where your heart is, and y’all come up with something together.”

In the car that night, Calipari asked his dad about the mechanics of transferring. John told his son that the first thing he would have to do was enter the transfer portal. The conversation ended. The next day, at 9 a.m., without discussing it with any family members, Brad Calipari took his first formal step to transfer. It became national news — and news, sort of, to his parents.

“They acted like they had no idea what I was doing,” Brad said. “I feel like they kind of knew. They just said that they didn’t. They were happy either way. I didn’t tell my sisters, though.”

The same sisters, when he decided to enroll at Kentucky, had tried to talk him out of it. Erin played college basketball at UMass. Megan initially attended Kentucky. They knew the attention their name could cause and how mean strangers could be. Brad didn’t tell them about that decision until it was finished, either. He thought about it, and he says that in both instances he did what he thought was best for him.

“He cares zero. He does not care at all,” Erin Calipari said. “He just doesn’t think about it, and when you ask him, it’s not like any hard feelings. He was just like, ‘I haven’t considered that I should tell you.’ I’m like, ‘Maybe the heads-up next time would be cool, Brad.'”

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January 16, 2020 at 04:31AM

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