There have been some bad ideas in our New England sports universe in recent years. There was the push for the 2024 Olympic Games, the Red Sox signing of Pablo Sandoval, and the Patriots’ estimation that it was not worth keeping Tom Brady around for another few years.
And now we have folks at the University of Massachusetts — our State U — breathlessly announcing Monday that they are going to “immortalize four basketball legends” with a dedication of statues to Julius Erving, Jack Leaman, Marcus Camby, and John Calipari outside the Mullins Center Sept. 11.
That’s right, ladies and gents. Our State U plans to dedicate statues to Camby and Calipari, two hoop talents who won big, then brought disgrace to UMass when the Minutemen’s 1996 Final Four appearance was vacated because of NCAA violations. UMass was officially erased from Final Four history and ordered to return $151,000 in tournament money.
Naturally, Calipari and Camby had both bolted to the NBA by the time the sanctions were levied.
But now they’re coming back to be immortalized in bronze, casting long, dark shadows on the great Dr. J and Coach Leaman.
Wow. Maybe the Celtics should put a statue of Rick Pitino in front of the Garden, rewarding Pitino for taking the Celtics presidency away from Red Auerbach. Maybe the Patriots could carve statues of deflaters James McNally and John Jastremski and place them next to the lighthouse at Gillette. How about a statue of Bobby Orr’s criminal agent, Alan Eagleson? Or a bronzed Harry Frazee greeting folks on Jersey Street?
When I reached UMass President Marty Meehan after the announcement Monday, Meehan texted, “I have no idea what you’re talking about … My quote is I know nothing about it. Nobody ran anything by me … According to the board of trustees policy, it’s the campus’ decision if it’s privately funded.”
Athletic director Ryan Bamford said the statues will be built with private donations.
“My chancellor [Kumble Subbaswamy] is aware,” said Bamford. “I haven’t had a conversation with Marty. I think he’s on vacation this week. I saw him at an event last Friday in Boston, but this is a decision made at the campus level, not necessarily at the system level, and I think our campus feels, the chancellor and myself, that this is appropriate. The chancellor is who I report to and he reports up to Marty and the board of trustees.”
So … the UMass AD saw the school president last week and opted not to mention this impending news?
“It was a hockey thing we met about, and I didn’t think to bring it up,” said Bamford. “Honestly, I think 99 percent of our fan base thinks this is a good thing. I don’t think it’s a real hot button. We’ve all moved on and we feel good about these decisions.
“It was a remarkably successful era. We felt it was appropriate to recognize them in perpetuity with statues.’'
Let’s agree that the Calipari-Camby era at UMass was exciting and fun. That team put UMass on the basketball map, and the Minutemen were ranked No. 1 in the country. The team was on TV all the time, the Mullins Center was packed, and New England had a team capable of playing with anyone in the nation.
The infractions that took it all down were hardly seismic, especially by today’s standards. The NCAA was able to prove only that Camby hired an agent and accepted cash and gifts from two agents while he was still playing and was therefore ineligible.
But in affidavits compiled for a subsequent extortion trial, Camby admitted having sex with prostitutes and accepting cash and gifts from West Hartford lawyer/agent Wesley Spears, who was attempting to become Camby’s agent, while Camby was still playing at UMass.
Camby admitted lying to police to protect UMass from potential NCAA violations. Spears was arrested and charged with attempted larceny by extortion and promoting prostitution. Spears made a deal and was sentenced to probation in 1997.
After his stint in the NBA, master recruiter Calipari went back to school and took Memphis to a Final Four — an appearance that also was wiped away by the NCAA because of rules violations. Coach Cal is the only coach in NCAA history to have two Final Four appearances erased. Cal has more vacancies than downtown Cleveland.
Here’s what UMass officials said at the time the school was stripped of its Final Four appearance in 1997.
Chancellor David K. Scott: “A great sense of loss for the university and its supporters.”
Athletic director Bob Marcum: “It’s a shame so many people who were not involved in the wrongdoing have to share in the loss.”
Now the school is dedicating statues to the wrongdoers and the athletic director contends that 99 percent of of the UMass fan base thinks it’s a good thing.
We all make mistakes. Camby and Calipari did a lot of good things for UMass and needn’t be forever scorned.
Dr. J should be offended.