West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said he and Kentucky coach John Calipari were "going to compete like crazy" with their teams in the NCAA East Regional final last night at the Carrier Dome. But he knew they would keep laughing together afterward no matter who won.
OK, maybe not immediately afterward. But at some point, one will pick up the phone or maybe they'll get together for dinner. They might be competitors on the court and in the recruiting wars, but they don't let that overtake a friendship that goes back years.
The depth of their friendship became evident in September 2002 when Huggins suffered a massive heart attack in the Pittsburgh airport.
"It actually is a pretty good story," Huggins said. "I'm lying there. They scoop me up off the sidewalk and put me in the ambulance, and I'm kind of in and out of consciousness. I came to, and I said to the guy in the back of the ambulance, 'What's the ETA?' He said, '22 minutes.' I said, 'Man, I'm not going to make 22 minutes.'
"So he gets on [the radio] and said, 'Abort, abort, abort.' They went to a closer hospital, which is really right where Cal grew up. The guy in the back of the ambulance tapped me on the leg and he said, 'Coach, don't worry. I'm not going to let you die until Cal beats you at least once.' "
It turned out the EMT in the ambulance with Huggins was Calipari's nephew. That much is true. But Calipari tells a slightly tamer version.
"My nephew was in the ambulance picking him up," Calipari began. "He said, 'Coach Huggins, you're going to be all right. I'm John Calipari's nephew.' And he went, 'Oh, my, I'm not going to make it.' "
Asked if his nephew said Huggins couldn't die until Calipari beat him, the Kentucky coach smiled and said, "No, Bob said that. He likes to embellish. I don't know if we beat him the next year by 20, but it was shortly thereafter."
Huggins now is 8-1 against Calipari after West Virginia defeated Kentucky, 73-66, last night. After finally losing to Calipari at Memphis, Huggins walked on to Calipari's postgame TV show just for the fun of it. After beating him another time at Memphis, Huggins was out eating ribs at the famous Rendezvous restaurant when Calipari showed up with a priest in tow from his days at UMass.
"I said, 'It didn't help you at UMass, either. You better get another priest,' " Huggins said. "I mean, we have fun. John and I have always been friends . . . John is a hell of a coach, and he's a guy who, when coaches are down, he'll pick up the phone and call."
Calipari said he actually watched Huggins play basketball at West Virginia with an old high school teammate of his, and they later met at the Five Star Camp in Honesdale, Pa. From then on, they stayed in touch. When Huggins was in the hospital after his heart attack, only family was allowed to visit. But Calipari and the late Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser came for a visit and talked their way in. "I was pretty drugged up," Huggins said. "When you come to and realize what's going on, it means an awful lot. Cal was at Memphis. To fly in and stop at the hospital really meant a lot.
"There wasn't probably a three-day period that would go by that Cal didn't call. Skip called probably every other day. Then you know the people that really care about you. John and I are going to be friends for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, when he goes into the Hall of Fame, I can sit there and watch him go in."