John Calipari reminisces on Rick Majerus ahead of Utah-Kentucky basketball game

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Coaching in his first Final Four, Utah head coach Rick Majerus watches his team play the 1998 championship game against Kentucky at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

Las Vegas • In the years since Rick Majerus passed away in 2012, his legend has only grown. Seemingly anyone connected in any way to the former Utah coach has a story to share.

Enter John Calipari. In the buildup to Wednesday night’s Utah-Kentucky game at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the Wildcats coach was asked on Tuesday morning about his relationship with Majerus, who led the Utes to 10 NCAA Tournaments, including the national-championship game in 1998.

Early in his tenure as head coach and executive vice president of basketball operations of the New Jersey Nets, Calipari made his way out to Salt Lake City to watch the Utes practice. At practice, as Calipari put it, he “fell in love” with Keith Van Horn.

Calipari later traded for the former All-American’s draft rights on draft night in 1997 after he was taken No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. Getting an initial look at Van Horn was the genesis of the Calipari-Majerus relationship, but it grew over time.

“I went out and spent time with him and he was a basketball genius,” Calipari told reporters in Lexington. “One of the biggest-hearted people you’d ever meet.

“That’s all he did was basketball. I like watching the Alaska shows and I don’t sleep in my office. This guy was basketball.”

Calipari scoring Majerus’ greatest export on draft night is a fun anecdote, but the second-hand nugget Calipari offered Tuesday goes deeper into the person Majerus was.

Without naming names, Calipari cited two coaches who had told him a story about when they were fired, Majerus sent them money in an effort to make their respective landings easier.

“If he knew you, he’d send you a check like, ‘You probably need this right now,’” Calipari said. “I mean like $5,000, we’re not talking about $100. The only reason I know is because these guys said to me, ‘He’s the best, do you know what he did for me?’

“He didn’t do it for any other reason than, ‘You know what? I’ve been in this. It’s a tough business and if I can help you, I will.’”

Caliapari and Majerus never coached against each other. Calipari’s first Memphis team in 2000-01 played Utah twice, but Majerus was not on the sideline. He coached the first game that season, then took a personal leave of absence. The Tigers won both games, one on a neutral floor in November and the other in the first round of the NIT.

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