Out Of Control

Is this the price of victory?

Story By John Murray

Photograph originally appeared in the New York Times

   It was a crisp autumn evening in 2006 and Hasheem Thabeet was about to begin his basketball career at the University of Connecticut. Thabeet spent the first 16 years of his life 7,600 miles from UConn, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where sultry air wafts into West Africa from the Indian Ocean and the average temperature in November is a toasty 86 degrees.

   On this night, November 10th, Thabeet was making his debut at the Hartford Civic Center. Despite his massive size, 7’3” and 265 pounds, Thabeet was extraordinarily inexperienced and had been lightly recruited out of high school. He saw his first pick-up basketball game in Tanzania when he was 15 years old. The other players noticed his 6’8” frame and invited him to play. Thabeet had played soccer his entire childhood and was athletic, with nimble feet, a rarity for a man his size. Thabeet took to basketball quickly, and soon found himself playing high school ball in Kenya, where he began firing off unsolicited e-mails to U.S. colleges trying to get a scholarship. The Internet cold calls didn’t work, but Thabeet was “discovered” by an American businessman who was scouting African players for prep schools back in the States.

Hasheem Thabeet stretches before a recent game against South Florida. Photograph by John Murray

   And in the blink of an eye, Hasheem Thabeet was sucked into the world of American basketball, a culture offering unfathomable wealth for those tough and talented enough to run the gauntlet. No player from Tanzania had ever played major college basketball in the United States before, and no Tanzanian had ever played in the NBA. Thabeet’s dream was longer than a long shot — kind of like trying to hit a 325-yard drive with your putter.

   High school in America was a whirlwind for Thabeet — he played at three schools in two years, moving from California, to Mississippi, to Texas. During his senior year in Houston he averaged 16 points and four blocks per game, but received scant interest from major college recruiters. Thabeet, though, was the type of player UConn coach Jim Calhoun loved to recruit — raw, with vast room for improvement. A player who Calhoun, with the intensity of a drill sergeant, could forge into a star.

   When Thabeet walked out onto the court against Quinnipiac in 2006 he became the tallest basketball player in UConn history. Nobody quite knew what to expect from the raw freshman, but the game was predicted to be a coming-out party for the rest of UConn’s highly regarded freshman class, which included several prized recruits. It should have been a fun night for UConn players as they raced up and down the court like antelope, leaving an outgunned and forgettable Quinnipiac team gasping for air.

  The players seemed relaxed and playful, but all that was about to change.

   Seconds into the game, Jim Calhoun began stomping his feet on the court to get his players’ attention. He screamed, he bellowed, his face contorted with anger as he paced up and down the bench, spraying obscenities like bullets from a machine gun. With every errant pass or botched offensive play, Calhoun yanked the offending player from the game. Play became stilted as the players peeked over their shoulders to see what Calhoun was doing. At one point Calhoun grabbed Stanley Robinson’s jersey and physically pulled him towards the bench.

At 7’3″, Hasheem Thabeet is the tallest player in UConn history. He is projected to be one the top picks in the upcoming NBA draft. Photograph by John Murray

   Quinnipiac was playing steady basketball and the game was surprisingly close. When one of the UConn guards missed an outside shot, Thabeet snagged the rebound and went back up with a shot from point-blank range. Instead of cramming the ball through the hoop with a monstrous dunk, Thabeet attempted to make a bank shot off the glass and awkwardly missed the basket by five feet.

   The crowd groaned, Calhoun called a quick time out and raced onto the court to confront Thabeet. Calhoun, red faced and waving his hands, met Thabeet at the foul line and screamed, “Dunk the f**king ball.”

   It was a strange sight to behold. Calhoun and Thabeet were the only two people on the court, and Calhoun looked like a rabid squirrel stomping his feet and waving his hands at the base of a massive tree. Thabeet, fluent in French and Swahili and still working on his English, was getting a postgraduate course in profanity from Calhoun.

   But Calhoun wasn’t satisfied to just verbally abuse his players. Moments later, his wrath spilled into the stands.

   A fan behind the UConn bench hollered out some benign comment about grabbing a rebound, and Calhoun spun around to a crowd of men, women and children, and screamed, “Shut the f**k up!”

   The fan got the point, but just to be sure, Calhoun bellowed it again. UConn players on the bench looked at each other in stunned disbelief.

   Sitting ten feet behind the UConn bench, I was stunned, too. I wondered how Calhoun could get away with this. Does coaching a championship basketball team give the man carte blanche to behave like a vulgar idiot? Calhoun’s antics continued all game long. He verbally abused players, he screamed, he stomped, and by the end of the game he was drenched in sweat, his tie dangling sideways from his neck, looking like he’d just lost a bar fight.

   I had gone to Hartford to watch a basketball game, but two hours later I felt like I’d been mugged by Jim Calhoun. After the game, my friend Andy and I spent an hour talking about Calhoun and concluded that Connecticut is in an abusive relationship with the legendary coach. We let him abuse us, and his players, because he’s taken us, and them, to the promised land of NCAA championships. We trade dignity and grace for victory.

Calhoun rips into former UConn player Doug Wiggins. Photograph by Bob Childs of AP

  It’s unfair to only paint Calhoun as an overbearing jerk. He is an intense and complicated man, an exceedingly generous man off the court, and one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history.

   In a state that has no professional sports team, Calhoun is a living legend. A few years ago he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, largely for taking a second-tier program and driving it to glory. He’s snagged two national championships and groomed 16 NBA players. If he sticks around three or four more years, Calhoun might become the winningest basketball coach in college history.

   Rival coach Jim Boeheim of Syracuse said, “Jim Calhoun has done as good a job as has ever been done in college basketball history. He has done something at Connecticut that I really don’t think has ever been done any place else.”

   What he’s accomplished at UConn is unique. Calhoun hasn’t piled up wins at an established national powerhouse like Duke, UCLA or Kansas. Despite the school’s location in the woods of eastern Connecticut, Calhoun has built UConn’s program into one of the top three in America. Prior to Calhoun’s arrival, the school had never ended a season ranked in the top 25 in the country. Since then, Calhoun has often led the team to the upper tiers of the national polls. UConn has been ranked #1 in the country nine different times under Calhoun, and in all of Big East history only Georgetown and Pittsburgh have held down that top spot more than once (both teams achieved that ranking twice). In Calhoun’s 23 years at UConn, his teams have won 20 games 18 times. They have reached the 25-win plateau 11 times.

   That’s rarefied air.

Calhoun has led UConn to two national championships. S.I. Photograph

   And if you’re an elite high school basketball player dreaming of a career in the NBA, UConn is one of the schools that better be your radar screen. UConn has 13 players currently playing in the NBA, second only to Duke, with 14. UConn has twice as many players in the NBA as any other Big East team. The message to the players is clear: If you want to turn pro and make millions, go to UConn, because Jim Calhoun has a superb record of developing professional basketball players. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.

   Former Hartford Courant columnist Alan Greenberg once wrote that ”the hiring of Jim Calhoun in 1986 was the most important hire in the history of the State of Connecticut.”

   Off the court, Calhoun and his wife, Pat, donated $125,000 to the Calhoun Cardiology Research Fund, and the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Golf Tournament has raised an additional $3 million to support the cause.

   Calhoun has worked tireless hours raising public awareness of autism, diabetes and cancer. He is a generous man.

   He is also abusive and vulgar.

   The administration at the university — and the fans across Huskie Nation — have turned a blind eye to Calhoun’s repugnant behavior because he wins championships, makes us feel good about our little state, and, oh by the way, the program rakes in millions of dollars.

   None of that excuses his boorish behavior. Winning 800 college basketball games does not give Jim Calhoun the right to act like an ass, or to verbally abuse players, fans and reporters.

   Former UConn basketball coach Dee Rowe told the New York Times in 1995 that Calhoun “keeps himself on edge. You look at him, and you say he won’t allow himself to lose.”

   Rowe also called Calhoun “Bobby Knight East, and I say that with respect.”

   To say Calhoun is controlling is like saying the economy is struggling a little bit right now. In a New York Times interview he said, “I like to control the players’ environment. I like to control the atmosphere.”

   In a national bestseller called “The Verbally Abusive Relationship,” Patricia Evans creates the profile of an abuser. There are certain characteristics, or traits, that many verbal abusers have in common. Consider these, and think about how many might apply to Jim Calhoun: irritable, angry, intense, controlling, competitive, quick with comebacks and put-downs, critical, manipulative, explosive and hostile.

   Evans writes in her book that name-calling is “the most obvious form of verbal abuse, and that all name-calling is verbally abusive.”

Calhoun explodes on forward Stanley Robinson. Photograph by John Woike of the Courant.

   Writer Robert Fulghum wrote: “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

   And not all UConn players have accepted Calhoun’s tirades. Toraino Walker cited verbal abuse as the reason he quit the team in 1992. Other players have transferred, and many recruits have picked other schools because they didn’t want to deal with Calhoun’s screaming. Inside UConn it is well known that families and friends of the players are not allowed to sit behind the team bench. Imagine hearing Calhoun call your son a f**king idiot in front of 16,000 fans?

   One Calhoun story — which is difficult to verify — has Calhoun going bananas on the sidelines after a player made a foolish pass. Calhoun is alleged to have grabbed a player off the bench and told him to “Go in for that asshole.” The player dashed to the scorer’s table at mid-court to check in before entering the game. A moment later the player looked confused, and then called back to Calhoun, “Coach, which asshole?”

The Press Conference
   Jim Calhoun was recently in the center of a highly contentious exchange with journalist Ken Krayeske that landed them on YouTube, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and in columns all across the country.

   I was at the press conference where the exchange took place, standing three feet away from Krayeske when he asked Calhoun if, considering the dire state of the economy, he might be willing to give some of his $1.6 million salary back. Calhoun said “not a dime back,” and when Krayeske asked how much Calhoun’s deal with Comcast was worth, Calhoun paused, and said “You’re not really that stupid are you?”. When Krayeske said that he was, Calhoun said “My best advice to you is to shut up” and then began screaming about how much money his program brought into the university.

This photograph of Jim Calhoun was taken seconds after Ken Krayeske (pictured below) interrupted Calhoun’s monologue to ask the coach if he was willing to give any of his $1.6 million salary back. Photograph by John Murray

   When Krayeske walked out of the press conference, he was convinced no one would report about the incident. He was wrong. The incident was caught on video, and within hours it was an Internet sensation. Lines were drawn between the sports world and the realm of bigger, broader ideas.

   Some thought Calhoun came off arrogant and insensitive to the struggle of millions of Americans out of work and struggling to pay their bills. State workers were being asked to take unpaid days off, and the highest paid state employee in Connecticut — Jim Calhoun — was glibly refusing to give one dime back.

   Some people thought Krayeske was a punk for asking Calhoun a question about his salary during a press conference minutes after UConn defeated South Florida on Valentine’s Day. Many others thought the question was legitimate, but the press conference was neither the time or place to broach the subject. Krayeske came under national attack for his part in the drama, and UConn and many sports columnists were quick to claim Krayeske wasn’t even a journalist — he only had a photo pass, for God’s sake — and had no right to ask Calhoun a question.

   That line of reasoning is absurd.

   I’ve known Ken Krayeske for 15 years. He has worked at the Republican-American newspaper, the Register Citizen, and the Hartford Advocate. He helped the Waterbury Observer run two summer youth programs back in the 1990s. Krayeske has a degree in journalism from Syracuse University, ran a youth newspaper for two years in Hartford, and now writes a weekly column for the Hartford News. Krayeske is a journalist, and had every right to ask Calhoun a question during the press conference.

   As for the photo pass, that’s what I had been issued for the game, too. When you are both a writer and a photographer — which very few journalists are — you have to pick one or the other to get your credential. UConn doesn’t allow photographers to sit in a chair along press row and take notes and game photographs at the same time. If you want photographs you have to sit on the floor underneath the baskets. That’s why both Krayeske and I had photo passes that day.

   Krayeske is an excellent writer and photographer, and is every bit as complicated as Jim Calhoun. In addition to being a journalist for the past 15 years, Krayeske is a UConn law student and a political activist, and was the Green Party campaign manager during the 2006 governor’s race. Ken was arrested in a bizarre incident during Jodi Rell’s inauguration parade, primarily because the state and local police had his name on a watch list. His crime when he was arrested? He was standing on a street corner photographing Rell as she walked past. Krayeske filed a federal lawsuit against the police and stands an excellent chance of winning a settlement before the case goes to trial.

   Krayeske is also a vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana and has traveled to Africa and Europe to write freelance articles for High Times Magazine. He has also pulled a few political stunts in his role as an activist, including disrupting a speech by Senator Joe Lieberman. And make no mistake about this fact: Ken Krayeske entered that UConn press conference seeking confrontation. While some people avoid confrontation at all costs, Krayeske moves towards it. Krayeske approached me at halftime of the game and asked if I was going to the press conference afterwards. “Make sure you stick around,” he said, “because I’m going to drop a bomb on Calhoun.”

   After the game, Krayeske and I talked for ten minutes about his lawsuit and he again encouraged me to stay and watch him go after Calhoun. Was it a set-up? Certainly. Did Krayeske wave a red flag in front of a steamed bull? Absolutely. Was it a legitimate question to ask Calhoun? Yes. Did Calhoun handle the situation well? Certainly not.

   Calhoun yelled and told Krayeske to shut up. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said he feared what might have happened to Krayeske if he had dared to ask Calhoun that question 20 years ago. What does that mean? Would Calhoun have taken Krayeske out into the hall and roughed him up?

   The widely circulated video clip of Calhoun shouting became a poltical hot potato. Governor Jodi Rell called the tirade “an embarrassment” and two state legislators wrote a letter to UConn asking that the coach be disciplined for his behavior.

   But Calhoun being tripped up by Krayeske’s salary question is like a bank robber getting nailed for snatching chocolate chip cookies. For 23 years, Calhoun has bellowed at and intimidated his players. He is an old-school coach using old-school tactics that repeatedly crossed the line into abuse.

   Back in the 1990s, then-Governor John Rowland attended a UConn-Villanova game and witnessed Jim Calhoun up close and personal. Rowland was disturbed by Calhoun’s behavior, which he said at the time was “out of control.” Rowland said Calhoun’s behavior and language created a stark contrast to the Villanova bench, where a Catholic priest sat during every game.

   A few days later, Rowland placed a call to UConn athletic director Lew Perkins and said UConn needed to do something about Calhoun’s behavior. Perkins agreed, and he began sitting in a chair close to the UConn bench, along press row, where he could keep a close eye and ear on Calhoun.

   Whenever Calhoun began to grow agitated and begin to curse, Perkins would catch his attention and signal for him to tone it down. Rowland said this worked for a while, then Perkins accepted a position in Kansas.

   Several people connected to UConn have implied that current UConn Athletic Director Jeffrey Hathaway is afraid of Calhoun, and is reluctant to take on the issue of his coach’s behavior.

   But it really shouldn’t matter how many basketball games and championships Calhoun has won. He is a public figure, and as the most recognizable celebrity in Connecticut, he is a role model and should be held to high standards. Would we accept a math teacher screaming at students and calling them f**king idiots because they couldn’t master Pythagorean’s Theorem? That teacher would immediately be reprimanded, and if it happened again, he would be fired. It would be a moot point to defend the teacher’s behavior by saying they are forging better students. That behavior is unacceptable.

   Would we accept Calhoun-like tirades from the coach of the women’s badminton team? Never. But in the world of sports and big business, anything goes as long as you win, and win big. A majority of avid UConn fans don’t care what Calhoun does as long as he keeps leading the basketball team to victory. Public opinion in the Calhoun-Krayeske dispute is clearly on the coach’s side. A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that 80% of the respondents didn’t think Calhoun should give any of his salary back. But the issue isn’t about money, it’s about behavior and verbal abuse that should not be tolerated.

The Press
   Halfway through the Calhoun-Krayeske exchange Krayeske said, “I wouldn’t have to ask these questions if these guys in here did their job.”

   After Krayeske punked all the sport writers in the room, Calhoun recoiled, and a collective groan came from the press corp. I’ve attended a dozen UConn press conferences over the years, and they are painful exercises. Sports writers often ask fawning, cloying, pompom-waving queries like, “Coach, how do you think Donyell played tonight?” or “Coach, what do you think your chances are against Pittsburgh on Saturday?”

   In reality, the UConn press corps is a much less attractive version of the team’s cheerleaders. Instead of lithe, fit coeds doing back flips, the press corps is mostly comprised of middle-aged men firmly under the thumb of both UConn coaches — Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma.

Reporters gather around Hasheem Thabeet after the game. Photograph by John Murray

   Seldom does a journalist probe into the sensitive areas of the UConn men’s basketball program. The graduation rate is only 30%, and that number crashes to 17% when considering only black players.

   In the past ten years, two journalists have taken on Calhoun: Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant, and Ken Krayeske, who has persistently challenged Calhoun’s behavior, his program, his salary, and the exorbitant cost of running the program.

   Jacobs questioned how UConn handled an incident involving two players who tried to pawn stolen laptop computers. One player, Marcus Williams, was the starting point guard on a team contending for a national championship. The other player, A.J. Price, was a back-up guard. When Calhoun and UConn announced that Price would be suspended for the season, yet Williams could return for the important stretch of games after January 1st, Jacobs wrote columns questioning the rationale. Was this just about winning basketball games?

A.J. Price was suspended two years ago for trying to pawn stolen laptop computers. In 2009 he is the star point guard and the player counted on to lead the team through the NCAA tournament. Photograph by John Murray

   Calhoun was furious and called Jacobs a racist, and implied to members of the UConn press corps that Jacobs was gay. Jacobs fired back, saying he would not be intimidated by Calhoun, and the showdown got plenty of airtime on WFAN sports radio in New York City.

   Ten years ago, Krayeske wrote a column in the Hartford Advocate that brought up many of the same issues raised in this article — specifically, Calhoun’s courtside behavior.

   “I was told by the sports information people at UConn that my column was not the way to cover UConn basketball,” Krayeske said. “And they cut off my access to the players.”

   Krayeske rails against the “clubby atmosphere” that exists between the beat writers and the team they are supposed to cover. Before each home game, UConn lays out a buffet of food for the writers to eat. They are given salad, chicken tenders, lasagna, bread and butter, giant cookies, soda, coffee and bottled water. It’s all free, and before any game most of the writers and photographers sit around large wooden tables, gorging on state-subsidized food.

   “If they feed you, you become part of the family,” Krayeske said. “The free food compromises a writer’s integrity and UConn expects you to write only positive stories about their program. The message is, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and more importantly, why should state government be paying for the press to eat?”

   Krayeske refuses to eat the free food.

   One of the real ironies of the Calhoun-Krayeske blowout was that Krayeske has asked these questions before, and written extensively about the subject on his blog, The 40-Year Plan.

   “I asked Calhoun in a telephone interview how much money he personally made off of an exclusive Nike deal with UConn,” Krayeske said. “His response was to ask me how much money I made at the Hartford Advocate. I told him, and then asked him the question again. He wouldn’t give me an answer.”

   In the days after Krayeske punked the sports writers, numerous columns were written about him across the state of Connecticut, and they were mostly vicious. A columnist for the New London Day, Mike DiMauro, went way over the top and stated that Krayeske was a fraud and had no business in the room with real journalists. Ironically, moments after Calhoun blew his top at Krayeske, Calhoun singled out DiMauro and complimented him on the terrific column he had written about Hasheem Thabeet.

   “That was a special column, Mike,” Calhoun said. “I told Hasheem he should save that one.”

   After the Krayeske explosion, the lovefest resumed.

   And seconds after the press conference ended, a journalist came up to Krayeske and confronted him. He said Krayeske had no right to confront Calhoun. Didn’t Krayeske know how important Calhoun was to Connecticut? Didn’t Krayeske know how many jobs had been created by the UConn men’s program? Then the reporter likened Krayeske to the Iraqi shoe-thrower for disrespecting Calhoun the way the Iraqi reporter had disrespected President George W. Bush.

   In the days after the confrontation the Internet went wild about the story. Blogs attacked Krayeske as a “whining fruitcake” and a “stupid little hippie.”

   Krayeske stopped reading the comments because they were so nasty, but he did admire the creativity of one: “This guy wrote that I looked like a homeless man with a dead squirrel nailed to my head. I thought that was pretty funny.”

   Occasionally someone did spank Calhoun. Eric Fries of East Lyme wrote, “UConn coach Jim Calhoun has certainly proven that you can be a winner and a champion and still not have any class.”

   A Sports Illustrated blogger wrote that “the coach is a public figure and he should to be asked tough questions like that. It comes with the territory.”

   Many bloggers accused Calhoun of being a bully. If the coach had answered the question like he had answered Krayeske’s previous queries over the years, there would never have been a national controversy. The story became about Calhoun’s over-the-top response and was a perfect storm of arrogance, money, and the tanking economy. Calhoun might as well have said “let them eat cake,” like Marie Antoinette referring to the starving peasants in 1800 France.

   So what, in the end, are we to make of our bullying superstar coach?

   Jim Calhoun may be the biggest celebrity in Connecticut, but he is not untouchable. Referring back to Patricia Evan’s book about verbal abuse, the key to changing behavior is for the victim to point out the behavior, and ask for change. Somebody in authority needs to directly intervene and ask Jim Calhoun to stop swearing at the players and fans. We need Governor Rell to step in like John Rowland did a decade ago. We need athletic director Jeff Hathaway to supervise Calhoun’s behavior, and reprimand public acts of vulgarity and verbal abuse.

    This is not about winning national championships and multimillion dollar contracts. It should be about humanity. Calhoun went on WFAN recently and said, “Life is a motion picture, not a snapshot. There are always a few frames any of us would take back.”

   But the longer Jim Calhoun is allowed to storm up and down the court, spewing profanities at players and fans, the snapshots become a movie about abuse, not championship glory.