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

Brad Calipari has found a role as an undersized marksman for Detroit Mercy of the Horizon League. courtesy of Detroit Mercy athletics

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 of 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 Mercy, 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.'"

After visiting five schools on his own -- his dad didn't accompany him but did talk to him about coaches and teams -- he chose the University of Detroit Mercy, a mid-major coached by former Indiana coach Mike Davis. Davis' son, Antoine, is also a star on the team.

"They are friends, know each other, trust each other," Brad said of his father's relationship with Mike Davis, who guided Indiana to its lone Final Four in the past 27 seasons (2002). "That made me more comfortable coming here because I knew my dad trusted him. When I came down here, I liked him, and obviously I would ask my dad, 'What do you think?' Knowing he had that prior relationship and knowing he was comfortable made me more comfortable.

"That played more of a part, knowing that they had that prior relationship. And [Davis'] résumé speaks for itself."

Brad Calipari wakes up in the downtown Detroit apartment where he lives alone and engages in a muscle treatment using Normatec boots and a portable stim machine. He makes breakfast (including the use of one of the three coffee makers he owns) and drives 15 minutes from his place to Calihan Hall, where the Titans play and practice. He spends the day there and attends class.

Calipari walks through Campus Martius Park -- a hub of downtown Detroit -- and doesn't get stopped when he picks up a coffee at Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters on his way home. He can sit in the coffee shop and not feel eyes on him -- a different feeling from when he lived in Lexington.

"Even if people aren't saying anything, you can feel someone staring at you, looking at you, you know," he said. "But [I] don't really have that here."

In Detroit, Calipari lives anonymously. He plays Fortnite, watches "Criminal Minds" and reads books on leadership and positivity recommended to him by his dad and Robert Lara, a family friend and Kobe Bryant's security guard, including "The Energy Bus" and "The 360 Degree Leader." He says he's picking up pointers for a possible future in coaching.

He focuses on what matters to him: his graduate degree and basketball. So far, he has played in 14 games and started four, averaging 7.4 points while shooting 42% from 3-point range, better than that of any player on his dad's Kentucky team. Calipari missed two weeks due to the flu in late December and early January but returned on Jan. 9 to play 24 minutes and score 11 points, marking the fifth game in which he has scored in double figures this season.

As a kid, Brad Calipari used to beg his dad to watch every golf shot he took. He wouldn't hit unless his dad saw it. Now, John Calipari is watching again, either seeing his son play in person or streaming his games online.

"There are people mad that I'm watching him play and talking about it," John Calipari said. "You know what I say to that? Be mad. That's my son. That's my baby."

Father and son do talk about basketball. They talk about Brad's need to make shots, if he wants to play. When he misses a shot, they talk about having the confidence to make the next one. Whatever comes of the next two seasons and Brad's career in basketball, he has shown that he can play at the Division I level. He's proving it every night.

"People think that everything I get is a handout, and it hasn't been," he said. "Yeah, you can say I was on the team just because of my dad. Like all right, whatever that might be, but that didn't stop the fact that I was working like I didn't deserve to be on the team.

"It is what it is. Each year I got better and more confident, and now I'm here, and you can't say it's because of my dad anymore."