NEW YORK -- Long before he was running Mikhail Prokhorov's sports and entertainment empire in Brooklyn, Brett Yormark was trying to close the biggest sponsorship deal in New Jersey Nets history.
But in order to get the deal across the finish line, Yormark felt he needed to do more, so he asked the team’s new head coach at the time, John Calipari, who he had become friendly with, for a favor.
"[Pathmark’s CEO at the time] Jim Donald was extremely competitive, and he wanted to play me one-on-one," Calipari recalled, "but Brett told me, 'You have to let him win.'"
Calipari, a fierce competitor himself, wasn’t having it.
"'I’m not letting him win,'" he told Yormark.
"'Listen Cal, this will be the biggest deal we’ve ever had -- you have to let him win,'" Yormark responded.
Calipari finally agreed -- or so Yormark thought.
"I said, 'OK,'" Calipari said. "And then I beat Jim 10-1. And not only that, when I gave him a Nets jersey, the number on the back was the No. 1 -- exactly the number of points he scored against me."
"'You can’t even let him win for a sponsorship?'" Yormark asked.
"'Absolutely not,'" Calipari replied.
Yormark closed the deal with Donald and Pathmark anyway, and all three men remain close to this day.
Calipari recounted the amusing anecdote after he and his team flew into New York on Friday night. The Kentucky coach and his fourth-ranked Wildcats face the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon at Barclays Center.
Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, who runs the $1 billion arena; business operations for both the Brooklyn Nets and New York Islanders; as well as Nassau Coliseum, which is undergoing a facelift, will be there. And he hopes to get a chance to chat with Calipari -- just like old times.
Despite working together for only a few years in the late 1990s, Calipari and Yormark forged a strong friendship that has withstood all the successful moves they have made in their respective careers.
"I would consider [Calipari] one of my closest friends and a confidant," Yormark said. "He and Jim both became mentors of mine."
Yormark consulted with Calipari before leaving the Nets for NASCAR in 1998. He returned in 2005 and proved instrumental in enabling the team to move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. Calipari was fired by the Nets in 1999 before finding his way to Memphis and then Kentucky, where he won a national championship in 2012.
Yormark asked Calipari to play in the first basketball game held at Barclays Center, and his Wildcats beat Maryland there on Nov. 9, 2012. Kentucky will also play in the first sporting event at the refurbished Coliseum on Dec. 10, 2016, against Hofstra.
Asked why he’s always said yes to Yormark when his powerhouse program could play anywhere in the country, Calipari replied: "We’re friends. And to me, that loyalty and friendship means something."
"[Calipari] continues to be there for me," Yormark said. "And I was with him when he got inducted into the [Naismith Memorial Basketball] Hall of Fame [this year]. My son and I go to a game at Kentucky every year to show our support."
Yormark discussed the similarities between the two.
"I mean, when I look at him I think he’s dynamic, obviously, and smart," Yormark said of Calipari. "He relates to kids and people of different ages and backgrounds. He’s flexible, but he also knows what he wants. He’s got great conviction. And wherever he’s been, he’s had a system, and you either sign up for that system or you don’t.
"I guess you can say in some respects I run my business the same way. We’ve established a certain culture and identity, and there’s some people that sign up for it and there’s some people that won’t.
"I think that’s why we’ve become so friendly is because we have a lot of similarities."
But there is one major difference.
"He’s a morning guy," Calipari said of Yormark. "He’ll send emails at 4 in the morning. And I’m not going be up at 4 in the morning. If i’m up at 4 in the morning, it’s because I’m just coming in. In that way, we’re different. But he’s wired. He’s driven for excellence. I like the fact that he knows there’s issues and he wants solutions."
Though there might not be many issues at Kentucky -- where Calipari has won a whopping 83.6 percent of his games -- the Nets are struggling both on and off the court. Their record is 7-19, and attendance figures and local TV ratings have both plummeted.
"Look, it’s not easy right now, what they’re doing and how they’re trying to do it, and reading about it, that’s not easy," Calipari said. "But I’ll bet you [Brett is] thinking of ideas on how to improve it and make it as good as it can be, to work through the issues and not be down about it. He’s certainly disappointed if they lose, just knowing how he is.
"We lose a game and the first call will be from him and he’ll ask, 'You alright?' And I’m like, 'Yeah, how about you? You guys just lost three in a row. Why are you calling me?'"
Despite his team’s woes, Yormark says, "I’m bullish on the future. This was to be our bridge year to free agency. Obviously we’ve gone through a challenging start, but I’m hopeful that the guys continue to work hard and we’ll play better as the season progresses."
The Nets could have upward of $40 million to spend over the summer -- and Yormark is excited for his team to make its pitch to prospective free agents.
"This will be the first time we’ve been able to test free agency and really realize the power of Brooklyn, the power of our brand and the commitment that ownership continues to make," Yormark said. "We’ve got a good story to tell -- with the addition of our $50 million practice facility and the D-League franchise -- and I think we’ll be in a position where we’ll be able to add to Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Bojan Bogdanovic and some of the other younger pieces and bring in the necessary pieces to turn things around quickly.
"I’m excited about that opportunity, but obviously we have to make all the right decisions and we have to plan now. ... I think there’s a chance here to really build something special."