It was 21 years ago that Bruiser Flint somehow found himself walking with John Calipari through the bleak corridors of an old prison in Springfield, Mass.
They were hand-delivering a letter-of-intent to the father of Cathedral High School point guard Derek Kellogg, who had committed to play basketball for Calipari and Flint, his assistant at the University of Massachusetts.
Dereks dad was a corrections officer at the jail in downtown Springfield, and Cal said, Lets go see Big G, who was George, Dereks dad, Flint recalled. So we went down to the jail to find him, and we had to actually go inside the jail, and were walking past all the cells and these guys are yelling out at Cal, Yo, coach, I got some eligibility left.
Eventually, Bruiser and Cal tracked down Big G, got him the letter of intent, which Derek Kellogg signed. And that was the start of a lifetime friendship with Flint.
On Tuesday night, Kellogg and Flint will be on opposite ends of the basketball court at Drexels Daskalakas Center when U. Mass now coached by Kellogg and Drexel, coached by Flint, meet in the NIT quarterfinals.
That was my guy, Flint said. He was one of the first guys I recruited when I was coaching with Cal at U. Mass.
In a sport where unscrupulous coaches will do anything to advance their careers, to land a big-time recruit, to draw attention to their program even when its at the expense of other programs and coaches, Flint and Kellogg are the exception.
Close friends who would do anything for each other.
Kellogg: When Bruiser was recruiting me, my first impression was that really big smile and that laugh and just that this was really somebody I felt I could trust. The same qualities you see in him now.
Bruiser: Derek is almost like a son to me. Im happy for him because I know how hard it is to coach up there.
U. Mass is 24-11 this year, the programs second-winningest season since Caliparis 1996 Final Four team won 35 games (but was later stripped of its NCAA wins).
Drexel is 29-6 this year, the programs finest season ever.
Cal would always talk about family, Flint said. He would always say thats the most important thing, family, and its always been that way with me and Derek.
Divergent routes brought Flint and Kellogg to Tuesday nights game. After graduating from St. Joes in 1987, Flint coached under legendary Ron Fang Mitchell at Coppin State in Baltimore for three years before Calipari hired him to coach the guards at U. Mass in 1989.
During the four years Kellogg played at U. Mass under Flint and Calipari, the Minutemen went 111-24 and became just the second school in NCAA history to win both their conferences regular season and postseason tournament four straight years.
After graduating, Kellogg spent a graduate assistant season working under Flint before moving on to assistant jobs at George Mason and Youngstown State and then joining Caliparis Memphis State staff.
Flint replaced Calipari at U. Mass in 1996 and stayed through 2001, before moving on to Drexel. He was replaced by former Villanova coach Steve Lappas and then Travis Ford, and when Ford left for Oklahoma State after the 2008 season, Kellogg was named U. Masss head coach.
Over the past five years, Flint and Kellogg have done clinics and camps together, their teams have scrimmaged each other, theyve kept in constant communication on the phone and via text.
Weve spent so much time over the years just talking basketball, Kellogg said Sunday night from Amherst, Mass. I consider Bruiser a mentor as a player and a coach.
When I played at U. Mass, I worked with him every day for four years just on being a point guard. We talked a lot about the game, what hard work would get you, what kind of player I wanted to be. The more we got to know each other, the more knowledge we shared about the game.
Flint and Kellogg have been close for more than two decades.
The one thing they havent done is face each other in an actual game.
One of the ironic things about playing them Tuesday night down there is that we play the way we play in large part because of him, Kellogg said. I dont think Bruiser knows this, but one of the things Bruiser did is reaffirm the way that we play with the guys I have.
Oh, Bruiser knows. He knows.
One of the things I told him is, Do it the way you want to do it, Flint said. Dont run dribble-drive because Cal ran dribble-drive. Thats one of the problems at U. Mass, they want everybody to be like Cal. Do your own style. Youre not John Calipari. And he went back to (what he wanted to run) and look where it got them.
It got them 24 wins, including an upset over top-seeded Temple in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament and wins over Mississippi State and Seton Hall so far in the NIT.
Will it be a little weird coaching against one of his closest friends? Flint says no, but he says it with that gleam in his eye that makes you wonder if hes putting you on.
Just like coaching against Northern Iowa, Flint said. When I coach, I dont even look at the other end. I never have. Thats why you never hear me complain about the other coach being out of the coachs box or what the other coach said or anything like that. Because I dont pay attention. I block it out and just focus on my guys, my team.
Well talk before the game and well talk after the game, but during the game, Im concentrating on my team.
U. Mass and Drexel meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN, with the winner moving on to the NIT semifinals next week at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Weve spent so much time together that I know exactly what hes trying to do, and he knows exactly what Im trying to do, Kellogg said. But seeing Drexel play, what did they win, 49 straight games or something (actually 19)? Even if teams know exactly what they want to do, theyre good enough to do it anyway.
Its pretty cool that one of us will have the opportunity to get to New York. I hope its a great game. Unfortunately, somebody has to be the one to lose so the other guy will be able to go on.
Coaching against Bruiser ... its almost like playing 1-on-1 or 2-2 against your best friend. You dont have any ill will at all toward him, but youre competitive and you want to win and you give it everything you have. Thats what itll be like.
E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org