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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Players first.
Those two words have been at the epicenter of Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s coaching philosophy throughout his career. They’re his guiding light and his purpose. They’re his everything.
To hear the newly-minted Hall of Famer tell it Friday night as he delivered his speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, it’s why he’s going into the Hall in the first place.
“The reason I stand here is more about the players I’ve coached,” Calipari said at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass. “I’m here because I coached the greatest group of kids over my time that anyone could ever imagine.”
And so, midway through his 18-minute speech – the final of the 11 presentations on Friday – rather than try to tell his players how much they’ve meant to him, Calipari decided to show them by including them in the moment.
Calipari asked each and every player who showed up in support of him this week – all 80 or so of them – to come up on to the stage for a powerful moment that underscored everything Calipari has been about since he started coaching.
It was the ultimate thank you and sign of appreciation. Not that the players didn’t already know how much Calipari cared for them.
Earlier in the day, at a private reception Calipari held to personally thank all of his supporters, the players figured that out when their college head coach called them to the front of the room and huddled them up. In a rare moment of weakness, Calipari stopped, bowed his head and started to cry.
Players first is why Coach Cal always has his players’ back in times of hardship, and it’s why he’s each player’s personal PR director when they declare for the NBA Draft. It became clear as he progressed through his speech – which he admitted earlier in the week was the most difficult one he has ever put together – that those very same players who have helped him win 635 games, advance to six Final Fours and win the 2012 national championship were on his mind yet again.
“As I close, let me leave you with this message: I have learned throughout my career that coaching for fame and fortune is fleeting,” Calipari said. “If that’s what you chase, you’ll probably get fired like I did by the Nets. At the very least, if you do survive, it will be empty because you’re chasing numbers.
“On the other hand, if you make sure others eat first, you’ll end up with more than you can ever eat. By creating relationships with others, investing in their dreams and aspirations, and chasing those dreams and aspirations with them, you become a dream fulfiller.
“What’s better than that?”
The answer, in Coach Cal’s eyes, is absolutely nothing.
The seventh active head coach to be inducted into the most exclusive fraternity in the sport was joined by an absurdly powerful contingent of family, friends and mentors that have seen him transform two programs from relative obscurity to No. 1 rankings, and elevate a third program to become a gold standard in college basketball.
Once on the stage, Calipari immediately revealed just how special this night was for him.
“I’ve sat in those seats in awe as my heroes were inducted into this Hall,” he said. “This is surreal for me. This seems bigger than me. Friends, who have already been inducted into this Hall have told me that there would be an emotion I’d feel when I walked up on this stage. I can tell you right now I’m feeling those. I think back to all the coaches, all the administrators, all the players, all the friends, and it’s overwhelming.”
Among them was his family, each of his coaching staffs, his high school coach, Bill Sacco, college coach, Joe DeGregorio, and mentors who have played a role in his life throughout his 23-year college coaching career.
Calipari then went through his career’s incredible path that included an opportunity to coach at the Five Star Basketball Camp. It was there that he created enough relationships to form his first coaching staff at UMass. He then progressed to his time at Kansas and Pittsburgh as an assistant, each of his college stops as well as his time in the NBA.
It was after all this that Calipari showed his true purpose and passion for coaching; the players. In a sign of appreciation, he asked all of his former players in attendance — the likes of Anthony Davis, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight and Marcus Camby, to name a few — to come up on the stage, saying this night was as much about them as it was him.
As his former players walked up on the stage, Calipari used the opportunity to thank their parents for entrusting him with their sons.
“You’re talking about parents that sacrificed for their children, and they entrusted me with their sons,” Calipari said. “I want to thank them for believing in me and our staff.”
He then thanked the players of the three schools he coached at in his career, beginning with UMass before moving to Memphis and finally Kentucky.
Calipari, who coached at UMass from 1989-96, compiled a 193-71 record during his eight years at the school, guiding a struggling program to a No. 1 national ranking and a Final Four appearance in 1996.
“When I got started as a head coach I was 29 years old,” Calipari said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was trying to figure it out on the run. And I was a little mean. Probably not a great combination, I know.
“I want to tell you that you overcame me to win and take a program from where it was to the pinnacle, to the No. 1 program in the country. You took UMass from the bottom to five league championships, to Elite Eights and a Final Four. You guys did it in spite of me.”
To his Memphis players, Calipari said he was crazy, but that his players were crazy too. The reason behind their shared mental state, he said, was due to the lack of respect they both received from the pundits.
That respect was earned over time though, as Calipari helped lead Memphis to a national title game appearance in 2008, winning a single-season record 38 games in the process. During his nine years as the Tigers head coach, Memphis went 214-68 and won more than 30 games in four consecutive seasons.
Calipari then addressed his Kentucky players, where he has had 25 players drafted by the NBA, including 19 in the first round and three as the No. 1 overall pick in just six years. It’s been an historic run, but one in which he says he’s been told by his former UMass and Memphis players that his coaching style has mellowed out, and that his UK players couldn’t handle the younger version of him.
“That being said, I have so much respect for you because of the way you performed under the greatest expectations and the brightest of lights,” Coach Cal told his Kentucky players. “A lot of players would run from this. You guys were inspired by it.”
Calipari entered the hall as part of the Class of 2015, which also included Dick Bavetta (referee), Louis Dampier (Kentucky player), Lindsay Gaze (coach), Spencer Haywood (player), Tom Heinsohn (coach), John Isaacs (player), Lisa Leslie (player), Dikembe Mutombo (player), George Raveling (contributor) and Jo Jo White (player). The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame now consists of 336 inductees, including 98 coaches.
Forever a teacher, Calipari couldn’t finish his speech without talking to his players once again about the four values he hopes they each took with them as they advance in their career.
“My hope is that the values we taught have served you well,” Calipari said. “You learned about servant leadership. If you lead, you must serve. That character matters, especially when groups of men are depending on one another. That if you want to lead a joyful life, it’s what you give, not what you take. And no one will steal our joy. And lastly, loyalty, being your brother’s keeper, standing up for your partner, and knowing if you’re loyal you will always have family. La familia.”