Coach Cal makes right calls when it comes to charity, too

by | Senior Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- John Calipari can turn a press conference into a filibuster. Larry Brown has known Calipari for 30 years and is well versed on his "communication skills."

"He talks nonstop," Brown said.

Yet the unthinkable happened recently: Calipari was at a loss for words.

John Calipari showed Josh Harrellson his more emotional side in March. (US Presswire)  
John Calipari showed Josh Harrellson his more emotional side in March. (US Presswire)  
On May 20 at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, Calipari was asked about what his mother, Donna Mae Calipari, would think about her son being honored at the Sixth Annual Dick Vitale Gala, benefitting the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research.

"She would be proud, she's happy my dad's here," Calipari said. "She told me toward the end I want you to take care of your dad so he traveled with us to all the NCAA tournament (games) ..."

Calipari stopped talking. His eyes welled. The emotion of losing his mother, 74, in November 2010 to lung cancer overcame him.

A reporter broke the silence. "You're not going to make it through tonight?" Calipari replied: "No."

But Calipari did. In the process, Calipari and co-honorees Roy Williams of North Carolina and tennis coach Nick Bollettieri helped the V Foundation raise $1.5 million in one evening for pediatric cancer research at Vitale's annual gala. Just this year the V Foundation surpassed more than $100 million in donations and has awarded $80 million in research grants to more than 100 institutions in 38 states.

Calipari has been involved with the V Foundation for Cancer Research since its inception. Vitale knows if he needs anything -- anything at all -- Calipari is only a phone call away.

A few years ago, Vitale contacted Calipari.

"John, I need help," Vitale told him. "I need to get 20 guys together real quick in about three days and I want to raise a million dollars [for cancer research]. He said 'Well, what's the problem? What do you need?' I said 'I need 20 guys to throw in 50 G's a pop.' He said 'I'll throw in my 50 [thousand].' We got the million so quick. It was unbelievable. "John gets a bigger, bigger kick out of making people smile and being good to people."

Johnny, be good? The same controversial Kentucky coach with the two vacated Final Fours?

"To me what it's about is when your players come back, when they respect what you try to do for them," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "And John's guys always come back. John's a very, very loyal guy. I don't think that comes out enough. John is involved in a lot of [charities] that mean a lot to a lot of people."

In 2002, when Huggins suffered a massive heart attack, Calipari and then-Xavier coach Skip Prosser were the first non-family members to visit him.

"Really, nobody was supposed to be in there but family," Huggins said. "But Cal being Cal talked his way back there."

Memphis associate athletic director Bob Winn also has witnessed Calipari's generosity.

"Somebody would just send a letter or call and say, 'Do you know what [Calipari] did? He showed up at six in the morning in the room of my dad, who's dying of cancer, and sat with him for several hours,' " Winn told Sports Illustrated. "Things like that, John felt deeply about."

There are several things Calipari feels strongly about. And -- you might be surprised -- a lot of them are not basketball related.

"We've all been thrown into positions," Calipari said. "Why am I at Kentucky? My grandparents were immigrant coalminers. Why in the world ... and you look back and say you have an opportunity in the seat I'm in to move people in a good way or a bad way. Or you can sit in the office and just worry about watching tape."

Recently Calipari learned a friend had a lesion on his throat. This friend was seeing a doctor in Detroit.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. You get your car fixed in Detroit. You get your throat fixed in Boston or New York,' " Calipari said.

Calipari immediately called Vitale, who put him in touch with the proper specialist.

That's just one example. There are many, many more.

While at Memphis, Calipari frequently supported civic projects starting the Calipari Family Foundation for Children. He also provided financial assistance to the Y.E.S. Foundation for year-round tutoring of middle school students.

The Lexington Herald also reported Calipari pledged $1 million to the Street Ministries program in Memphis.

At Kentucky, his foundation has been involved with helping pay rent for needy Lexington, Ky., families. He also organized and participated in the telethon 'Take Hoops for Haiti,' raising more than $1.5 million for victims of the devastating Haiti earthquake in January 2010.

"There's not a day goes by that he's not trying to help somebody," said Brown, who had Calipari as his assistant at Kansas for two seasons from 1983-85.

Calipari's success as a coach is well documented. He's only one of two coaches to lead three different colleges to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and all three -- UMass (1996), Memphis (2008) and Kentucky (2011) -- reached the Final Four. And, of course, he's also the first coach to have two Final Four appearances later vacated.

"He can get on kids, but they know he cares," Brown said. "I watch him on the sideline: he's up in kids' faces, in every play, and it's really unique. Not everyone can do that. Only coaches that can do that are the ones that kids know that they care. The kids know he wants to make them better.

"John does that every single day, every practice and [in] anything he does. A lot of people take shots at him -- and that's just the way our profession is -- but anyone that respects the game and watches the way his kids play and see how they respond to him knows what an unbelievable job he does."

Brown introduced Calipari at the $1,000-a-plate event, welcoming him to the stage. Calipari reflected on several subjects, including his mom, his 78-year old father Vince, who sat in the audience, and told a hilarious story about a letter his sister wrote during college about the family's philosophy of "keeping things in perspective."

Toward the end of Calipari 7 1/2-minute speech, he turned serious.

"I never want to be just a basketball coach," Calipari said. "I coach basketball and it's my profession, but it's not who I am. We can use our positions to come together on nights like this for a very worthy cause. It's the people we touch through basketball. It's the people we've touched tonight who will feel moved to do something to help us fight this dreaded disease.

"I want to thank ya'll. Mom, I love you."

And, once again, Calipari was speechless.


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