CRAWFORD | Ever the 'gatherer,' UK's Calipari enters the Hall of - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Ever the 'gatherer,' UK's Calipari enters the Hall of Fame

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Kentucky coach John Calipari, surrounded by former players, near the end of his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. (AP photo) Kentucky coach John Calipari, surrounded by former players, near the end of his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This was John Calipari’s Hall of Fame moment. Forget all the words — Calipari has lots of them, and he delivers them as well as any coach ever has.

Instead, look at the stage at the end of his enshrinement speech Friday night at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Around him were 64 former players, whom he called to stand with him.

This is what Calipari does. He assembles great players. Over the past decade, nobody has done it better. The throng on the stage with him could’ve formed an NBA All-Star team with parts to spare. They represented the greatest eras ever at Massachusetts and Memphis, and some of the best at Kentucky.

“I am here,” Calipari said, “because I coached the greatest group of kids over my time that anyone could ever imagine.”

But Friday night was about more than that. Calipari didn’t just acknowledge an impressive number of his former players who gave a great deal of time and expense to come back for his big night, but many others.

Nodding to his father, Vince, in the crowd, Calipari said, “He learned to be a gatherer, and taught me what a gatherer was.”

Calipari learned well. He brought people back from everywhere. In Springfield, he gathered a lifetime of people from every stop in his career and life, more even than the many he mentioned in his 18 1/2-minute speech. His high school and college coaches. His athletic director from Memphis. Many from UMass. Not just names he mentioned in recounting his career, but people whose eyes he met as he talked.

He’s the first coach I can remember, in a Hall of Fame speech, to ask his former players onto the stage.

“Come on, let’s go, everybody up here, come on,” Calipari said. “This is from Kentucky, Memphis and Massachusetts. And I’m coaching, let’s go.”

Now, Calipari is not the first coach to show loyalty to his players nor receive loyalty from them. He is not the first coach, even, to put them first, to help them through life lessons, to pave the way for great future success. In fact, “players first” doesn’t make you unique at the Hall of Fame. It makes you like all the others. No coach gets to the Hall of Fame without a host of great players in his backstory.

But if there is a Calipari legacy beyond lots and lots of wins, it may well be that he has taken that “players first” approach to a higher level.

In a story in Sports Illustrated years ago, longtime Calipari friend William Wesley said that he became disillusioned over the years as he watched some of his friends accomplish big things at places like the University of Louisville, then leave without degrees, and to uncertain futures.

When he met Calipari at Memphis, he saw someone who was loyal to players even when it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for his reputation or his program’s image. "Love is action," Wesley told SI writer S.L. Price. Calipari is nothing if not a fighter for his players. Little by little, Wesley and Calipari formed a relationship that continues today.

Milt Wagner, one of Wesley's best friends in college, is one of the top scorers in Louisville history. But his degree came not from Louisville, but from Memphis, where Calipari took him onto his staff — and got his son, Dajuan, a coveted recruit, in the process. But long after Dajuan Wagner was gone to the NBA, his father remained with Calipari, having earned his degree, until moving on as an assistant to Texas El Paso and later Auburn.

At Memphis, Calipari did not get the juggernaut going quickly. His first team lost 15 games. It took him two years to get to the NCAA Tournament, and even then his teams were gone by the end of the first weekend.

I was there in one of the last games before the Calipari rocket ship took off. It was the 2005 Conference USA Tournament championship game against Louisville. Darius Washington was at the line with time expired and a two point deficit. He had three free throws for the win. He made the first. Then he missed the next two. The first person to reach him after he collapsed on the court in shock was Calipari.

From that point on, Calipari has failed to make the Elite Eight only once. In the past eight seasons, he’s been to three NCAA championship games and five Final Fours, with one championship to show for it. His title game appearance at Memphis in 2008 was vacated.

Through all that, Calipari has been a players’ advocate. At first, his calls for increased player benefits, medical care, better meal plans, travel benefits, family travel, even the ability to get career advice from agents, was met with resistance. It wasn’t the way things were done in college basketball.

Today, however, his point of view, in large part, has become the law of the land in the NCAA.

He became the first coach to perfect the practice — aided by an NBA-mandated age limit — of moving players to the league after only one year in college. The so-called one-and-done players were decried as destructive to college basketball, and Calipari took plenty of heat amid his success.

When others, like Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, took up a similar model, they weren’t criticized as much. They have Calipari to thank. He took the shots. His peers — and those players — will reap the benefits.

Krzyzewski, in fact, was the first coach to speak on Calipari’s behalf in his introductory video Friday night.

Calipari is a creative force, a marketing marvel, a communicator with few equals in college sports.

To reach the Hall of Fame as a coach, you either have to win a ton of games, or leave some lasting mark on the game.

Calipari’s mark is not yet completely clear. If he were to leave Kentucky tomorrow, the program would find another coach and win, but it wouldn’t be the same. Calipari’s way of doing things is difficult to replicate. His assistants who have become head coaches have not been able to approximate his success.

Assembling overwhelming talent, getting those elite players to buy in to playing with and for each other, and otherwise preparing them for their futures isn’t as easy as it sounds.

But Calipari is winning. The magic in what he does is him. 

And each year, his recruiting stranglehold on the game appears stronger. Even this year, when it appeared perhaps his recruiting might slip, he still enters the 2015-16 season with the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.

I wrote when Calipari arrived at Kentucky that what had gone before in his career no longer would matter. He would be celebrated — or excoriated — based on what he did at Kentucky. Nothing else. Six years later, he’s in the basketball Hall of Fame. 

Calipari has always viewed himself as the outsider. He is always gigging at detractors, whether real or imagined. He did it again on the Hall of Fame podium, telling his players on the stage, “It’s what you give, not what you take. And no one will steal our joy.”

The joy-thieves are sometimes over-stated. Once you stand on that stage in Springfield, you’re part of an elite club. You’re no longer on the outside looking in. You have been accepted.

Calipari described that as “surreal.” Just as it was the day UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart and then-president Lee Todd asked him if he’d be interested in the job at Kentucky.

“I always wondered,” Calipari said, “how I would do at a place like that.”

Now we know. He would do the best work of his career, and some of the best work, in some ways, that any college coach has ever done. And he isn’t finished.

Now that Calipari is part of this elite club, there’s no telling what he might yet accomplish.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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