John Calipari’s lifelong personal dream came true on Friday night — and he insisted on sharing the culmination with as many people in the room as possible. The 56-year-old coach of Kentucky , a guy who was born in Moon Township, Penn., was formally inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“This is surreal for me, this seems bigger than me,” Calipari said.
In a swift, praiseful speech, Calipari briskly spanned decades of his life, giving gratitude and thanks to as many people as possible. He was short on personal anecdotes, instead opting to shine the light on others, and shortly before wrapping up his speech, he invited every former player of his (and some current ones) in attendance to join him on the stage.
“The reason I stand here is more about the players I’ve coached,” Calipari said. “I never grabbed a rebound, I never scored a point, I never had an assist.”
All of @UKCoachCalipari former players join him on the Hall of Fame stage tonight. pic.twitter.com/iMBB2MtVMs
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) September 12, 2015
“Every player I’ve ever coached says I held them back,” Calipari said. “I hope you guys all understand it’s because everyone all had to eat.”
The University of Kentucky, which is one of the blue bloods in college basketball, has hit high points of relevancy, success and publicity that it never touched before Calipari arrived in 2009. He has in large part defined what modern college basketball coaching requires at the highest level in the sport. Kentucky won a championship under his tutelage in 2011-12, and in three other years under Calipari has reached the Final Four. Last season, Calipari coached his team to a 38-0 start before falling in the national semis against Wisconsin.
No other team in men’s Division I history has started 38-0.
“There have been some unbelievable highs and some pretty low lows,” Calipari said, later adding, “I was UMass’ third choice, but I was my wife’s third choice, and that worked out OK.”
Calipari has six Final Fours to his name, though two of them have been officially vacated from NCAA record books. The 1995-96 UMass team and 2007-08 Memphis team had their Final Fours taken out after sanctions levied against those programs under Calipari included eliminating wins. Calipari made sure to mention both Final Four trips during his speech.
“I’ve been given more credit than I deserve, whether it be in recruiting, coaching or teaching because they got it done for our players,” Calipari said to his former assistants in the audience. “You all own a piece of this night guys, so thank you.”
From 1996-1999, Calipari also served as head coach of the New Jersey Nets. After being fired from New Jersey, Calipari was taken in to be an assistant under Larry Brown when Brown coached the Philadelphia 76ers. During his speech, Calipari called that year “the greatest” of his life.
He played college basketball for two seasons at Clarion University, and his career has a head coach began in 1988. Brown, who was the coach at Kansas when Calipari got his paying gig as an assistant in the 1980s, was there to present Calipari. As was Pat Riley, who Calipari called “one of the best coaches and one of the best executives in the history of the NBA.”
To date, Calipari officially has 593 wins, 190 of those coming while at Kentucky.
Hundreds of people — family members, friends and fans — made the trek from across the country to see Calipari’s big moment come to be on Friday night. Fellow 2015 inductees included Dikembe Mutombo, Dick Bavetta, Spencer Haywood, Jo Jo White, Lisa Leslie, Louis Dampier, John Isaacs, Lindsay Gaze, Tom Heinsohn and George Raveling.
“No one will steal our joy,” Calipari said to his players as they stood, dozens deep, behind him on the stage. The coach was echoing a credo he’s used often to fight off critics and opposing fans, many of whom have targeted Calipari for years.
One member who couldn’t be there to see this happen: Calipari’s mother, who died in 2010.
“The other thing she taught us,” Calipari said of his mother during his speech, “was dream beyond your surroundings.”
But the surroundings for Calipari on Friday night were the very definition of a dream, some huge hope finally fulfilled. Calipari was a man still at the top of his game, surrounded by those most important to him, being inducted into his sport’s defining, most prestigious institution.