Calipari's charitable ways started at home

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 25, 2010 

His mother was a giver. Actually, Donna Mae Calipari was a re-giver.

"She was the original re-gifter," her son, John Calipari, the Kentucky basketball coach, told a visitor Wednesday. "In other words, you got her stuff. Everything that she had, she was going to give to somebody.

"If somebody got her something, you'd better take a picture of her with it, because eventually she was rewrapping that and giving it to somebody else."

That's where it comes from, this Calipari compulsion to give back. It comes from his family, the working-class family that lived a stone's throw from the high school in Moon Township, Pa. It came from his mother, who passed away Nov. 28 at age 74 after a battle with cancer.

Donna Calipari was the one who always had something in her purse to give someone.

"My mother was always a pay-it-forward type person," Calipari said.

Like mother, like son.

Earlier this month, the Kentucky men's basketball coach was nominated for a 2010 United Nations NGO Positive Peace Award, which honors individuals, athletes, teams, entertainers and schools for making positive contributions.

For his work with Samaritan's Feet, Calipari joined a group of five finalists that includes former UK assistant Mike Sutton, head coach at Tennessee Tech; Kansas' Bill Self; Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis' Ron Hunter; and South Dakota State's Scott Nagy.

"Don't make me out to be a saint, now," Calipari told his visitor. "Because I'm not."

He is a giver, however. Even Calipari's critics admit the coach continually steps up to the philanthropic plate, that he delivers when asked and often goes above and beyond.

Take Hoops for Haiti, the telethon the coach organized and participated in last January that raised more than $1.5 million for the victims of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti.

The effort earned praise and admiration far beyond the state's borders, even as far as Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama took time out of his schedule to call Calipari and his team for a personal word of thanks.

It would be one thing if Haiti were Calipari's first splash in the philanthropic pool. It wasn't. During his time at Memphis, Calipari often gave time and money to civic projects. He started the Calipari Family Foundation for Children. He gave needed financial assistance to the Y.E.S. Foundation for year-round tutoring of middle school children in Memphis.

Even since coming to Kentucky, he pledged $1 million over five years to the Street Ministries program in Memphis.

At Kentucky, he has teamed with Windstream for charitable contributions. He has teamed with Maker's Mark to help his foundation. He and his wife, Ellen, gave $25,000 to the President's Scholarship Initiative at UK. Christmas Eve, his foundation was involved in helping pay rent for needy Lexington families.

In May, Calipari and Kansas Coach Roy Williams will be honored by Dick Vitale in Sarasota, Fla., for their work with the V Foundation for cancer research.

And those are just some of the ones we know about.

"I'd rather no one know," Calipari said. "But what happens is they want it known so they can get other people to do stuff."

That is especially true when you are the basketball coach at Kentucky, with its passionate fan base and massive exposure.

It would be safe to say that few had heard of Samaritan's Feet before Calipari got involved, personally taking shoes to Haiti and washing the feet of orphans before they received the shoes. To follow up, on their exhibition trip to Canada in August, Calipari and his players washed children's feet in Detroit as part of the program.

"What I've found out since I've been here is this seat carries weight in this state," Calipari said. "And you can move people for good and you can move them for bad. You can make people feel better, or stay in the office and watch tape and just worry about your choice. It's your choice."

To be sure, acting on that choice is easier for some than others.

"You know what, truth be told, what's happened for me in my lifetime, I could give 100 times what I've given, if you know what I'm saying," he said.

But, truth be told, because of the way Calipari grew up, because of his late mother, he had no choice but to be a giver.

"The house I grew up in was $13,000. The mortgage was $63 a month," he said. "My dad made $13,000 a year when I was growing up. And I'm not that old. You're talking the '70s. ... We learned it at an early age. We never had a whole lot, but you always made sure that you were trying to do for somebody else."

Now he can.

"And I think I got that," John Calipari said, "from my mom."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or Read his blog at

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