Joe B. Hall turns 89 on Thursday. If you want to feel old, there’s this: he retired as Kentucky basketball coach 32 years ago.
Not counting his baby days, Hall has had literally a lifelong attachment to University of Kentucky basketball. A fan from childhood. Later a player. Then assistant coach. Then head coach for 13 seasons. Then, after retirement in 1985 . . . what felt like nothing. Under new management, the Big Blue circus left him behind.
“I hated to be totally excluded,” he said recently.
Enter John Calipari in 2009. He welcomed Hall back. He reminded the BBN about Hall’s contributions. He joked about Hall’s (unpaid) advice in practices. Maybe not so coincidentally, the crowd roared louder than ever whenever Hall appeared on the Rupp Arena video boards or came to center court, more recently with the aid of a cane, to do the “Y” in the K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y cheer.
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“He really did a great job of encouraging me to come to practice,” Hall said of Calipari. “And he stayed close to me, and kept me a part of the program.”
When asked what this kindness meant to him, Hall said simply, “Everything.”
I’m at that age where you appreciate that attention. It’s an age where you’re not that useful, but you appreciate someone thinking you are. So that’s a good feeling.
Joe B. Hall
After a pause, he added, “I’m at that age where you appreciate that attention. It’s an age where you’re not that useful, but you appreciate someone thinking you are. So that’s a good feeling.”
Family, friends and former players saluted Calipari for reuniting Hall and UK basketball.
“Cal treats him like he should be treated,” said Lexington-based lawyer Terry McBrayer, a longtime friend of Hall. “I love it for Joe.”
Ex-Cat Jerry Hale said, “I think it’s wonderful. I mean, it really is.”
One of Hall’s sons-in-law, Mike Summers, the Louisville offensive line coach, said, “I couldn’t say enough thank yous.”
Of Calipari’s kindness toward Hall, former UK player and current Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, “It extends his life . . . (Hall) perks up. He may not ever admit it but, believe me, it adds so many more years.”
The Calipari-Hall friendship follows a pattern. During earlier college coaching jobs, Calipari befriended former coaches at Massachusetts and Memphis.
At UMass, he arrived as a 29-year-old novice head coach. Jack Leaman had been coach when the Minutemen players included Julius Erving and Rick Pitino. Leaman was revered in New England as a coach and master tactician.
“Jack was a great mentor to him, and a great help to him,” Leaman’s widow, Rita, said. “But Jack never interfered and never offered anything that John didn’t ask for. They just became very, very close.”
Matt Vautour, a sportswriter with the Daily Hampshire Gazette, said that among Leaman’s contributions was being able to bring soothing perspective to Calipari’s anxieties.
“When John wanted to kill everybody else, whether it was his own players, the media, the NCAA, whenever he was mad at anybody, Jack was always someone he could kind of talk to and calm him down,” Vautour said.
“I think he trusted Jack implicitly. That whatever he was telling him, he always had John’s best interests at heart. I don’t know if Cal necessarily always thinks of people that way.”
Vautour said Calipari was responsible for a “very happy last chapter” in Leaman’s life.
“That kind of elder consigliere was something I think he enjoyed a lot,” the sportswriter said of Leaman. “Jack loved basketball and he loved basketball coaches. And to think somebody as on the rise and driven and successful as John was becoming looked to him for advice, I think meant a ton to him.”
Leaman, who died in 2004, was also the analyst on radio broadcasts of UMass games during Calipari’s time as coach.
“It was a relationship that just took off,” Rita Leaman said. “It was just wonderful for Jack. He felt still very much a part of UMass basketball even though he was no longer the coach. John makes a lot of people feel that way.”
Howard Davis, the UMass sports information director at the time, said Calipari was instrumental in the school naming its basketball court for Leaman.
By then, Calipari was the coach at Memphis. Vautour recalled Calipari flying on a private jet to be at the ceremony naming the court for Leaman before a noon game. Vautour said Memphis had a home game at 7 p.m. Central Time.
“Jack meant that much to him to be there,” Vautour said.
Rita Leaman said that Calipari stays in contact. It’s no surprise when he visits her and her daughter when he’s in New England. Mother and daughter attended Calipari’s 2015 induction ceremony into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Gene Bartow was the revered former coach when Calipari arrived in Memphis in 1999. He had guided Memphis to the 1973 Final Four and came within a one-for-the-ages performance by Bill Walton of winning a national championship.
In 1999, Bartow worked in the Memphis Grizzlies front office. He helped bring together the new coach and the Memphis community.
An enduring friendship was born.
When my dad got stomach cancer, John was just incredible. As his son, I’m just emotional thinking about it. That friendship has meant a great deal to our family.
“When my dad got stomach cancer, John was just incredible,” Bartow’s son, Murry, said.
Whenever he was in Birmingham, where Bartow lived after retiring as UAB coach, Calipari would call or visit or both. When the phone would ring early in the morning, knowing Calipari regularly attended Mass, the Bartows knew before answering the phone who might be calling.
“As his son, I’m just emotional thinking about it,” Murry Bartow said of Calipari’s kindness to his father. “That friendship has meant a great deal to our family.”
Bartow died in 2012. In the last year or so of his life, he rarely left the house. It meant a lot to the Bartows that Calipari took time to visit.
“As busy as he is . . . ,” Murry Bartow said. “By gosh, those are things as a family you don’t forget.”
As with the Leamans, Calipari kept in touch with the family after Bartow died. When Kentucky won the 2012 national championship, he sent Bartow’s widow, Ruth, a commemorative necklace, Murry Bartow said.
To ask why Calipari does these things brings a variety of responses.
Hall said the Kentucky coach is “good-hearted.” He recalled how Calipari invited his former players to share the stage at his Hall of Fame induction.
“To me, it’s pretty simple,” Murry Bartow said. “I just think he has a compassionate heart. I just think some people are wired that way, and some aren’t.”
Davis, the former UMass sports information director, said he still stays involved in basketball by keeping the official scorebook at a high school tournament during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. If Kentucky has a recruiting interest in a player, Calipari attends.
“I see him once a year,” Davis said. “He sees me. He breaks away from everybody, comes up and gives me a big hug. No one had to tell him to do that.”
Vautour, the sportswriter, used words like “sentimental” and “complicated” to try to explain the kindnesses Calipari shows. He recalled how Calipari quietly returned to New England to attend the funeral of Milt Cole, a former sports editor and columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
“I think there’s a part of him underneath JOHN CALIPARI, all capital letters, who is sentimental,” Vautour said, “who relishes certain things like that.”
Of course, as Calipari would likely tell you, this thoughtful compassionate persona stands in contrast with the man who is reviled in certain basketball circles as a cheater and huckster whose reliance on one-and-done players mocks the idea of a college education having anything to do with his sport.
I think there’s a part of him underneath JOHN CALIPARI, all capital letters, who is sentimental, who relishes certain things like that.
Matt Vautour, a sportswriter who covered Calipari at UMass
Jealousy fuels the criticism, Hall said. “Then some people take it as arrogance when you’re so cool like he is.”
Davis and Vautour said that those who dislike Calipari cannot be persuaded to reassess the man.
One final irony: Calipari is a seemingly tireless promoter of his Kentucky basketball program.
“I know he was a marketing major in college,” Hall said. “But he didn’t even need the schooling. He is a master at marketing.”
Yet, his acts of kindness — which would surely touch the heart of a prospect’s mother — go largely unsung.
“With our family, it’s been all behind the scenes,” Murry Bartow said, “and, really, no one other than close friends knows this.”
Rita Leaman said she appreciated the chance to talk about Calipari’s kindness.
“If somebody else is going to point it out, that’s wonderful,” she said. “Because I don’t think he’d ever point it out.”