INDIANAPOLIS — When the call came telling him he had been voted into the Hall of Fame, Kentucky Coach John Calipari had an immediate reaction. He steered his car to the curb, and let the reality of basketball's greatest honor soak in.
"To be honest, got emotional," Calipari said Monday. "My dad always said, it's OK to feel phony. Just don't be phony."
Following that advice, Calipari acknowledged his surprise at making the Hall of Fame. Processing this news seemed ongoing as he met with the media Monday after the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame officially announced inductees into his Class of 2015.
Throughout his life, Calipari has been the plucky underdog, the overachiever who once made refuse-to-lose his signature catchphrase.
Never miss a local story.
He grew up next to the high school in Moon Township, Pa. Because his father knew the coaches, Calipari was the bat boy for the high school baseball team, the ball boy for the basketball team. "All I ever wanted (was) to be a coach and a teacher," he said.
Not a player of particular renown, Calipari first went to University of North Carolina Wilmington. When that level proved too daunting, he transferred to Clarion State in Pennsylvania.
"I did not play for one of the great coaches in the history of the game," Calipari said. "I was a Division II basketball player."
His first college head coaching job came at Massachusetts, which could claim Julius Erving as a former player and little else in terms of basketball history.
"I was lucky to get the Massachusetts job," Calipari said. "No one else wanted it. Which is the only reason I got it.
"Now, I'm sitting at this table. What?! What just happened?"
What happened was an astounding transformation at UMass, a nondescript program that Calipari took to the Final Four in 1996. After an ill-fated fling as coach of the New Jersey Nets, he breathed new life into the basketball program at Memphis, guiding the Tigers to the 2008 Final Four.
In 2009, Kentucky came calling. Calipari credited having Kentucky on his résumé as making the Hall of Fame possible. Perhaps UK made it happen, but UK also benefited greatly. The Cats have been to four Final Fours in the past five years, a pattern of success unprecedented even by Kentucky's exacting standards.
"If I'm not at Kentucky, I'm not sure it happens," Calipari said of becoming a Hall of Famer. "Maybe it does. I don't know.
"I always wanted to have a job like the other guys."
Calipari spoke with affection of UMass, his first love as a head coach. He noted how ESPN's come-one-come-all approach to televising college basketball helped put the Minutemen on the college basketball map. NIT bids also helped give UMass credibility, he said.
Memphis eased the sting of being fired by the Nets early in Calipari's third season as an NBA coach.
"I loved those jobs," he said. "But you were at the little table. You weren't at the big table. You never got to carve the turkey. You had the plastic forks and plates.
"I always said, 'I wonder what would happen if I got one of those jobs."
Now, we know. Calipari achieved what sounded outlandish at his first Big Blue Madness: Make Kentucky a dynasty feared by others, desired by every prospect. Not moving the needle. "We are needle," he said.
Now, Calipari carves up the turkeys as his Kentucky teams carve up opponents.
Speculation resurfaced this spring that Calipari might leave Kentucky for the NBA.
Calipari did not sound like somebody with something to prove about being a NBA coach. He talked about the satisfaction that comes from affecting the lives of college players, an impact amplified and expanded to the community and beyond by being Kentucky's coach. Earlier in his 30-minute session with reporters, Calipari noted how he originally was drawn to coaching after watching those Moon Township high school basketball and baseball coaches influence players.
The impact of an NBA coach?
"Where do I get the satisfaction from?" Calipari said of a return to the NBA. "What do we do that has the impact on the community? How can we have an impact on people?
"Or am I just coaching to try to help you make more money and win a (NBA) championship?"
Calipari, 56, described himself as better suited to being a college coach.
"Because I'm at the stage of my life, that's not what moves me," he said of how a NBA coach can influence players. " ... I'm older."
The enshrinement ceremonies for the Class of 2015 will be Sept. 10 and 11 in Springfield, Mass.
Listening to Calipari Monday was to get the sense he'll take basketball's ultimate bow and still be wondering, how did the bat boy/ball boy from Moon Township get here?
"You kind of think back," he said, "and, like, fate intervened a lot when I had to have it intervene."