UK Men's Basketball

His players tell why John Calipari is a Hall of Famer

Kentucky Coach John Calipari and the Wildcats surrounded the NCAA Championship trophy after defeating Kansas to take the  2012 title in New Orleans.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari and the Wildcats surrounded the NCAA Championship trophy after defeating Kansas to take the 2012 title in New Orleans. Herald-Leader

If reaction to this week's induction of John Calipari into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is an accurate guide, Kentucky's latest star-studded team will unite in purpose and be of one mind.

Several Wildcats on the 2015-16 team noted Calipari's ability to mesh players, many heralded freshmen accustomed to being the star, into effective units as one reason the UK coach will be among those formally inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday.

"People probably don't understand he's an amazing coach who's able to get freshmen together," Dominique Hawkins said during an Aug. 27 interview session staged by UK.

EJ Floreal likened Calipari to the late Chuck Daly, who won two NBA championships as coach of the Detroit Pistons and, most famously, a gold medal with the so-called "Dream Team" of NBA greats in the 1992 Olympics.

"He's a people person," Floreal said of Calipari. "He's really good with people. Like Chuck Daly, he's really good getting people to mesh together under one roof, like one program (and have a) one-team mentality."

The process of using what could be called an anti-star system begins with the recruiting pitch, Floreal said.

"He shoots you straight before you come here," he said of Calipari. "You're going to have to sacrifice. You're going to have to do what's better for the team."

Marcus Lee noted Calipari's willingness to speak candidly.

"Just like the other great coaches, he doesn't have a filter," he said. "He doesn't care who's listening. He doesn't care about your feelings. He knows you need to hear it, and he's going to let you have it.

"That's what you need in a coach. You need someone who's going to tell you how it is."

When asked about such truths possibly wounding a player's ego, Lee shook his head. "You've got to deal with it," he said. "You've got to listen to him because he's your head coach, and you have to kind of understand he knows what he's talking about."

UK players often used the same words and phrases in applauding Calipari's upcoming induction. Almost by rote, nine players noted how their coach deserved induction. Six called it a great accomplishment.

The player opinions diverged when asked what they thought gave Calipari Hall of Fame status.

Of course, there's winning.

"All the national tournament runs," freshman Mychal Mulder said. "All the Final Fours and the championships."

Calipari led Massachusetts and Memphis to the Final Four in 1996 and 2008. And even by UK standards, reaching four Final Fours in the past five years is an unprecedented feat.

Another first-year player, Isaac Humphries, echoed the sentiment.

"I feel he conducts the game of basketball while he's on the sidelines," he said. "Everything he does is like a very well-oiled machine."

Freshman Skal Labissiere noted Calipari's competitiveness.

"He doesn't stop coaching till the final buzzer," he said of the UK coach. "Team winning by 40, he's still coaching the team. I feel like he's trying to teach his players to compete till the final buzzer."

Then there's the 19 Kentucky players selected in the NBA Draft since Calipari became coach in 2009.

"He's one of the main coaches sending people to the NBA," Tyler Ulis said. "Making guys' dreams come true. I feel that's what it's all about. He's about the players, and that's a good thing."

Added freshman Isaiah Briscoe: "He cares about his kids, 100 percent. He protects us. I'm so glad he's going into the Hall of Fame."

When asked if he and other highly regarded high school players come to Kentucky because of what Calipari does for players, most notably the many first-round picks, Briscoe said, "Absolutely. You can't ask for anything better than that."