SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — When John Calipari holds the deck in his hands, dealer's choice is always the no-respect card. He's starred in his basketball story as the plucky underdog who coined the phrase "refuse to lose," made it the title of one of his books and then lived by that creed.
He was a player of modest ability, then a coach who had to outwork the competition. He noted how he was not born with a silver whistle in his mouth.
Even Kentucky winning its first 38 games last season failed to remove the chip Calipari likes to put on his shoulder. He and the Cats lamented how some they out there did not believe Kentucky was that good. Never mind that UK received every first-place vote in every college basketball poll.
So with Calipari officially being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night, it would seem he cannot play no-respect anymore.
"Give me some time," he said with a sly smile here Thursday. "I'll figure it out."
Old habits are hard to break.
During a 30-minute session with the media, Calipari kind of acknowledged that Hall of Famer status will take some getting used to.
"I'm kind of nervous and excited," he said of Friday's induction ceremony. "Like, I'm feeling some stuff I normally don't feel."
Calipari seemed to enjoy reminiscing about the early-career struggles. When asked who had been the one indespensible person in his little-engine-that-could rise to the top, Calipari cited his late mother.
"My dad was more grind, work, keep it rolling," he said. "My mom was more, dream big. Nothing holds you back. ...
"The biggest thing she taught us was to dream beyond our surroundings. She said, 'Look around. This doesn't hold you back. Just because this is how it is right now, it doesn't have to be that way for you.'"
Of course, Massachusetts was his first college head coaching job. Coincidentally, his introductory news conference was at the old Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He dared not dream of someday being inducted into the newer, shinier Hall.
"I was 29 and trying to survive and keep my job," he said. "I wasn't thinking about Hall of Fame."
Aside from Julius Erving, who will be one of Calipari's presenters Friday night, UMass did not appear on any basketball map.
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"It was a job I could get," Calipari said. "The only Division I job I could get."The new coach believed UMass could make a big basketball splash. "Because Temple did," Calipari said. "Temple was in the same league. The year before I got the job, they were No. 1 in the country. Out of the Atlantic 10. So my point was why can't another team from our league be No. 1?
Calipari fondly recalled driving "up that mountain" to do his weekly radio show. "And I sold the advertising," he said. "... And on Sunday night, I'd get home, like, midnight, 12:30. But it was the greatest time."
Calipari repeatedly played the no-respect card.
I'm at Amherst, Mass. What was the league around us? The Big East," he said. "How good were they back then? I mean, they sucked the air out of the entire region, all the way through Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, to D.C. They sucked air out of everything. ... We were just trying to nudge our way to where we could, like, see."
Each year, Calipari tried to recruit two or three players good enough to start for other Atlantic 10 programs.
By 1996, UMass was in the Final Four. "We had Kentucky on the ropes," he said. An exaggeration, but UMass was holding its own against mighty Kentucky in college basketball's grandest ring.
After flaming out in less than three seasons as an NBA coach, Calipari returned to his comfort zone: feeling under-appreciated while leading a program to great heights.
"There was a five-year period we were as good as anyone, maybe in the last 50 years," Calipari said of his time as Memphis coach. "But we didn't get that kind of respect. We just didn't. Our UMass days, there was a two-, three-year run we were as good as anybody in the country. Matter of fact, had the best team, I believe, in '96. We lost to — I can't remember who we lost to (grinning). But we never got the kind of respect."
Calipari can hardly say that as Kentucky coach, although he's tried. At his introductory news conference, he recoiled at the suggestion of having moved from underdog to top dog.
He now concedes the point. Coaching at Kentucky? "It's Carnegie Hall," he said.
Now, Kentucky and Calipari suck the air out of the region.
"I'm not thinking in those terms, but it does," he said. "I've had people say they got tired of seeing us on TV. I'm like, OK."