UK Men's Basketball

UK Coach John Calipari honored at Vitale's charity gala

Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari and legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri greeted each other at the Dick Vitale Gala.
Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari and legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri greeted each other at the Dick Vitale Gala. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE

SARASOTA, Fla. — Dick Vitale picked up the telephone four years ago and placed a call to Tennessee. He had a favor to ask of then-Memphis coach John Calipari.

"I need your help," Vitale said. "I've got to round up 20 guys to donate fifty thousand dollars each. Gotta do it quick."

Not three days later, the V Foundation was $1 million richer.

Fast forward to the spring of 2010. Calipari, less than a year into his time at Kentucky, placed a call to Vitale.

"My mother has cancer," he said.

Calipari had made a similar call to ESPN's college basketball kingpin before. A friend in Detroit was being treated for cancer, and Calipari wanted Vitale's advice. "Dickie V" helped place the patient with one of the best specialists in the country.

It was that previous shared venture that helped the UK coach know whom to call and what to do, and allowed Donna Mae Calipari, 74, to live out the final months of her life comfortably, loved and with the best care possible.

"She had chemo. She had radiation. My dad cared for her for eight months, 24/7," Calipari recalled Friday night. "I saw a side of my dad I'd never seen. I knew he loved his wife, but he said to me, 'I'd have done it another five years.' "

He paused.

"I'm going to try not to get emotional," he said.

Impossible. To attend the Dick Vitale Gala, now in its sixth year, is to be immersed in heartfelt and gut-wrenching anecdotes of children with cancer. Vitale has been the face and the force behind the V Foundation, founded in 1993 in the wake of the death of legendary North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. This year, the V Foundation eclipsed more than $100 million in donations.

That figure will rise after Vitale's latest event, a $1,000-per-plate party held Friday at the glitzy Ritz Carlton in his hometown on Florida's west coast. Each year, the gala honors two sports heavyweights and the 2011 version paid tribute to Calipari and North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

And the two not only have their powerhouse basketball programs in common.

"I lost my mother to cancer in 1992 and my father to cancer in 2007," Williams said. "It's a disease that touches all of us. The stories that you see and hear Dick talk about, and the kids that are involved in the program, the cancer survivors involved in the program, it tugs at you in a big, big way."

Two of those stories Friday focused on Darren Shanks, of San Diego, and Tatum Parker, of Indianapolis. Shanks, in a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was granted a wish by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Instead of asking for something for himself, Shanks, 17, wanted new uniforms for his high school football teammates. Parker, 9, is a two-time survivor of Ewing's sarcoma and now visits with other young cancer patients.

"This is real," Calipari said. "These are actual stories."

His was one of them. And in his mother's memory, Caliapri was only too glad to do his part.

"Dick has used his fame to help other people, and that's important to me," Calipari said. "We've all been thrown into positions. I mean, why am I at Kentucky? But you look back and say you have an opportunity from the seat you're in to move people in a good way or a bad way. Are you just going to sit in your office and worry about watching tape?

"You look at what Dick does and it's the same thing. He does so much. He uses his position to help. You can be a demolition man or you can build and help use it for good. He's done that."

Done it with the help of Calipari and the rest of the college basketball community, most of whom were on hand Friday, including all four coaches from the 2011 Final Four.

Accompanied by his 78-year-old father Vince, Calipari was asked what his mother would have thought of the evening.

"She would be proud," he said. "She would be happy my dad's here."

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