UK Men's Basketball

Former coaches laud Calipari’s sentimental side

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari smiled near the end of the game as the University of Kentucky (UK) played New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, November 14, 2015. The is second half men's college basketball action. UK won 87-57.
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari smiled near the end of the game as the University of Kentucky (UK) played New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, November 14, 2015. The is second half men's college basketball action. UK won 87-57. cbertram@herald-leader.com

It’s not a Christmas story, per se. But it has the yuletide elements of extended family, glad tidings, thoughtfulness and a return home.

In October 2014, Bill Sacco went to the hospital. He had recently undergone a knee replacement. “Somehow, it worked itself loose from the lower bone,” he said.

An infection had set in, which landed Sacco in a Pittsburgh area hospital. Sometime during his 42-day stay, a nurse entered the room to let him know a visitor wanted to see him.

“I don’t know what his name is,” the nurse said. “But he’s some sort of coach.”

With that inauspicious introduction, John Calipari entered the room.

“I did not know he was coming,” said Sacco, who once upon a time coached Calipari in high school.

Sacco’s wife and sisters were in the room. Calipari’s visit changed the mood.

“It lifted our spirits,” Sacco said. “He had everybody in the room giggling and laughing.”

The media has a tendency sometimes to pick out negative things. Yet John Calipari has been so good to his high school coach and me and to other people.

Joe DeGregorio, John Calipari’s college coach

Still coaching, Sacco knew that Calipari had begun preseason practices with the Kentucky team. And not just any Kentucky team, but a group of players wanting to make basketball history.

“Wow,” Sacco said. “The guy had so much on his plate. He was worried about me.”

Calipari stayed an hour or so, then flew back to Kentucky and the all-important business of UK basketball.

Joe DeGregorio, who coached Calipari at Clarion University, and Sacco saw the visit as telling. They said it showed the person behind the public façade. The polarizing figure who readily acknowledges, and all but embraces, his critics can be a sentimental softy.

“The media has a tendency sometimes to pick out negative things,” DeGregorio said. “Yet John Calipari has been so good to his high school coach and me and to other people.”

Of the visit to Sacco’s hospital room, DeGregorio said, “Those are the things you don’t hear about that John does.”

Another example came this year at Calipari’s enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. DeGregorio and Sacco attended.

Then, after returning home, Calipari gave each a call to see if they had a good time.

“For him to take the time to do that shows the character of the man,” DeGregorio said.

Of course, the public image of Calipari is one decorated by incessant coaching demands, nonstop marketing and, as C.M. Newton once observed, a desire to win that can drift into a “gray area” where rules compliance is open to interpretation.

That funhouse of image and distorted reality is not where DeGregorio and Sacco have come to know Calipari. They see the real person who grew up in Moon Township, Pa., and returns as the same person.

This Calipari wants to go to a favorite place for pizza, and another place for wings.

“That’s who he is,” Sacco said. “These are his roots here.”

Sacco and DeGregorio hope more people get to know this Calipari. Sacco said they had taped interviews with ESPN for a 30 for 30 documentary on the Kentucky coach that they expect to air next year.

“He’s somebody who remembers us,” Sacco said. “We wanted to show them he was more than X’s and O’s and a great recruiter.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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