SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Holding true to his "players first" mantra, John Calipari filled the stage at Symphony Hall on Friday night with former players in attendance for his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Calipari, a crowd favorite given his time as coach at nearby University of Massachusetts, invited what a Hall of Fame official said was 64 former players on stage, along with staff members from various stops in his career.
"The reason I stand here is more about the players I've coached," Calipari said. "I’m here because I coached the greatest group of kids over my time than anyone could ever imagine.
“I never grabbed a rebound, I never scored a point, I never had an assist -- although they tell me I had a few assists in some of the losses.”
Calipari this summer offered to pay for the tickets of any former player that would accompany him on his big night (which would have put his total bill around $32,000 if he paid for everyone). Most of the players on hand showed up at the Hall of Fame for a reception earlier on Friday, and Calipari was overcome with emotion seeing a list headlined by the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, John Wall, Nerlens Noel and Marcus Camby.
With the group assembled on stage to cap the night’s 11 inductions, Calipari asked his players to raise their hands if he “held you back.” Hands playfully shot skyward, including that of Cousins. Calipari drew laughs when, still facing the crowd, he added, “Without looking -- DeMarcus Cousins has two hands up.”
He then thanked his players for sacrificing individual achievements for the greater good of the team.
"You sacrificed for your brothers, and we won a lot of ball games and a lot of championships because of that,” Calipari said.
He went on to apologize to the UMass players, joking he didn’t know what he was doing when he got the head-coaching job in 1988. He also quipped that he was the team’s third choice for coach, but said that was OK because he was also his wife’s third choice for a husband.
Calipari led the Minutemen to the Final Four in 1996, though it was later vacated because of sanctions, and Calipari made the jump to the NBA soon after.
“The Nets ... the Nets,” Calipari said turning his attention to his failed NBA bid in the late '90s. “I figured, for what they paid me, they deserved two mentions.”
But Calipari’s bond remains strong in Western Massachusetts. Fans cheered his arrival on the red carpet Friday night, then the balcony buzzed again as his induction started some three hours after the start of the night’s festivities.
The now-Kentucky coach embraced the nostalgia this week. On Thursday, he talked about coming full circle given that the Hall of Fame is where he was introduced as head coach of UMass back when he was an unknown 29-year-old. He recalled buying a house that cost $163,000 -- a price point higher than he preferred -- and told his wife, “We better win some games, honey.”
Things have changed. The 56-year-old Calipari agreed to a seven-year, $52 million contract extension with Kentucky last summer. He apologized to the UMass players for being so harsh on them, suggesting he’s softened in his old age.
Calipari undoubtedly knows there were impressionable recruits watching from afar and that filling up the stage with former players should make Kentucky only that much more of an attractive destination.
But, hey, a college coach doesn’t get to the Hall of Fame without knowing how to lure the sort of players that can help get him there.