Moon's Calipari had hoops in heart since childhood
CLEVELAND — Thirty-nine summers ago, Bill Sacco came to expect almost-daily calls from young John Calipari.
Then just a rising junior at Moon, Calipari already had outgrown the role of mere point guard for the Tigers. He instead had self-appointed unofficial titles such as assistant coach and de facto athletic director.
After all, who else is empowered to be scheduling games?
“He'd call and say, ‘We need to go to Beaver Falls tonight,' ” Sacco, then Calipari's coach at Moon, said. “I'd say, ‘Yeah, OK, we need to go to Beaver Falls tonight.' And then we did.
“John got us games all over the (region), and by the time the season started, we'd played close to 50 games that summer.”
Calipari carried with him a little book of all the names and numbers for the high school coaches in the area. Barely old enough to drive, he was eager and unafraid to reach out to any of them.
“That's what he'd do in the summer — round up five guys to play with, then call the Hopewell coach — ‘Can we come down and play you guys?' ” now-retired longtime Blackhawk coach John Miller said.
“Then, the next day, he's calling the Ambridge coach. He's a high school junior and he knows all the high school coaches. He was just a tremendous basketball guy, and he worked his way up.”
All the way to Kentucky, arguably the premier program in the country. And this season, Calipari has taken the Wildcats to 36-0 and a spot in the Sweet 16. His team faces West Virginia late Thursday evening in an NCAA Tournament Midwest Region semifinal at Quicken Loans Arena.
As a kid, Calipari spent plenty of time at the Miller house — he is a distant cousin of John, and, by extension, also shares a loose relation with John's sons and fellow NCAA Tournament coaches Sean (Arizona) and Archie (Dayton).
From the Miller house in the Glen Willard near the Ohio River to Moon to Clarion, those who knew Calipari use some common adjectives in describing him.
Organized. Competitive. Driven. Well-connected. A step ahead.
“I was running a day camp down at Riverside, and I think I was charging $20,” Miller said. “Calipari was there helping and he says, ‘You know, I'm gonna run a camp (with Sacco) at Moon Park. ... I said, ‘How much you charging?' He said, ‘$100.' I just smiled and kind of chuckled. But I'll be darned, he didn't go and do it. And they had 80 kids and McDonald's as a sponsor.
“He was something. He was an entrepreneur way back then. The wheels are turning all the time with him.”
That innovativeness is what helped Calipari immediately jump from being a player at Clarion to being a coach (albeit initially an unpaid one) at another college basketball mecca, Kansas. It also helped him quickly scale the ladder to become a Division I head coach at 29 and an NBA coach by 37.
Calipari has guided three programs to the Final Four and is four victories away from leading college basketball's first undefeated champion in 39 years.
He has come a long way from his elementary school days, when he wore a clip-on tie to work as a Moon ball boy. Or from his time at Clarion, when he bought a pair of trailers — one to live in and one to rent out – to save and make extra cash.
But despite his share of detractors — he's had wins vacated at former stops UMass and Memphis, and legendary coach Bob Knight once referenced Calipari when he said “integrity is really lacking” in college sports — Calipari has a long trail of devoted friends at seemingly every stop.
Calipari has earned such loyalty, those from his past say, because he's so loyal himself.
“I always called him ‘Soft Chocolate,' ” former Clarion teammate Ralph Naples said. “On the outside he stayed stern and confident; on the inside he has the biggest heart that you could even imagine.”
Calipari flew into town from Lexington, Ky., last fall to visit Sacco when Sacco was in the hospital. He came in from Memphis when West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was hospitalized because of a heart attack in 2002. Years after leaving Clarion, he still keeps in touch with the school's sports information director, Rich Herman, and sent an overnight package to Herman's father's room upon hearing he was hospitalized.
“He's more than a basketball coach,” Huggins said. “Cal is a very diverse guy and I think he's kept things, I think, in a very good perspective. He's a great family guy, and he's been a good friend.”
Perhaps that explains why year after year the country's best players choose to play for him.
Of this past year's top national recruits, forward Karl-Anthony Towns of New Jersey, said, “We don't have enough time in this media day to list all that,” when asked what makes players so eager to play for Calipari.
Pressed, Towns added, “The biggest thing is Coach Cal takes all of our individual problems, and he puts it on his shoulders, so everything always goes through him.
“This world, there may be not many great guys — but there are some, and he's one. I'm just glad to be part of one's life.”
Butler native Joe Malis was the best player on Calipari's Clarion teams. Malis, Naples and former Clarion coach Joe DeGregorio are among those who try to make sure they travel to watch Calipari's team play at least once a year.
“We were UMass fans, we were New Jersey Nets fans, we were Memphis fans, and now we're Kentucky fans,” Malis said, listing Calipari's head coaching stops.
During one of their trips to Lexington, Calipari had to run to a prior obligation rather than meet up with DeGregorio. Later, during dinner, DeGregorio got a call from Calipari, inviting the group over to his home.
“We stayed up until 12:30 in the morning talking,” DeGregorio said. “How many guys do you know of who coach at a major college will sit up with you until 12:30 talking about everything from Pittsburgh to growing up to basketball?
“John was always a good student and always on top of things, always very positive and very upbeat. But why I think he's most successful is I don't think there's anything he wouldn't do for one of his players or former players.”