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Calipari, UK score with 'Hoops for Haiti'

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

As the bus carrying the Kentucky basketball team crept from its hotel to the Wildcats' game at Auburn last Saturday, John Calipari sat in the front row texting with a businessman back in Lexington. From the pregame locker room, he took a call from another one.

He was the head coach of the No. 2 team in America, about to deal with a conference road game, and yet his mind was at least partially focused on trying to set up a whirlwind, last-minute telethon for victims of the Haitian earthquake.

The plan was hatched Friday morning, when a friend, Royce Pulliam, called and said, "We need to do something." It came together that afternoon when, in a testament to the power of UK basketball, television stations across the Commonwealth offered commercial-free airtime between noon and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.

So now Calipari wasn't just a coach trying to maintain a perfect record for the season. He was a would-be television producer/host trying to round up donors, auction items, gifts and anything else anyone could think of to turn an idea into an actual fundraiser in 48 hours flat. He'd never done anything like this before. He had 90 minutes of live TV to fill.

In between pregame details he was juggling telethon questions. Can LeBron really donate playoff tickets and a meet-and-greet?

"It may not have been fair to the fans of Kentucky," Calipari admitted on Wednesday. "During the Auburn game, it was on my mind. It didn't affect how I coached or how we played or the comeback that Auburn made to make it close. It wasn't that. But when they made their run in the second half, I thought, 'We might have to do this after a loss and that's going to be tough.' "

Kentucky wound up winning the game, flew back to Lexington and reconvened Sunday morning at the studios of WKYT. Calipari would host the show. His support staff would run around trying to tie loose ends. The Kentucky players would help local United Way volunteers man the hotlines.

"A lady would make a donation and then the player would get on and say, 'This is John Wall; thank you so much,' " Calipari said of the likely national player of the year. "Then the lady would start screaming."

By the time the "Hoops for Haiti" telethon was done, an astounding $1 million was raised, thanks in part to 40 area businessmen who agreed to match the donations of the public. The total number has grown to more than $1.2 million as pledges continue through the website and various auction items. Wednesday, dinner for six at Calipari's home, with him, his wife, Ellen; and actress Ashley Judd went for $98,100. All the money, 100 percent, will go to the American Red Cross, Calipari promises.

Across the sports world, money is being raised for Haiti. Leagues are donating. Teams are donating. Fans are donating. Athletes, such as the duo of former NBA star Alonzo Mourning and current star Dwyane Wade, are hitting up their peers for sizeable checks, clearing nearly $1 million already.

In college hoops, schools throughout the nation have collected donations at games. Coaches have cut personal checks. South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy is going to coach barefoot this weekend to raise awareness about the issue. Nagy's adopted daughter is from Haiti. It's all good.

Best we can tell, though, only one active college or professional coach, in the heart of his season no less, decided to put just about everything on hold so he could roll up his sleeves to rally an entire state. That isn't a knock on the others, it's a question about who would do this?

Coaching the Wildcats is one of the most pressure-filled and time-consuming jobs in all of sports. This is no extracurricular activity. It's close to a state religion. You win games or get fired. Calipari knows that. If anyone could've said, without guilt, that they could only help so much, it was him. He did the opposite.

"No," he said. "If other coaches could have done what we did, they would have. I know these guys. We're in a unique situation at Kentucky. What other coach can make a call and get statewide TV for an hour-and-a-half?

"Lots of people are doing what they can. This job allows us to do this. That's all it is. Anyone who was Kentucky basketball coach would've done this."

Calipari is a controversial figure because he's the only coach to ever have the NCAA take away Final Four appearances at two schools (Massachusetts 1996, Memphis 2008). In general, he rubs rival fans the wrong way. He's brash, confident and never one to back down from a fight.

View photo

A 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12. Most popular relief donations
(Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo)

Then there's stuff like this. The thing about Calipari is he's always moving forward, on to the next thing. Here's a guy whose mantra is to "Bounce Back" (the title of his book) from adversity and strive to be better. It sounds hokey. It doesn't fit the image. Then he raises a million bucks in 90 minutes.

"I'm older now and I've been involved in a lot of rewarding things," Calipari said of the heartfelt pledges from a state that ranks 47th nationally in per capita income. "Maybe nothing was more rewarding than this."

He got one call from a mother whose mentally challenged daughter is a big UK fan and watched the telethon. The girl has a part-time job, makes $40 a week. She called in and pledged $20.

"I about cried," he said.

He heard from donors who were unemployed. Others who had children donate $5 for the first time in their life. There are a dozen other tearjerkers. He watched as his players, blessed young men, were suddenly humbled by the power of volunteerism.

You could say Calipari did this to generate positive publicity, but word of the telethon has barely leaked outside a state that already adores him for putting together an 18-0 team. When ESPN lists prominent sports donations, "Hoops for Haiti" isn't mentioned. Maybe it's because this is Calipari and it doesn't fit the narrative. Maybe it's because everyone assumes he must have an angle. Maybe it's because he makes people cynical.

Calipari doesn't care. That's not a reason to not do something. He watched the images from Haiti with his wife and said he couldn't shake them.

"There were these parents, holding their child in their arms. And the child is alive but needs medical help within 10 hours or is going to die. They're standing there thinking, 'My child is going to die in 10 hours.'

"How don't you do something?"

The truth is, a lot of us (myself included) didn't do enough, haven't given that much and didn't creatively think about the ways to maximize the positions we're in to help more. In Kentucky, the coach looked at resources and influence he had over what's called the Big Blue Nation and acted.

Even in Lexington, even in the middle of the season, even with a No. 1 ranking on the line, basketball could go on the backburner for a bit.

"I tell our players all the time, 'We've had fame thrown at us because we're at Kentucky. How are you going to use it?'

"Well, we're going to try to use it for as much good as we can."