By Dr. John Huang

Kentucky Basketball head coach John Calipari frequently talks about finding your “why”—your motivation for doing what you do. For most of us average Joes, discovering our “why” can indeed be revelatory. For someone like Coach Cal, finding his “why” can have far reaching effects.

Just the other day, Calipari announced that he was partnering with the McLendon Foundation to help launch the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative. This coach-driven initiative hopes to provide a jump-start, through practical real-world experiences and network-building opportunities, for men and women of color to achieve careers in a system that traditionally lacks diversity and inclusion.  

Remember that this initiative came directly on the heels of Calipari’s Coffee with Cal series, which raised over several million dollars alone for Covid relief. We all remember the Haiti Earthquake telethon during Cal’s first year at Kentucky…or the West Liberty Tornado relief efforts. The list goes on and on.

Why does Calipari have to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easy for someone in his stature and position in life to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor? Or better yet, just stay inside his bubble as the coach of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball and—as Cal frequently says—just coach his team?

On a video press conference this morning, I posed that exact question to the Hall of Fame coach. I asked him about his “why.”

“My mother was a pay it forward,” Calipari explained. “Many things happen for you—make sure you continue to pay it forward. But in this case, I had many people tell me, ‘You need to step back. You don’t need to step in this. You need to just basically just protect yourself…You don’t need to do panels. You’re a white man. Why would you step in this?’”

“George Floyd—he was murdered,” Cal continued. “That moved me to say, ‘Wow. Am I missing something?’ And I made the statement, ‘I start to understand that I may never understand, but I stand with you’…To be honest with you, I would have been more courageous if I did this ten years ago.”

As seems to be so often the case, wisdom and encouragement came from his better half. Cal’s wife, Ellen, convinced him that his position and influence was exactly the reason he needed to have his voice be heard.

“But more than that,” Ellen admonished him. “You need to do something. You come up with all these great ideas—come up with something.”

The cynic would claim that Calipari is smart and calculating, and that everything he’s done is done primarily to promote his own self image and feed his massive ego. I’ve heard all too often fans and media alike say that all his initiatives have ulterior motives attached—that Calipari’s just trying to make himself look good and get the upper hand on recruiting.

The bottom line is that we don’t know Calipari’s heart. That’s between him and God. Only he knows his “why.” But it sure does seem that there’s something more that drives the guy to do what he does. His actions have spoken loudly over recent years. I want what he’s having.

 Whatever his motives, it doesn’t change the fact that Calipari is using his position and influence to make the world a better place. And if the good publicity associated with his actions benefits the team and university as a whole, what’s wrong with that?

Not many of us have the platform of a John Calipari, but we all have our own circle of acquaintances and sphere of influences for us to make a real difference in someone’s life.

The current pandemic has resulted in much time for personal reflection. If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve thought about your “why.” I encourage you to dig deep. Your answer could completely change the way you act—and as a direct result—change the world around you.  

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