LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky coach John Calipari’s memory is prone to lapses, his retelling of old stories often filled with minor embellishments for dramatic (or comedic) effect. But on topics so dead-serious as racism and social injustice, his personal recollections are tack-sharp.
Last month, in a roundtable preseason interview with local reporters, Calipari was asked about those hot-button issues currently dividing the nation and told tales of eye-opening racial profiling he witnessed in the 1990s while traveling with Bruiser Flint, a black man and his former assistant at the University of Massachusetts.
“Do I remember them? Of course I do. And listen, it was a few other times, too, even before those,” Flint told SEC Country by phone Tuesday. He believes those ugly moments gave Calipari a sensitivity to racial injustice that has never left him. “When you experience it, it’s totally different. And he experienced it. We can talk about what happened to us – and at times guys would get a laugh about it – but when he saw it, I think he was in shock that it really does happen.”
Calipari remembers shopping together and seeing store employees follow Flint, while “no one watched me.” He remembers a late-night car ride during which he was reclining in the passenger seat but shot straight up and intervened when a police officer pulled over Flint and repeatedly questioned where he was coming from, where he was going and why he was there.
Flint said they were returning to UMass from a banquet in New York, both dressed in nice suits, and driving within the speed limit because Calipari had just gotten him to slow down in search of food. “Cal liked to eat hot dogs from 7-Eleven at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
They both were floored when the officer indicated that their route – a major highway – was a known drug-trafficking corridor, making an obvious implication.
“And I’m looking at him like, ‘Are you kidding me right now? You got the black guy in the nice car and you think he’s running drugs?’ He asked me the same question like six straight times and Cal leaned up and said, ‘Is there a problem?’” Flint remembers. “(The officer) sort of caught himself a little bit and was like, ‘Oh, uh, no, it’s fine. Everything is cool. You guys can go. Be careful.’”
Flint said Calipari rode the rest of the way in silence, too stunned to speak. And it wasn’t the last time.
Calipari remembers being on an airplane, sitting with Flint in first class, “and they come over to me: ‘Hey, sir, would you like something to drink?’ And they go to Bruiser, and what do you think they said to him? ‘Can I see your ticket?’”
Flint confirms it happened exactly that way, and not long after he’d told Calipari a story about waiting in line at a ticket counter and being reminded repeatedly that he was in the first-class line, as if he must’ve gotten lost. Calipari always laughed at the punch line, when Flint told the airline employee, “I can read.”
But then he saw a similar story unfold, and it wasn’t funny.
“He was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this woman just did this.’ He was like, ‘You don’t need my ticket?’ The lady starts stuttering. ‘Uh …’” Flint said. “But those things happened back then. The flight thing is better now, but I tell you, I still get pulled over once in a while with, ‘Where you going? What you doing?’”
Calipari knows that, and it’s why his preseason educational seminars with players – the majority of whom are black – include frank discussions of how to deal with police and reminders to be vigilant in a society that doesn’t always give people of color the benefit of the doubt.
“Just because you have a Kentucky uniform, you don’t feel all this stuff,” Calipari tells them. “It’s there, OK.”
To drive home his points, there are some uncomfortable conversations.
“The stuff we talk about girls, I’m pretty blunt,” Calipari said. “If you hit a girl, you should get punched in the face. You don’t hit. And if you have an issue with a girl and it’s in front of a judge, men, a 6-7 black man and a 5-2 white girl, you’re going to jail. You are going to jail. You’re not winning. I don’t care what you said. Unless something is on camera, you’re going to jail.”
Flint, who worked for Calipari from 1989-96 and then replaced him as head coach at UMass for five years before a 15-season run at Drexel, believes his former boss is more in tune with racial and social issues than most rich white men.
“He’s been a part of a lot of young black kids’ lives, their families. He’s seen them in situations,” Flint said. “He’s experienced some things with me and I’m sure he’s had some experiences with his players that make him real sensitive to this stuff.”
Which begs the question: What would Calipari think of one of his high-profile Kentucky players – or several of them – joining a protest against social injustice? In July at the ESPY Awards, NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul issued a “call to action” for athletes to “educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence.”
Then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick answered that call, taking a knee during the national anthem in a protest against social injustice that has spread across the country, in multiple sports, and sparked intense debate and controversy. So what if the Wildcats want to take up that cause? Or another?
“First of all, educate yourself, thoroughly know what they stand for. Do you stand for everything they stand for? If you don’t, don’t get involved,” Calipari said. “Because most cases, they want you in the front of the line … because you bring attention to their cause. If their cause is your cause and you’ve been thorough about it, that’s the first step.
“The second step would be, ‘If I get involved, will it make a difference?’ And, ‘Tell me the downside.’ So the downside may be you lose your job, you lose your this, you lose your family. Is it worth that? If it is, go for it. But you better know the downside.”
Flint, whose Drexel team discussed but ultimately did not join the “I can’t breathe” protest in 2014 when Eric Garner died after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold, understands Calipari’s approach.
“I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Flint said. “Because you can be used. You should know what you’re doing and why these people want you to be involved. Because they’re going to ask you questions they might not ask everybody else, so you’ve got to be ready for everything that comes with it – the scrutiny, the questioning.”
Kaepernick has taken heavy criticism, been booed by fans and even received death threats for his protest.
Because Calipari’s players are mostly 18 or 19 years old, many of them with NBA aspirations, “if they don’t think it through and they do something, it could wreck them for the rest of their life,” Calipari said. “If they feel so strongly, they know they can make a difference and then not worry – they know what the downside is, the worst thing that can happen, and ‘I’m willing to deal with that’ – then they’ve got to (follow) their social conscience.
“I wouldn’t go crazy on them. I’d ask them, though, ‘Talk to me, tell me why.’”
One of his players, freshman Sacha Killeya-Jones, already has a mother, Ley, who is unafraid to speak out. She uses social media to voice her support of the Black Lives Matter movement and highlight various injustices she sees in the world.
“I think it’s great, everything she tweets,” Sacha told SEC Country. “She’s really educated. Anything she’s tweeting on there, you can tell she’s put a lot of thought into it and a lot of research into it. I really listen to her, anything she tells me – and I do my own research. Like she says, ‘Don’t just listen to me; go figure it out for yourself.’
“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just trying to have fun. I’m trying to be a kid.’ She’s like, ‘No, you have a platform now.’ I went from 2,000 to 20,000 followers in like six months after committing. It’s really crazy. I’m trying to get used to that and use my voice for things that really matter.”
Even so, he has also taken Calipari’s message to heart. While Killeya-Jones says a time may come when he decides to make a public stand, “there’s a lot of stuff going on right now that I’m not going to speak on right now.”
Those things have been going on for a long time, and Calipari has seen some of them firsthand. So if Killeya-Jones or any of his teammates ultimately make that bold leap, their coach will have their back.