You have read the news and by now you have seen the pictures. Kentucky Wildcats basketball coach John Calipari, who began his legendary coaching career with eight seasons as a head coach at the University of Massachusetts, was honored there, with a statue in his honor.
In addition, Marcus Camby, Julius Erving and Jack Leaman all now have statues near the entrance of the Mullins Center. For UMass, these four giants put the men’s basketball program on the map. Beyond the statue honor, Calipari, Camby and the rest of the 1995-96 men’s basketball team are now included in the UMass Athletics Hall of Fame.
Statues are interesting things and carry a special meaning to those who see them. In the Disney + series Big Shot, John Stamos plays a basketball coach named Marvyn Korn. (Some have suggested he is a Rick Pitino look alike and the initial sequence of the series featured a fictional Kentucky basketball team as the opponent) Through a series of events he is bounced from the top rung of the ladder as a college coach and is forced to start again as a high school coach for a private academy.
The fictional character had been immortalized, but the bronze statue of himself was torn down outside of the University of Wisconsin. He reclaims it and brings it to his house because they were going to melt it down and donate the bronze to charity. In the show, he places the statue in his living room and speaks to it. He even expressed his fears of growing old and being washed up coaching Westbrook. “And you, you’ll just be a memory of the best of me, collecting dust in the garage,” he says to the finger pointing bronze buddy.
The most honored athlete or coach in the form of statues in America is none other that the former UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson. You can find statues of him at UCLA at the university’s football and baseball stadiums. As many as 10 statues feature the iconic Robinson nationally. You might be wondering - who keeps count? This type of information is documented by Dr. Chris Stride, one of the directors of The Sporting Statues Project.
According to his well-documented research legendary soccer star Pelé has the most statues, thirteen, built of him than any athlete across the world. He barely has the edge over baseball’s Roberto Clemente. It usually takes twenty years after a player retires for places to unveil statues of former athletes. Then they are captured forever in time. There is a shift in that trend as of late, especially in the world of coaching, as it is becoming more common for statues of coaches, often while the coaches are still active to be commissioned.
All of that brings us back to the Bronze Calipari. He is the newest member of the statue club and if you go back and look at how he kicked off his career at UMass and jump started their basketball program it is well deserved. The fans of UMass remember those days. They were heartbroken when he left but the memories of what he did live on. Dr. Stride reminds is that while statues are built to honor legendary players and coaches, they really are designed for the fans.
They do more than just remind people of a person. Stride says, “They remind fans of a moment, maybe attending the stadium with their dad or their granddad or with their mates.”
Dr. Stride is quick to often site one truism: “Statues tell you a lot more about the people that put them up than the subject who is depicted.”
For John Calipari, the people of UMass remember that the Hall of Famer spent eight seasons in Amherst (1988-1996) turning UMass into a national power, leading the Minutemen to the Final Four in 1995-96 with a 35-2 record and a No. 1 national ranking for 10 weeks on his way to being named National Coach of the Year. Cal is the winningest coach in school history with a 193-71 record, featuring five straight Atlantic 10 titles and NCAA appearances from 1993 to 1996.
So people remember as they should. Congratulations to Coach Calipari for statue number one. He has a long way to go to reach the Pele standard, but the impact in his early years of coaching helped propel him to the University of Kentucky and even greater impact ripples through the Big Blue Nation. There is a day for most where statues become memories of the best of someone (as Coach Korn lamented) but for the Wildcats, for Coach Cal, and for the Wildcat basketball fans – the best is yet to come. One day the things he has done in Lexington will become the stuff remembered in statues – but for now… lets win!