John Calipari willing to listen on issue


Longtime UK coach Adolph Rupp spoke about trying to recruit Black basketball players to his program.

Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is willing to listen to a group of UK faculty who have called for the Rupp Arena name to be changed.

“From what I understand they were talking about a lot of different things (to change at UK),” Calipari said. “This is another chance for us to listen and learn. Some people agree, some people are not going to agree. I would tell you, again, for me personally, knowing the (Rupp) family, knowing (Adolph Rupp’s son) Herky like I did, what’s out there that tells me it’s something different? I’m all ears. I’m going to listen.”

Rupp’s questionable record on racial integration has led to a call from the UK’s faculty of African American and African Studies program to change the name of Rupp Arena, where the men’s basketball team has played its home games since 1976. 

“The Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees,” the faculty wrote in a letter to UK president Eli Capilouto outlining 10 proposals to improve race relations on campus in July. “The rebuilding of the arena and the convention center offer an opportunity to change the name to a far more inclusive one, such as Wildcat Arena.”

Since the faculty’s call to change the Rupp Arena name, many defenders of the coach have pointed to his attempts to recruit Black Kentucky high school stars Wes Unseld and Butch Beard in the 1960s and the presence of a Black player on one of his Illinois high school teams in the 1920s as proof the perception of Rupp as racist is incorrect.

Opinion: Black players could decide Kentucky basketball’s Adolph Rupp dilemma

Rupp signed UK’s first Black player, Thomas Payne, in 1969, six years after the university moved to integrate its athletic teams and four years after the UK football program signed Nate Northington and Greg Page as its first Black recruits

Rupp himself defended his record in a 1971 interview housed in the UK library system’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

“We had a very, very difficult time in doing so, because as you can see a conference that had not allowed Negroes or Blacks to participate up until this time, no one wanted to be the first to break with that tradition,” Rupp said. “I never felt at all that Negroes should be barred.”

However, even some who have concluded Rupp had no problem coaching Black players — like Lexington journalist Dick Gabriel, who produced the 2005 documentary, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact,” — acknowledge he likely used racist language during his tenure as UK’s coach.

“Did he use the N-word? I have no doubt,” Gabriel recently told the Courier Journal. “And so, if that’s where people come down on people back in a time when far too many people were ignorant and insensitive, well then yeah, you can say he was a racist and leave it at that.

“What I examined was the notion of, ‘Was he a segregationist.'”

Calipari said he has not heard from any recruits, current players or former players who have voiced concerns about the Rupp Arena name, but he has held conversations with his team about nationwide protests in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other African Americans.

In the letter to Capilouto, the faculty said they were writing “in the names of former UK student Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, David McAtee, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Dominique Fells, Riah Milton, and too many others” and “strongly condemn the unnecessary and racist violence that is daily inflicted upon Black Americans by white vigilantes and police who are paid to protect and serve.”

Calipari, who applauded the UK administration for steps it has announced to promote diversity on campus, pointed to Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot at least seven times by police officers over the weekend in Wisconsin, as further evidence prominent white coaches like him need to engage in conversations with their Black athletes.

In July, Calipari launched the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative to “create access to and opportunity for meaningful employment experience for minority candidates” in college athletic administration.

“I’m all ears to all this stuff,” Calipari said. “You have the thing in Wisconsin. What in the world? After this, all that we’ve been through, again. Am I missing something? Is everybody missing something?

“We’ve just got to keep talking about it, and then you’ve got to look at this in a bigger picture of what we’re doing. I’m telling you, what we’re trying to do here on this campus and what I’m trying to do within my basketball program, the influence that I would have within athletics — that isn’t all encompassing, but I do have an influence — we’re trying to take advantage.”

Jon Hale:; Twitter: @JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:

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