Legendary former Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a three-time NCAA champion, received the Best Coach award at the 2019 ESPYS presented by Capital One on Wednesday.
Calhoun returned to the sideline last season to help the University of St. Joseph, a formerly all-women’s Division III school in West Hartford, Connecticut, start a men’s basketball program. Battling Stage 4 stomach cancer, Calhoun had a procedure to help eradicate the disease not long before the school’s first-ever men’s basketball game.
Calhoun, who turned 77 in May, took the Blue Jays to the brink of the NCAA Tournament, cementing his status as one of the game’s great team builders. Before the ESPYS, the Braintree, Massachusetts, native spoke with ESPN about his former star Kemba Walker joining his hometown Celtics, UConn returning to its Big East roots and, of course, what the ESPY means to him.
ESPN: What was your reaction when you heard you were getting this honor?
Calhoun: Well, I didn’t know what it was at first. I knew what the ESPYS were, obviously. I go way back to, God rest his soul, Jimmy Valvano. … I guess what they tell you is it’s the Oscars of sport, which is really nice. But I really wasn’t sure what it meant. I knew [Bill] Belichick and Phil Jackson have won it, but in this particular case it was probably a combination of a lot of different things. The exposure on ESPN of [E:60’s “The Calhoun Project”] and people interested in me coming back to coaching gave them the idea that I’m coaching basketball because I want to, not because it’s a living for me.
ESPN: Is there anything different in the honor in that it comes in the second act of your career, so to speak?
Calhoun: Well, it does and doesn’t. I’ve been named Coach of the Year in the Big East [four] times and [Associated Press] National Coach of the Year. But more importantly, I think it recognizes you for what a lot of great people do in coaching: You do a job much beyond the X’s and O’s, much beyond the jump shot, much beyond the bounce pass. They do a job of being a mentor, being a father figure, being a friend, being a drill sergeant and staying with their players. Over the past few days, for example, I’ve had some talks with a kid named Kemba Walker, who came out of [New York City’s] Rice High School, and to now see him sign that kind of contract that he did with Boston. And those are the things that make your day in many, many ways. When you look at coaches — and I’ve known many great, great coaches, some of them you don’t even know their names — who have dedicated their life to … Well, the best way to say it is: My life was altered a great deal due to my dad’s death and then later not being able to go to college for two years and having to work as a stone cutter. But the thing that altered it the most … was that I got a scholarship back to college, had a good playing career, then tried out professionally, then went back and finished my degree and finished grad school. Next thing you know, I was coaching a freshman team, and that was my life. All because of the game, and that’s what the game has done for so many people — not necessarily coaching, but the game has intervened positively in their lives and allowed us to live our dreams out.
ESPN: With the perspective of being a few months removed from the season, what have you seen in your guys? Have you seen growth in them?
Calhoun: The great thing about it, I saw the growth of the team at the end of the season. We became much more of a family. I saw great positive things from our kids. I saw them coming in to weight-train, work out in the gym. And I just see a maturity, which is what we want to see. Hopefully, basketball can intervene in their life. For some guys, it’ll be a great experience. For other guys, it’ll be a life-altering experience. Getting on a team, getting a degree. Having basketball be the leader in the rest of their life. Getting you into college in many ways, getting you motivated for college. I guess a different concentration and dedication to the game. And knowing what it can do for you. And that’s very important, obviously.
ESPN: Do you know how many players will return next season at St. Joe’s?
Calhoun: I think we’ll lose a few kids just because they didn’t play very much. But that’s every place in the country. Division 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. It would make no difference. We have a couple of new kids, relatively new kids, coming in. One of them sat out last year. Maybe a third guy coming in. Otherwise, 10 or 12 top kids will be returning. We look forward to having them. They’ll play in the summer league, which is a big deal because we play in a pro-am against a lot of college players and some guys who’ve spent some time in the [G League] or the NBA. So it will be a good thing.
ESPN: Have you had time to reflect on whether you’ll come back to coach next season?
Calhoun: What I said, and I meant this, very simply: I’m at a particular part of my life. I love what I’m doing. I’m healthy, the doctors tell me. And I just want to make sure, as best I can, to be on top of my game before I coach these kids. I owe them that. I’ll take it one day at a time. I’ve gently said that I’m going to be coaching this year. Nothing can get in the way, I don’t think, except if I couldn’t give my best all the time.
ESPN: So you’re planning on it but haven’t made the official announcement?
Calhoun: I am. Yep, yep, yep.
ESPN: You’re cancer-free at this point?
Calhoun: At this point, the CT scans are all clean.
ESPN: Was there a moment during last season at St. Joe’s when you said, “I’m really glad I came out of retirement to coach this team”?
Calhoun: I think down the stretch when we started to redefine who we were. We started playing less kids. We got some answers to what wasn’t working. With freshmen, that’s going to happen. I could see us start to grow. We lost a tough game here with six seconds left on the shot clock. That type of thing. We started to get really good. It took us all the way to the [conference] championship game, and we lost by four points to get to the NCAA Tournament. Before that, I could start seeing them change. To watch these guys grow as people, and to watch them grow as players, pretty special. That’s what I signed on for — to be involved in kids’ lives and, through basketball, to watch them grow from boys to men. It’s a pretty cool deal.
ESPN: To touch on some other things, you mentioned Kemba Walker earlier. Were you surprised by his decision to sign with the Celtics? Did he talk to you about it?
Calhoun: I didn’t know. I do keep in touch with most of my players, [including] Kemba at this critical part of his life. What I knew is, he wants to win and he’s incredibly loyal. Those two things kind of go against each other. But I think that, financially, Charlotte wasn’t sure if they wanted to spend their whole roster, to some degree, on Kemba. They had their reasons. Kemba, I know he wants to assure all the Walkers, now and into the future, a great future. And he’s done that. But I think down there he has had a very good career, a three-time All-Star, he wants to win. If he can’t do that in Charlotte, he’ll look elsewhere. And they have a chance to be a very good team. They have [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown and Gordon Hayward. That’s a very good basketball team.
ESPN: The big story, in New York at least, has been the Knicks striking out on free agents. Did you have any sense that Kemba, a Bronx native, had any desire to go back and play in his home city?
Calhoun: I don’t think it was that. He played basketball in New England for three years. So he’s an Easterner. He’s back to what he kind of knows. The biggest thing is: He wouldn’t leave Charlotte to go to another struggling franchise. That wouldn’t make too much sense. [Charlotte] still could offer him the most money … so it’s not fiscal. In his case, I think it was a competitive thing. He has always won. He’s a tremendous kid. Two Final Fours in three years in college. And the losing, like every other player who has ever been born, probably, bothers him. He wants to make sure for the next four or five years of his career it’s as positive as he can. He chose Boston because I’m sure he understands what a really good, proven coach Brad [Stevens] is. The organization, over the years, has won championships. I know he looked at Dallas very closely. We talked about that. But I think the biggest thing is he wants to be in a place that has a chance to be really good.
ESPN: The Celtics reportedly had some locker room issues last year with Kyrie Irving. From your experience, you’ve been saying Kemba is the opposite of that, right?
Calhoun: He’s as great a kid as I’ve ever coached. I’ve coached some great people like [Emeka] Okafor, etc., etc. But he’s special. A special kid. I’ve always told the story: When he was in Hawaii one year, his junior year, we won the Maui [Invitational]. He averaged 30 points a game. … I remember waiting for a half an hour with the team. He was the MVP. We all went to the regular press conference, and he was the MVP. He was sensational, so all the media wanted to talk to him. So he didn’t show up again for another half an hour while we’re all sitting on the bus happy as heck after winning a championship. I still remember him walking onto the bus, with the trophy, and the entire bus got up and started clapping. That doesn’t happen. It was spontaneous. No one said a word. That’s who Kemba Walker is. Great player, great person, great leadership qualities. I know for sure, I talked to Jeremy [Lamb] about this, just what a great teammate he is.
ESPN: With UConn returning to the Big East, was this a necessary move as a school and as a brand?
Calhoun: Right now, things haven’t been going well the last three or four years. You can do a lot of things in athletics. But you can’t schedule rivalries. There’s no question, in my 26 years at UConn, Georgetown was a big rival. Villanova was a big rival. St. John’s was a big rival. Providence, right next door, 45 miles, big rival. Seton Hall as well. It’s like your neighborhood; everybody knows your name. They all know the players. I think it’s a big step forward. It will be very helpful.
ESPN: Were you involved at all in the decision?
Calhoun: I talked to people in the administration about it. But as far as me directly, I wasn’t directly involved. But over the last couple of years, I’ve talked to a lot of people about a lot of different things.
ESPN: Do you worry about what’s going to happen with the football program?
Calhoun: Randy [Edsall, UConn’s football coach] is a good man. I’ve worked with Randy a lot, and he has been a very successful coach. I just think they take care of the football team. I’m not one of those guys who’s a pessimist. I do still think there’s going to be a lot of movement in college athletics, so we’ve got to have a football team to help take us there. I want to make sure we take care of the football program. I love to watch football. We’ve spent a lot of money on football, so we have to make sure we stay involved. I love going [to games]. A college football game on Saturday or Friday night, I’ve always thought it’s a great event. I really enjoy the competition. It’s a great thing. I just think we’re a major academic institution, so we have to make sure we hold on to our football, which, in today’s day and age, is [important to college athletics].
ESPN: And did you ever think you’d see the Red Sox and Yankees play two games in London [where, on June 29 and 30, the Yankees won both]?
Calhoun: No, I didn’t. But at the end of it, I didn’t like the results. That’s for sure.